Critics’ Picks

Ma Desheng, Dancing Woman, 1983, ink on paper, 70 x 37".

Ma Desheng, Dancing Woman, 1983, ink on paper, 70 x 37".

Hong Kong

“Light Before Dawn: Unofficial Chinese Art 1974–1985”

Asia Society Hong Kong Center
9 Justice Drive, Admiralty The Hong Kong Jockey Club Former Explosives Magazine
May 15–September 1, 2013

One evening during the winter of 1974, amid the repressive chaos of China’s Cultural Revolution, a group of artists risked persecution to present their works to one another. At a Beijing apartment chosen for its dark corridors—to shield participants from the neighborhood committee’s constant surveillance—some fifteen members of the No Name group defiantly unveiled their clandestine creations. Many of these small, innocuous paintings of shaded parks and snow-capped temples are on view in “Light Before Dawn,” which brings together over one hundred rarely seen works from three art groups: the No Name, the Stars, and Grass Society. Expertly curated by Kuiyi Shen and Julia F. Andrews, the exhibition offers an important corrective to popular genealogies of contemporary Chinese art that move directly from government-mandated socialist realism to the painting trends of the late 1970s and the subsequent late-1980s experiments of the Chinese New Wave.

Each of the groups included in the show sought artistic freedom at a time when such desires were taboo. The Stars, led by artists Huang Rui and Ma Desheng, maintained a diversity of creative approaches and a penchant for activism; Huang’s highly stylized paintings of courtyard living and Ma’s geometrical, black-and-white woodcuts are among the exhibition’s highlights. In Shanghai, Grass Society artists such as Qiu Deshu boldly sought to reinvigorate Chinese ink painting through formal innovation; works such as Days and Nights, 1980, reflect the contemporaneity of this “traditional” medium. That the No Name group’s landscapes and the other works included in the show were once perceived as damaging to the established order reminds visitors of the stranglehold on creative expression that characterizes this period in recent Chinese history. As with any administration trying to safeguard its power, the threat level is always relative.