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Last modified: Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Against long odds, Guilin artists seek to find an authentic voice for contemporary China

Sept. 19, 2006

BLOOMINGTON, Ind -- The artists of the Guilin Chinese Painting Academy, who will stage a historic exhibition at the Indiana University Art Museum later this month, are devoted to carrying on the more than 300-year tradition in China of influential Guilin painting.

Bai Xiaojun, "Serene Lake," 2005-06. Ink and color on paper.

Print-Quality Photo

They're also seeking to give life to a contemporary school that merges traditional Chinese painting techniques with Western art styles that didn't emerge in China until the country opened its doors to outside influences in the 1980s.

Their quest to discover an authentic voice for a contemporary China will be on display in Conspiring with Tradition: Contemporary Painting from the Guilin Chinese Painting Academy. The IU Art Museum will be the exclusive museum venue for the exhibition, which will run from Sept. 30 to Dec. 17.

Funded by a grant from IU's New Frontiers in the Arts and Humanities Program, the exhibition will feature 60 large-scale contemporary Chinese paintings by 13 different artists from the Guilin Academy. The paintings will be showcased in the museum's Special Exhibitions Gallery.

Although a few of the artists at the Guilin Academy have exhibited in small galleries in the United States, this will be the first time that they have exhibited together or in such a large group.

The self-selected artists of the Guilin Academy explore the human condition and a rapidly changing China through a fusion of Chinese painting techniques and ideas of Western self-expression, said Judy Stubbs, the Pamela Buell Curator of Asian Art and the coordinating curator of Conspiring with Tradition. Their work includes silk scroll, traditional ink and calligraphic paintings.

"While many of these paintings are lovely to look at, it is wise to remember that at one time, not so long past, art of this nature would have been seen as subversive and even dangerous," she said.

Xu Fang, "Chinese Wisteria," 2005-06. Ink and color on paper.

Print-Quality Photo

For about 30 years -- from the founding of Communist China in 1949 to the "opening" of the country in 1979 -- Chinese artists were limited in what art they could view and create. Landscapes, birds, flowers and portraits were viewed with suspicion by the government, and paintings affiliated with the country's imperial past were labeled as corrupt, Stubbs said. Those artists who did not realign their talents to serve the state were denounced and sent, along with other intellectuals, to agricultural villages to be re-educated through physical labor.

In the 1980s, China's art community was exposed simultaneously to the wide variety of Western art styles that had developed in the previous 40 years, including abstract expressionism, neo-realism, minimalism, conceptual art, installations and digital art. In relative freedom, artists were able to draw from these diverse styles in order to establish a personal artistic identity. Some found the international style suited their sensibilities, while others turned to a re-examination of their own traditions.

The Guilin Academy artists demonstrate strong diversity in their themes and techniques as well as in their life experiences—the oldest member of the academy is in his 90s, the youngest in his 30s. They share a common desire, though, to expand the cultural legacy that historical Guilin has bequeathed them, to explore new ways to give expression to the contemporary humanist spirit, and to do so according to each artist's unique perspective on life and art, Stubbs said.

"The academy members' artistic explorations have taken them in many different directions," Stubbs said. "While all are deeply immersed in traditional Chinese painting techniques, they have, in varying degrees, embraced elements of Chinese folk and primitive art. They have absorbed Western cultural influences as well.

"Just as each artist's unique style is the result of experiments in artistic idiom, theme and material, their art ranges from the bold to the elegant, from fanciful and fantastic to the serene and charming," she added.

Opening remarks and a lecture about the exhibition will take place on Sept. 29 from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. in room 251 of the IU Radio and TV Building. A reception will be held at the IU Art Museum's Thomas T. Solley Atrium from 6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. Eight of the 13 artists will be in attendance at both events, which are free and open to the public.

The exhibition is made possible with support from IU's New Frontiers in the Arts and Humanities Program, the IU Art Museum's Arc Fund and the Pamela Buell Endowed Fund for the Curator of Asian Art.

The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon until 5 p.m. It is closed on Mondays and major holidays. Admission is free and open to the public. More information on all exhibitions and programs can be found at