BACKRebel and Inheritance  | Hilarie M.Sheets

China is a country in the spotlight, its transformation into a global power player crystallized in its
hosting this year of the Summer Olympics in Beijing. In its rocky transition from a communist
society to a market-driven one since the 1990s and the phenomenal changes politically, economically
and culturally that have followed, the country has been an incubator for a burgeoning and dynamic
art world populated by artists who grew up in turbulent times and are driven to give visual expression
to what it means to live in contemporary China. The 40-year-old artist He Sen, in his first solo show
in the United States, is grappling with his ambivalence toward the materialism of new China and
nostalgia for the spiritual richness of very old China in two distinct, seemingly disparate series of
large-scale paintings shown in this exhibition side by side. The juxtaposition creates an interesting
dialogue about time that speaks to a particularly Chinese layering of past and present.

“People do not know what to do. They feel confused and perplexed by our new society,” the artist
has said. Born in 1968 in Yunnan Province at the beginning of Mao’s Cultural Revolution that was
an attack on intellectualism, He was coming of age in its aftermath after 1976 as the country became
more liberal and hospitable to artistic freedoms and Western exchange through the 1980s. Yet the
same month that He graduated from the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts in Chongqing Province
in 1989, the government used the military to quell pro-democracy student demonstrations in
Tiananmen Square that preceded a national clamping down on media and cultural and educational

While many artists left China, those who stayed navigated the precariousness of renewed repression.
The early work of He – who was given a state-prepared teaching position in Chongqing where he
worked until 1991, after which he became a professional artist – reflected the intensity of the times.
His paintings from the early 1990s, always representational and painted with heavy expressionistic
strokes and a dark palette, are marked by a surreal quality. Highly realistic depictions of symbolic
objects like personal items of clothing or birds in chains, set against barren cityscapes, are pregnant
with the sense of loss and despair. Portraits of friends suspended in murky empty space – quite
literally caught in a gray area – are punctuated with small clouds of complete painterly abstractions
that suggest a kind of psychological turbulence. With China more actively participating in the
global economic community as the decade progressed and governmental censorship of experimental
art beginning to thaw, He’s work became more overtly engaged with social and political themes.
In paintings of stages choreographed with modern-looking people, media figures speaking in
microphones and red flags, He addressed the theater he perceived in contemporary society.

By 1998, the artist had made a radical shift in his work that anticipates his series of women in his
current exhibition. He traded his palette knife for a brush and, experimenting with the effects of
digital photography, began making smooth photorealist paintings of figures with their eyes obscured
by flashes of light. The artist has mentioned his admiration for the work of German artist Gerhard
Richter, who moves freely between paintings of photographic verisimilitude and ones of pure
abstraction, and He surely came into contact with his and many other Western artists’ work during
the late 1990s when he studied at the Kunsthochschule Kassel in Germany, where the international
art world convenes regularly for the major contemporary show Documenta.

Continuing in his photographic style, after 2001 He focused on desirable women in lingerie. Now
with their eyes open, they were still in a manner detached and listless, as they engaged with props
like cigarettes, alcohol, or stuffed animals. “Girls nowadays are prettier than before, and they seem
to get even more beautiful,” the artist has said about these works. “And the actual society we live in
is also more beautiful. But our hearts and spirits are far less fulfilled than in the past, and the current 
beauty and progress is entirely illusion; in fact it is only an empty shell, an appearance covering a

To Western eyes, coming fresh to He’s four new paintings of gorgeous Chinese women lounging
provocatively in bed or against plush furniture, the images at first glance skirt the boundary of soft-
core pornography. In “Pretty Dudu and Pretty Toy,” a model hovering between pouty child and
seductress stares out at the viewer as she holds a stuffed dog and exposes her panties under her pink
dress falling off her shoulders. In “Space and Air,” a similar-looking woman stares off vacantly into
space as a cigarette burns in her hand and she stretches out languidly in black Victoria’s Secret-style
lingerie and heels. The women are a cliché of the “exotic east,” on display for consumption as well as
clearly avid consumers themselves with their Western luxuries.

