Dai Qing

Shopping Gallery

Shopping Gallery is situated in Shanghai’s famous M50 art district; it is run by a consortium of the city’s more successful artists, including Xu Zhen, Shi Yong, and Liu Jianhua, to promote reasonably priced works by emerging artists. The gallery’s commercial bent is not only made explicit by its English and Chinese moniker (a pun on the name of China’s economic reform guru, Deng Xiaoping), but in its programming, which since its inception in 2008 has been dominated by painting. This recent exhibition by Dai Qing was no exception: Painting once again reigned supreme. However, instead of offering the flat, illustrative fare common in Chinese contemporary painting, Dai set off an explosion of raw expressive force detonated with a sense of conceptual tact.

In a symphony of graphic angst, an army of broad-stroked, drippy portraits on paper and canvas lined the walls of Shopping Gallery’s modest space. Populated by deranged goblins, melting clowns, profiles with oversize noses, and full-figure mutants straddling green dogs, no two pictures were alike. Caricatural to the point of the surreal and bordering on the grotesque, these painted faces screamed out like an incessant hallucination. In the center of the gallery stood a table coated with thick layers of clashing colors rendering the face of a rabid dog. While all of this symphonic painterliness was familiar enough, it was the mechanical clothesline system that took the exhibition an extra step. A parade of wild works on paper hung from a moving clothesline that spun around the gallery’s perimeter, blocking the entrance and tunneling through internal walls in its path. This kinetic hanging created both obstacles for the viewer and an added conceptual dimension to the freakish visages. It was as if the images on this assembly line had been painted in rapid succession, one after the other, then torn from the artist’s sketchbook and subsequently pinned to the clothesline as a way to exorcise the artist’s inner demons.

Dai, the self-taught artist who presented this cacophony of colorful pictures, seems to have emerged onto the scene from virtually nowhere. Her tumultuous identities as a drummer in a rock band, nightclub owner, drug addict, dishwasher, documentary filmmaker, lesbian, and world traveler were recounted in a painted biographical narrative that was scrawled along the gallery’s entrance wall. Sharing the same wall was a monitor showing a video made from photographs of the artist in various stages of her adventurous life accompanied by the music of the bands that she once played with. The smiling Dai appears posed in front of waterfalls, on a motorcycle in Thailand, shoulder to shoulder with Buddhist monks, playing drums, preparing food, and so on. The contrived, self-conscious posturing in these images stands in sharp contrast to the tortured portraits found in her paintings. It is this sense of incongruity that points back to the naïveté of the paintings themselves. Do the images in the photographs correspond in any way to the painted ones? Is the video just an offhand, narcissistic gesture, or is autobiography the adhesive that binds together these diverse components? Whether it is curatorial gimmickry or pure naïveté, this exhibition reminds us that neo-expressionism can still be startlingly neo.

Mathieu Borysevicz