Song Kun

Universal Studios

A founding member of the N12 group—twelve ambitious young graduates of Beijing’s prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts who have been organizing their own annual exhibitions—Song Kun was educated after the Cultural Revolution and raised in an era of accelerated urban and economic development. As a result, she and her compatriots are articulating new visual languages to express concerns that are less overtly political than those of their predecessors. Song’s first solo exhibition, amounting to a visual diary whose pages lined the gallery’s walls, reflects this shift of focus.

Held at Universal Studios–Beijing, the show was an enormous installation of 365 small canvases, each representing a day in a year of the artist’s life. Grouped more or less in chronological order, horizontal rows of oil paintings were often arranged in straight or jagged lines within four brightly lit white rooms. The format was made more dynamic by occasional free-form groupings, while blank canvases were used to represent days of inactivity. Initially appearing to be little more than an oil-on-canvas blog, It’s My Life, 2005–2006, offered a series of elliptical narratives and mood-flushed moments rendered with a lush, sometimes despondent beauty that proved enormously engaging.

The melancholic fog clouding many of Song’s paintings makes them feel like snapshots taken slightly out of focus. Cutting through the haze are flashes of light that reflect back at the viewer, sharply contouring surfaces such as skin, metal, and glass. It’s a technical trick that makes it seem as though the artist is depicting a vivid, fleeting dream. A young couple ride on bicycles through a moonlit night, enveloped in a mist that renders the image part fading memory, part wistful fantasy. In a rare diptych, a man and a woman face one another in profile, sitting beside the windows of a train or an airplane, illuminated by a mottled gray light. Everywhere in these paintings, the air hangs thick and heavy, as if weighed down by a sense of loss.

Some of the works read like a lexicon of cathexis: an oval wall clock with filigreed silver edges provokes anticipation; the heel and toe of a leather boot, encrusted with metal hardware emblazoned with a swooping hawk, suggest power. Elsewhere, a single event is explored over a series of days, revealing the artist’s gift for storytelling through her selection of details: An evening wedding unfolds in images such as the embroidered hem of a wedding gown, a floral arrangement of stargazer lilies and pink roses, and the dim interior of a hotel room.

Throughout the year, Song experiments with a variety of styles and approaches: We see nods to anime, Chinese landscape painting, the still lifes of Chardin, and other sources. And while Liu Xiaodong, the well-known painter and Central Academy professor, has certainly assisted in Song’s development, It’s My Life is more indebted to the work of Yu Hong, a 1988 graduate of the Central Academy, whose autobiographical paintings have documented her daily existence—going to the market, caring for her daughter—with generosity and insight. Without lapsing into narcissism, It’s My Life gives viewers a very contemporary glimpse into the lives of Beijing’s youth, but ultimately, Song’s finely crafted paintings invite us to meditate on the emotionally charged, fragmentary moments that constitute our own days.

David Spalding