New art by contemporary Chinese artists is no longer a rarity in this country. Americans have become familiar with the linguistic play of conceptualists Xu Bing and Wenda Gu and the high pyrotechnics of Cai Guo-Qiang. But scores of other Chinese artists in the 1980s also rejected the inhibiting legacy of the Cultural Revolution to seek greater expressive freedom in a global culture. Following the curbing of democratic reform in 1989, many of them immigrated to foreign capitals where their visions could grow unimpeded. Since China’s economic explosion in the new century, however, some have returned under the fluctuating permissiveness of a still-authoritarian regime. One such painter is Lianghong Feng.
The Cynthia-Reeves New England gallery will be showing Feng’s chromatically restrained gestural abstractions in Hanover from mid-May through early July. Feng, who spent 15 years painting in Brooklyn before going back to Beijing in 2006, paints in soft and malleable oils on canvases from 16 inches square to nine feet long. Surprisingly, he seems more at home with Twombly-esque scrawls, De Kooning’s broad sweeps and the mists of Whistler than many U.S.- born painters.
Numbered not named, his recent works appear non-objective, yet space is clearly Feng’s subject. His color is subdued and earth-bound — often dominated by warring warmer and cooler greys or a broad tonal range of a single hue (“Composition 11-56,” “Abstract 45-10”), or based on binary combinations of complements like turquoise and pale orange (“Abstract 11-5”), as well as mixtures of brilliant sky-blues (“Composition 11-67) or muted sea-greens (Scribble-Scrape 13), combined with greys, ochres and the occasional gleam of vermillion. The restrained harmonies hark back to an ancient Chinese palette of ink and mineral pigments.
Feng builds his color upon a scaffolding of random and ambiguous marks, rich in detail, derived from graffiti, calligraphy and pouring technique. Dense altercations of strokes and scrapes interrupt and carve rough edges against large brushed or smoothed passages. The drips, veils, smears and scratches arrest the eye with their different rhythms and tempi, opposing and threatening to obliterate one another. Even in the smallest works, the control of depth and surface tension is profound and poised. Despite their tactility, the paintings remain light and full of breath, barely hinting at distant but obscure forms and movements.
These works are not untouched by the decades of cultural, political and economic upheaval that have affected China’s artists. Born in Shanghai in 1962, Feng entered adulthood on the cusp of the emerging challenge to Socialist Realism. At 22, he burst into colorful abstraction, subsequently participating in the controversial “China Avant-Garde” exhibition in Beijing in 1989. With repression increasing, Feng immigrated to New York. There he drank in the endless possibilities of post-modernism and abstraction.
As his fellow painter Chen Danqing recalls, Feng painted in a Williamsburg studio that overlooked the backlit clouds above Manhattan and the fogs over the East River. Feng discovered graffiti on the subways and abandoned buildings and in the art of Basquiat and Twombly. Chen tells us Feng found new relevance in his own cultural heritage through Brice Marden’s embrace of Tang Dynasty poetry and calligraphy. Feng socialized with other expatriate painters and exhibited in group shows of Asian, Chinese and New York artists. But solo shows and museum recognition did not come until later, first in Beijing in 2007, followed by a show with Cynthia-Reeves in New York.