Art with an Agenda

  12 Feb 1999
Originally published in the Business Times and written by Parvathi Nayar.

Good luck characters, scrolls with paired couplets, cut paperornaments, door guardians and pictures of children clutching rabbits -- they're all being featured at two New Year art exhibitions. PARVATHI NAYAR tells you where you can view them

THE Year of the Rabbit is just around the corner. It's time to do some spring-cleaning, throwing out the old and welcoming in all that is good. With doomsday prophets staying true to form in their pre-millennial predictions, perhaps the bunny needs a bit of guidance to bounce in some happiness.

Luckily, the colourful decorations traditionally associated with the New Year will serve this purpose -- good luck characters, scrolls with paired couplets, cut paper ornaments, bright pictures with happy images and door guardians.

The actual "decorations" are not just the focus of an ongoing exhibition, but also take a bow as the background of some oils in another show.

A colourful ambiance fills Soobin Art Gallery, thanks to the New Year Folk Paintings exhibit. These New Year woodblock prints on rice paper are not "high art" but drawn by folk artists to heighten the New Year festivities.

Their history can be traced back more than 2,000 years to the practice of drawing tigers and deities on doors -- on New Year's Eve -- to ward off evil spirits. By the 10th century and the Song dynasty, this became formalised into painted images of door gods. By the 17th century, multicolour block printing techniques had advanced, making the printing of New Year pictures much easier.

The demand grew steadily, and whole towns sprang up that specialised in these prints. Most famous was Yangliuqing in Tianjin; many prints from there are on display, but show cherubic babies that are frankly too sentimental. These and some others are too detailed and lavishly coloured, and feel more like simple decorations than works of art.

In sharp contrast, the antique pieces from the Qing dynasty -- and acquired from Beijing -- have an exquisite subdued grace. Composed of delicate black lines with light swathes of colour, they depict the 100 types of gods.

Prints from Taohuawu Suzhou, too, are tastefully coloured, while those from Shanxi show appealingly robust door gods clad in elaborate costumes and fierce expressions. Some of these new prints are actually imprints from old woodblocks.

Exhibition coordinator Ang Lay Eng says that in terms of subject matter, the children depict the people's simple wishes for lots of healthy offspring, while other symbols are based on the tonal sounds of the Chinese language.

For example, the words for "bat" and "fish" sound like fu, the prosperity symbol, and the symbol for "extra" or plenty respectively -- which is why these animals are drawn in.

A quick digression about the Giorgio de Chirico-like Tiananmen Remains by Yue Minjun. The work has nothing to do with the New Year, and is based on a famous artwork, First National Day Celebration.

One of the most representative pieces of Mao Zedong art, First National Day Celebration, depicted a group of politicians, but as they fell from grace, they were obliterated from the painting. In Yue Minjun's work, the setting is reproduced with none of the people drawn in, an ironic comment.

The tone is in stark contrast with the happy mass appeal-style of The Arrival Of The Five Happiness by an influential painter of the Chinese cultural revolution Jin Meisheng (1902 -- 1989).

Also on display are scrolls with poetic couplets by Song Yugui, which have meaning when read downwards and work horizontally as pairs of complementary words. There are around 80 works whose prices range from $100 to $1,500.

Turning from folk to fine art, the HaKaren Gallery has organised an exhibition of oils by twins Xue Mo and Xue Dai from China. Unusually, every painting is a collaborative work by the two sisters -- the elder, Xue Dai, draws in the faces, while Xue Mo specialises in the clothes and still life.

The paintings almost invariably depict beautiful little children, Hans from Northern China, many inspired by Xue Dai's own daughter and her daughter's friends. They depict a way of life, explains HaKaren Gallery's Emily Ho.

Technically, the work is extremely accomplished. The paint is skilfully applied in layers, sometimes scumbled to create interesting textures, but they are almost too perfectly painted and too self-consciously cute.

Underneath and beyond the chocolate box-like sweetness of mood and subject matter, the artworks lack internal tension. The rich colours, however, make for very decorative art.

Depictions of folk art, vividly patterned handmade toys and New Year decorations fill the shallow background spaces in My Favourite Candy. These graphic backgrounds give the paintings more edge than the idealised village scenes seen in My New Found Friend, in which the smiling child holds a rabbit, an obvious tribute in a series painted specifically for the Year of the Rabbit.

On one side is a bunch of chillies hung up to dry and later sold in the village, says Ho. The children wear cute headgear and shoes modelled along the lines of stuffed toys to keep warm.

The tiger is a favourite motif, for it is believed to have protective powers as well. It is for these props, small hints at a way of life, that the paintings are the most interesting. There are 29 pieces ranging in price from $1,800 to $4,500.

Though far too decorative to appeal to many tastes, the work at both exhibitions is art with an agenda. Created to celebrate the New Year, these pictures are best appreciated as works that see the Year of the Rabbit off to a hopping good start.

Twin Sisters' art is on until Feb 14 at the Tanglin Mall Level 1 Atrium Space. For enquiries, call 733-3382.
New Year Folk Art is on until Mar 2 at Soobin Art Gallery, No 1 Halifax Road. Tel: 392-2066.