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A Dual Visual Angle (on Pu Jie)

Author: Sine Bepler 2007

The spectacle of Shanghai produces a delirium of the visible that erases the difference between old and new.

Ackbar Abbas in Shanghai Reflections

The most significant denominator of today's visual imagery produced in Shanghai is the blurred relationship between past and present experiences. Artists have no choice but to re-examine the cultural issues of the self and the other, the new and the old, tradition and modernity, chaos and order. Within a scenario of rapid urban development, misplacement and distortion-and without any awareness of the historical context-individual people have lost control of exterior space. This development is destroying cultural memory without regard to basic needs. On the other hand, this prosperous economy is what generations of Chinese have been waiting for. The utopia of the past seem to have become reality. It is a state of both regret and delight. This rupture or sense of loss compels artists to explore their own space in order to preserve memory. As a concrete response to these issues, the Shanghai based artist Pu Jie (b. 1959) recently stated that "For me, the adoption of a painterly dual visual angle is a partial overlapping of the past and present, East and West, communism and commodity. Such overlapping is filled with cultural mutation and confrontation. It clears up the visual effect and ponders the flowing changes of the Chinese society throughout the past decades."  

Correspondingly, in his recent artistic practice, Pu Jie attempts to use fragments of collective memory as well as his own personal experiences to compose a narrative of a contemporary way of existence in the shadow of China's recent past. Avoiding trappings of both nostalgia and amnesia, he references instead life in the rapidly expanding urban metropolis and its oscillating imageries of eroticism, political propaganda and ancient myths. Monochromatic colors in red, yellow, green and blue dominate his large-scale paintings. The compositions are not subject to the classical central perspective, but consist of collage figures and texts that are noticeable as vast bases in favor of other images, usually painted with striking black contours. Each successive layer of paint is transparent, it adds rather than conceals visual information. Icons of ancient China is blended in with figures of the Mao era which again is blended in with images of today's hedonistic youth. In the series 'Shadow I-VI' (2006) and 'No Need I-VII’'(2006), as well as in 'Chinese Wave' (2006) and 'Face' (2006) semi-transparent images of Buddhas, peasants, lotus flowers co-mingle with contemporary young urbanites.  

On a superficial level, Pu Jies's paintings might perhaps be regarded as emblems of post-modernist thinking along with it's credo of 'complexity and contradiction'. On a closer encounter, though, these images are not just aesthetic citation fever and eclecticism, but rather an account of the artist’s own personal experiences-a development informed by dichotomy and conflict: "From primary school to high school I was educated with the proletarian revolution ideas; while during the days at university, I was taught of market economy with Chinese characteristics. What I experienced are two different eras. My life feels like a paradox." The clues for deciphering these aphorisms have to be sought in the overflow of images that represent opposing experiences. In the paintings, dichotomies are not played out against each other, but rather dissolving into each other. What remains is a flat visual structure that represents moments of fragility and vulnerability as well as excessive sensuality and craving. The desire to have more freedom, to achieve a better life, is fused with naked desire in evidence everywhere. The society is filled with instability and unmet demands, and Pu Jie blends the problems of both past and present history into a single strand. He believes, that paintings should appeal to the senses allowing the spectator to understand the dilemma through emotional colours and themes. As exemplified in the series 'Dialogue I-IV' (2002), the colour red (the traditional colour of revolution) is used to symbolize both acceptance and unease. No longer just a symbol of revolution, he turns it into the primary colour of life. Red commemorates freedom, the exuberance of primary desires, and aspirations denied by confucianism and communism.

In his most recent yellow shaded paintings 'No Need I-VI' (2006) and 'Lost' (2006) the figures are set in an indeterminate non-place, and yet part of the all-encompassing mass; they are the agonists of our time, a society of pleasure seekers attempting to escape the dreary everyday. The respective characters loom on large-scale canvases as supernatural figures. The most significant feature being their resemblance, whereby the artist has weakened the position of the individuals depicted. The painted objects belong to the cultural reality in which they live-an urban reality-but always in terms of the mediocre, or the average. This feature has to do with a neutralization of ambivalent feelings. There is a mixture of conspicuous consumption, refinement and decadence-but stronger still is the neutralization effect. The artists manages to balance an equally repulsive and attractive version of contemporary life. The paintings signify a state in which two opposing forces effectively cancel each other out: The differences of past and present have been erased. A striking aspect of the latest paintings is that although their surface planes display diverse and excessive extravaganza, in typological terms, the painted figures are all exactly the same. Identifying this repetitive figure as it is executed with obvious aporia, Pu Jie touches on the confusion in establishing a truth in contemporary way of life. Here, repetition of the same characters is not simply reproduction in the sense of representation (of a referent) or simulation (of a pure image, a detached signifier). Rather, repetition serves to screen the real understood as disturbing .

The artist manipulates modernist deconstructuve compositional effects to intensify his new version of reality. Juxtapositions of color, mass, and shape is a significant concern here, but so is the primordial relationship of figure to ground. The layered images reveal how even fragmentary visual information allows the viewer to orient him- or herself in a horizonless world. Objects and characters are differentiated in the middle of the canvas, but dissolve into each other at the edges. Foreground melts into background and illusion into repetition. With both ancient and contemporary subject matter, Pu Jie indicates that time and space, logic, reality, scale, and narrative are conventions we collectively either absorb or ignore, but can never avoid.

The different layers of meaning and imagery are brought together in the pictures by a unifying aesthetic expression, which is a blend of pop and comic strips. The paintings are informed by Chinese tradition with a strong emphasis on the line, but also by a significant influence of pop art's flat painterly surface. Pu Jie's works comment on a variety of themes that he conjures up in dynamic and intense scenes. Here, he underscores illusory aspects of the mediated day-to-day reality of a rapidly changing society. He juxtaposes seemingly contrasting narratives and memories as an attempt to show the fragmentary, ever-shifting and therefore incoherent nature of life. It is a vision that, indeed, demands a dual visual angle.

Pu Jie was born in Shanghai in 1959. He graduated from Shanghai Teachers University, Fine Arts Department in 1986. He resides and works in Shanghai. Recent exhibitions include We are the Newcomers, We are the Future, ShanghART Gallery H-space (2006), Modernism, Duolun Museum of Modern Art, shanghai (2006), Mahjong, Kunstmuseum Bern (2005), City of London Festival, Royal Exchange (2003), The Dream of the City by the Sea, Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte (Hamburg, 2003) and Speed of Culture, ShanghART Gallery (Shanghai, 2002).


Shanghai Reflections. Architecture, Urbanism, and the Search for an Alternative Modernity. Ed. by Mario Gandelsonas, Princeton University, Published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2002, p. 51.

A Portrait of the Artist Pu Jie. A conversation between Matthias Dell and Pu Jie, 2006.

The Return of the Real, Hal Foster, Published by Monacelli Press, 1998, p. 145-168.

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