Chang Qing Interview on (Un)social Realism Exhibition

Chang Qing (b.1965), an established portrait painter from China will present his version of contemporary realism to a British audience for the first time at the Chelsea College of Arts.

As endorsed by Chairman Mao in the 1970s, “The life of the people…provide literature and art with an inexhaustible source, their only source”; socialist realism has been deeply rooted in modern and even contemporary Chinese art history. Although Chang Qing is a painter of “the life of the people”, you will not find any propaganda DNA in his works. The exhibition will present 30 works created between 2012 and 2015, illustrating the often difficult yet interesting life and strained social conditions of the most ordinary people, in the fast-developing Chinese society.

Lang Xiao: The setting of your series “(Un)social Realism” is in real life, rather than at your studio or in front of an abstract background. Why do you choose to paint such seemingly mundane scenes of life as eating and drinking, showering and massaging? How relative are those scenes to the ordinary majority in today’s China? Why are these ‘social realities’ the ones you pay the most attention to?

Chang Qing: The series “(Un)social Realism” are simply my observations and representations of daily life. These ‘clips’ may be outwardly trivial but I pay attention to the lives lead closest to me, and I’m interested in the true state of life of people around me. Unavoidably, this series also contains my own judgment and interpretation of what I see.

Lang Xiao: Social realism, particularly the “socialist realism” from Soviet Union, has had a huge influence on the development of Chinese art after 1949. What role dose it play in your artistic creation?

Chang Qing: I believe all kinds of art practices that I was able to approach previously, have had an impact on me in a certain way, as a certain reference point. It’s like something in between an enemy and a friend. As a latecomer in the long line of art history, I admire all the great artists of the older generation, but I’m also inspired to challenge and surpass.

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Lang Xiao: Soviet-style socialist realism suggests ordinary working class as almighty perfect heroes. However, your presentation of the working class is far more honest and direct, without any beautification or propaganda. The series even has some characteristics of caricature, such as the potbellied eaters and bombastic businessman. What is the intention of this presentation?

Chang Qing: My preference is for natural, vivid, real and fresh subjects; that has absolutely affected my choice, judgment and expression.

Lang Xiao: Most of the people featured in this series are strangers to you, and they are the most common majority of Chinese society. Why and when have you become interested in this group?

Chang Qing: Always I’ve got the ambition to paint the living beings and our era. However, it was not until 2000, when I started using ink and paper as my materials, that I finally began working on this ambitious project. After I had my first solo exhibition at Shanghai Art Museum in 2001, I wanted to change my painting style. I once stopped painting for three years. I tried a series of ‘realist’ oil paintings, a great number of life drawings and paintings with pastels, crayons and watercolour. In the process of shifting from canvas towards paper, I realised ink and paper. I saw 2010 as the origin of my ink painting. Since then, being so obsessed with ink painting, I painted for five years continuously. I realised that I found a comfortable way of painting, which I would never get bored with. It made possible that I could capture and depict my subjects in a pleasant and quick manner. It has best satisfied my desire of expression, hugely inspired my passion, and broadened my horizons.  The works featured in my exhibition at University of the Arts London are from this period.

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Lang Xiao: You’ve got a lot of experiences in making portraits of your friends and family. How was it different from painting strangers from various social class and backgrounds?

Chang Qing: It is actually the same. Once I start painting, I feel as if I am a machine, with the function of capturing and depicting. There is no difference at all.

Lang Xiao: The series “(Un)social Realism” includes your works of 2012-2015. What was your creating process?

Chang Qing: Most of the works of this period were based on my daily snapshots using my phone or camera. On average, I could accomplish a painting within a day, but it depends. However, it is bit similar to pregnancy that one takes much longer time to conceive, but relatively short time to give birth in the end. I took much longer time to construct my idea of the painting, and execute the painting in a much shorter time.

Lang Xiao: As smartphone and social media penetrate our life exponentially, there are countless selfie-portraitures generated every second. Some people therefore claim that portraiture paintings are becoming more and more meaningless. Do you agree?

Chang Qing: I believe that painting is a pure and magical act, which will be permanently the preserve for those with the talent and innate ability of draughtsmanship. This is particularly true for portrait paintings.

Lang Xiao: Which is your favourite painting(s) in the exhibition?

Chang Qing: My favourites are paintings of interesting people or interesting themes. “Two Blind Masseuses 1” and “Mr. Gu Jun, the Blind Masseur” are among my favourites. Blind people are a minority in our society. Their visual limitations make them very special in recognising the world in a different way. I have harvested lots of valuable and unique experiences from my communications with the blind and in painting them. Mr. Gu is a blind masseur who worked for the massage shop I visited often. He told me he enjoyed “watching” TV dramas, and he thought one of the actors was very handsome. I asked him whether I was handsome or not. He touched the back of my head and concluded that I was average. But I understand that when blind people watch, they watch with ears and hands. It also reminded me of the famous fable “The Blind Men and the Elephant”, that the blind men commented very differently from each other on the same elephant. Therefore, I think that’s why blind people tend to use more words in verbal communication than us. Blind people also communicate more frequently with each other, even simultaneously, wishing to “see” a more complete world through communication. I realise that hearing, touching and communications enable blind people to feel brightness in the darkness. The social circle of blind people is relatively small, but they could be very familiar with each other. Their desires in life are not ambitious but very realistic, and most of them are very optimistic. I guess being happy is a clever way to get closer to warmth and brightness. Their life style makes me reflect on our own, most of the time too hectic and busy.

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“The Apostles” series featured a group of Chinese artists, who looked very different from each other, but all very exhausted during their journey, visiting and resting in an old European church. It made me connect this scene with the participation of Chinese artists in the global modern and contemporary art scene. They visited and learnt from the Western art practice, and tried to maintain their uniqueness. This series is to acknowledge such an important experience.

Lang Xiao: Modernism is the mainstream of the 20th century in the West. On the contrary, social realism was not popular or widely known. What messages do you wish the audience of (Un)social Realism exhibition in London to take?

Chang Qing: I believe that art is an international language understood by all mankind. I hope I can take this opportunity to let a larger British audience know me through my work and we could have a real conversation. I wish they will like my paintings.

Lang Xiao: As a professor in oil painting at China Academy of Art, you created your “(Un)social Realism” series with traditional Chinese media, ink and paper. How different was the creating experiences using ink on paper from using oil on canvas?

Chang Qing: I enjoyed the variety in painting. My profession as a teacher of oil painting, never constrained my creation using ink on paper. On the contrary, they enhance each other. Actually, my father was a Chinese ink painter and I grew up in the environment of traditional Chinese paintings. When I was 18, I chose Chinese painting as my major at university. However, it was my father who insisted I study oil painting instead, because he saw my talent for innate ability of draughtsmanship. Eventually, I became an oil painter. But more importantly, choosing ink and paper was because I felt that I could bring something new to the field of Chinese ink painting today. I can combine my advantages benefiting from my years of accumulated experience oil painting with ink painting practices, and innovate ink painting in my way. To me, it’s like an adventure. I’m drawn by such a challenge.

15 – 20 September 2016

Cookhouse Gallery at Chelsea College of Arts

16 John Islip Street, London SW1P 4JU

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