The manner in which He has painted them, though, shifts them into the realm of the conceptual and
symbolic. While the women are softly airbrushed to a photographic finish, they are almost floating
in smudgy gray space – evocative of that smog the Chinese government was trying to contain before
the Olympics in Beijing, where the artist moved in 2003. In “What Do You Want to Talk,” with
a seated woman in a slip holding a glass of wine and a cigarette and looking up degenerately at the
viewer, the cushioned chair under her is so gauze it appears to be falling away and dissolving into the
atmosphere, just as her hair pulled into a messy black flop atop her head is melting into abstraction.
In “Come Together,” where a woman lies in bed with her arms around a toy pig and a dog, the tips of
its ears and the smoke from her cigarette are painted gesturally with tick impasto, in contrast to the
seamless contours of the figures. These moments of abstraction subtly rupture the façade, sending it
up in the smoke of the cigarette.

For all the freedom and liberation flamboyantly displayed by this archetypal beautiful woman –
whether a surrogate for a new generation of urban women with more prospects than in the past of
for China’s youthful society as a whole embracing economic opportunities and the accompanying
material benefits – the artist visually posits that it’s illusory and spiritually hollow. The success
experienced by male artists in China’s proliferating art market is almost nonexistent for their female
counterparts. He’s smoking women call to mind the famous 1930s-era Shanghai advertising posters
that used decadent-looking women to sell cigarettes and suggest that society’s attitudes toward
women – despite the modern trappings – have not evolved so much. His integration of toys points
to a society unsure of how to grow up. And He makes a wry comment about cozying up in bed with
them – with the fat pig being a symbol of prosperity and greed, and the dog bringing to mind the
legend of the racist sign posted at the entrance of a Shanghai park when Europeans dominated much
of China: “No Dogs or Chinese Allowed.” Many of the elements of his early paintings are present
here – passages of abstraction to express psychological complexity, the use of symbols and gray space,
the idea of a stage – but He has wrapped it all in a tight conceptual package.

While He’s paintings of women have been ongoing, in 2005 the artist began a new series of oversized
oils that appropriate elements from classical ink paintings by Chinese scholars, four of which are
included here. Looking back to well-known sources such as Xu Wei, a painter and poet from the
Ming dynasty who was revolutionary in his time, He isolates landscape motifs from ancient scrolls
reproduced in books in a strategy akin to the American artist Richard Prince’s lifting of culturally
significant gestures form advertisements and reframing them. While He copies the forms faithfully,
they become dramatically altered by their vast enlargement as well as the modern color palette
and medium of oil paint he uses. In “Picture Album of Plum Blossoms,” a typically asymmetrical
Chinese composition of a flowering branch in close-up, he divides the picture plane in two – one
section painted in thin gauzy mauve tones mimicking the fluidity of ink, the other thickly spackled
with pink frosting-like paint. The abrupt shift abuts old and new, compressing the time elapsed
between the original and this modern fabrication and mirroring the phenomenon of China’s rapid
urban growth atop the remains of earlier civilization.

While no one would mistake these paintings for the originals, He’s quotations are instantly
recognizable. To Westerners, they read generically as traditional Chinese images and, like He’s
women, are another cliché of the dream of the east that the artist has further fetishized by the
ravishingly beautiful way he’s painted them. To Chinese, they hold specific meanings, such as the
bamboo copied from a work by Zhu Sheng being a symbol of nobility and fidelity. In “Monkey
King on the Peach Tree,” He refers to the legendary hero of a classical Chinese story who embodied
the true spirit of rebellion. The artist paints is image of the monkey poised to spring into action in
agitated black outline with messy color escaping its confines. It’s the antithesis in style and mood
of his modern dissipated girls. For all the affluence and supposed openness in China’s new society,
still tightly controlled by one-party government, He looks to the vitality of China’s rich past for his