Published in Art Asia Pacific on Feb 3, 2016
Currently on show at Marlborough Fine Art in London is Beijing-based artist Song Yige’s first exhibition outside of Asia. Comprising 26 paintings made between 2010 and 2015, Song’s debut is curated by her mentor, Zeng Fanzhi, who is recognized as one of China’s most prominent artists. Born in 1980, in Harbin, China, Song completed her education at Luxun Academy of Fine Arts, after which she moved to Beijing. During her formative years, she gained the patronage of Zeng, a collaboration that shines on in this exhibition.
Typical of Song’s practice is the depiction of everyday objects and figures that are isolated from their conventional environment. According to the artist, “Every substance has its unique nature, different state of presence, colors, shapes, forms, which people envision differently. I am just trying to amplify this simple, essential fact, by creating a context where regular objects are in non-normal circumstances.”
Song’s works make frequent references to her childhood—to the sense of isolation accompanying youth and its tendency to make the immediate present seem aggrandized. Within her paintings, her penchant for isolating the subject matter gives rise to feelings of distance and abandonment. The solitary objects, centered within the composition of her works, create a stark contrast to the saturated background, as if the everyday mundane is enveloped by a layer of darkness or the unknown. Song’s objects, old and used, carry a sense of history—in her paintings they become no longer abandoned items, but rather relics that reveal gripping details of their past.
Song’s deviation from the post-1980s symbolism in Chinese art is what sets her apart from her contemporaries. She belongs to a younger generation of artists who have abandoned popular culture and cartoon imagery in favor of classical representation and figuration. She particularly looks to the works of British artist Francis Bacon and masters from the Renaissance period for their focus on the process of (and the philosophical questions raised by) painting. Staying faithful to nuances of form, works like Her Hands (2015)—where a pair of hands with palms pressed together emerge from the folds of a curtain—pay homage to German Renaissance painter Albrecht Dürer’s Praying Hands (1508), converting an age-old symbol of worship into modern-day reverence.
The figures in Song’s paintings are filled with surreal interjections. In Diamond Miner (2014), a figure wearing a hazmat suit stands in front of a splattered wall of paint surrounded by cacti. In another work, a seemingly normal, intimate portrait depicts a six-member family dressed in bathrobes, each with a metallic-colored balloon brazenly obscuring their face. The work is titled Dance Party (2015), but, ironically, it is portraying anything but a celebratory atmosphere.
In fact, distorted identity seems to be a recurring theme in Song’s paintings. Citing Bacon as one of her main influences, Song draws from his fascination for disfigured identity. She adopts the Rückenfigur—the technique of concealing the identity of the figure by portraying them from behind—which was popularized by the German Romantics, such as artist Caspar David Friedrich. The dissimulation evokes universal associations and dislocates memories, subverting specificity without presenting a conclusion. Her work, Male Star (2014)—a back portrait of a man in the process of having his head shaved—exemplifies how the artist employs the Rückenfigur to conceal the identity of the subject. Despite this, her subject remains unique. Even with his face hidden, the portrait displays startling particularity, revealing a character replete with a history and personal backstory.
Another remarkable feature that interlaces Song’s work with Bacon’s legacy is the prominent architectural element in her paintings. Encounter (2012)—a haunting work depicting a statuesque figure, painted in front of a stair landing—best illustrates her tendency of incorporating spatial aspects into her oeuvre. Her works articulate a defined concept of space helpful in displaying this sense of staged isolation. The artist elucidates, “I usually favor architectural environments as settings for my work, because it is more suitable to represent a locked-up, closed, lonely feeling.” The somber tones, lack of confrontation in the subject matter and the detached use of space in Encounter articulates this aforementioned feeling of desolation.
While depicting mundane objects and ambiguous figures, Song’s scenes are ripe with minutiae, but purposefully discount narrative context. The resultant effect is discordance between subject, context and space, leading her works to provoke more questions than resolutions. Despite eschewing specificity, Song’s work is relevant and addresses contemporary concerns. The smog and industrial clime of Harbin, an industrial city in northern China, and her subsequent move to chronically polluted Beijing has covered her visual perspective with an ash-tinted monochrome. Industrial steely grays dominate, and against that, bright splotches of color stand out vividly. Gray, the color of apathy and coldness, provides the perfect palette for visualizing life in a metropolis—so deeply connected, yet removed from a sense of belonging.
Song Yige’s solo exhibition is on view at Marlborough Fine Art, London, until February 27, 2016.