Duan Jianyu was born and grew up in Henan, which is nowadays the most populated region of China and the heart of its civilization. The city of Luoyang had been the capital of the empire for a very long time during the Western-Han dynasty (25-220 A.C.), which gave the name to the ethnic majority that represents till now the Chinese culture. Nowadays, Henan is seen as a rather provincial and old-fashioned area, a mixture of agriculture and heavy industry. Similarly, Henan people, who are scattered around the nation in search for a job, have got a bit of a bad reputation for their supposed swindling tendencies. Poverty oppresses many country people, so that they are often prompt to inhuman trades, such as selling their own blood.
It was in Henan that I came across the most authentic and touching traditional forms of courtesy: respect wording towards the guests that is not reduced to empty rituals, but it is the expression of a warm heart. In the countryside people have preserved the most disarming simplicity, which is as blunt as their favourite food: goat soup with hot donuts. The vernacular comes from the same stock of the official language: the Putonghua. Though all tones are changed, it is still easy to understand but for the most vivid and unsophisticated expressions, often sexually connotated, which are as frequent as swearing in the North-East part of Italy and coarse language in Tuscany.
Jianyu grew up in a well educated family, passionate about letters (or should I say characters?) but also deeply rooted in the local context. They used to live in Zhengzhou, the capital city of Henan: a relatively new town but with a museum holding treasures dating back of thousand of years. Her mother used to work in the state bookshop ※Xinhua§ (New China), the most widespread in the country. Her father is a writer. In his short novels he expresses the character of the local people. He is almost a vernacular writer, having devoted himself to search in depth and describe all nuances of the reality around him. As a child, Jianyu wanted to become a writer herself. She became a well known painter instead, like her nine years older brother. Her brother Duan Jianwei and his colleague and friend Duan Zhenqu (they are called the two Duan) are both very well known in the country. For many years, Duan Jianwei has been painting the faces and the landscape of rural Henan with a naive touch and a style without frills.
Jianyu graduated in Painting at the Academy of Fine Arts of Guangzhou, in the deep south of China. That was a different kind of place. She moved there and never went back. Now she teaches Oil Painting at the South China Normal University. She paints as she takes care of her family and does the little things of her everyday life. Her husband is also from Henan. They are both proud of their original culture, yet they know how little known and appreciated it is elsewhere. Aware that they possess a richness which is hardly accessible, they explore the ※unsaid§ and the ※half-said§ enjoying their juicy language and its vernacular nature, with its popular and solid references and with its subtle, at time shameless, humoristic slants.
Jianyu dislikes everything which is artificial and snobbish, where boasted and coldhearted elegance is a disguise for lack of culture, spontaneity and human feelings.
Rather than creating a metropolitan and rarefied atmosphere by using cold and distant colours, she finds inspiration within the most genuine and popular motives from the mass culture of her childhood, that of the seventies.
The unmistakable landscape of Guilin - one of the most beautiful of the world 每 with its rocky and steep hills coming out of the plateau, is very familiar to all Chinese people and still attracts many visitors. It has become a national symbol. Jianyu has painted it over and over again all alone or next to unpredictable elements: a woman with her legs right up while executing a floor exercise (most likely taken by a gymnastics handbook), or some elements coming from western history of art, such as the re-intrepretation of the Dejeuner sur l＊herbe by Manet. With not other intent but the exclusively pictorial taste for diversification and self-interpretation, she transforms the beloved familiar place into something which is always different: a bird＊s-eye view over the mountains chains with their sea of clouds and fog, or a fantastical scenery shaded in pink and orange. The freshness of the colours and her intentionally unsophisticated, non-virtuoso and non-technical approach makes her monothematic works new and fresh. Her repertory is a mixture of the quintessence of the Chinese popular culture she is nourished of. She likes studying the works of some of the most eccentric and individualist painters of the Ink painting tradition, like Badashanren and Shi Tao (end of the Ming dynasty- beginning of the Qing one), or Huang Binhong (twentieth century). Yet, she does not have the attitude of the intellectual. She uses quotations to transform everything through an ironic slant - which is never mockery or satire, but rather a interpretation on the line between poetry and grotesque.
In some of her works Chinese texts are printed on the canvas using the silkscreen technique. Sometimes they are the repetition of some short sentences, such as ※hey, hallo, hi§ (which is also the title of a series of works she made in 1999-2000). Sometimes they are the transcripts of radio programs where people talk, in a blunt everyday life language, making confessions about their complicated and secret love lives (brothers who are in love with their sisters in law, family matters close to incest). Sometimes they are fragments of handbooks on how to make clothes for children or breed domestic animals. Everyday life peeps at the background to make the most idealized subjects into something down to hearth, or the other way round, to enrich everyday life with a poetic touch. As to say: all this is part of one＊s life and it is up to us whether we want to surrender to triviality and sham, or transform it into something deeply human, vibrant and meaningful.
Her stories and their actors
As I mentioned above, some paintings reproduce landscapes, flowers while others portray people caught in funny, unpredictable and surreal situations. Air-hostesses are her favorite characters. She just calls them ※sisters§ (jiejie). They also belong to that repertoire of mysterious ※myths§ that are looked on by people with admiration and envy. They are kind, pretty and keep their aplomb in risky situations - as when Jianyu pictures them surrounded by a swarm of noisy and unruly hens. If she was a writer, Jianyu would probably write kind of detective novels with a pulp and surrealistic atmosphere. Thanks to their unpredictable contrasts her stories are always hilarious.
Hostesses gradually loose their sensuality and elegance to become rather awkward, unstable on their unfailing high heels - the usual beauty spots here and there on their face 每 weighed down by weird burdens: huge watermelons, buckets full of fishes, chickens. We can find them anywhere as if they have just got off an airplane crashed in some remote places, but still impeccable in their neat uniform and garrison cap. One is sunk into snow, her watermelon sat next to her, coaxing a bear with a line of sausages hanging on a fishing rod. Some carrots lying on the grounds next to the inoffensive plantigrade indicate its dislike for vegetables. In another story settled on the polar pack, we can make out the leg of an air hostess lying on her face beyond a solid group of penguins, gathered around either to look closely at her, either to rescue her. Or else, are they guilty of the atrocious slay?
Penguins, hens and pigs are her favorite little animals, which she transforms into feigningly awkward and dummy characters. They come into sight with any easy gate in every situation, feigning an innocence that Jianyu points out and puts into doubt. Animals and human beings are put on the same level. They are both happy to play their role into this absurd game - an invitation not to take oneself too seriously and to find the funny side in every aspect of life.
A giant chicken, already plucked and with its head chopped off, is hanging on the stump of a coconut tree. On the background we can see the hills of Guilin. That is perhaps one of the most paradoxical situations for Jianyu＊s ※artist chickens§. Ninety-nine of them, made into natural size sculptures, have invaded the Arsenal at the Venice Biennale 2003. As to say: an animal known for being quite dull can express creativity as well. In their clumsiness chickens can be more inspiring than other slender and elegant animals. Furthermore, in the overcrowded territory of visual art, they are among the few subject that still give space to some originality and self-interpretation.
※Schnabel: vulgarization of the Chinese landscape§ is the title of a cycle of works from 2002. On all of these works she has glued broken pieces of plastic plates, in memory of the American writer and his bits. I believe that the interpretation clue lies in the ※vulgarization§ and the mingling of elevated and symbolic subjects: the omnipresent Guilin scenery, a bamboo bush 每 a plant of great importance in the Chinese traditional visual art - a Uygur woman from Xinjiang (Chinese Turkestan) picking up grapes＃. Thus, commonplaces of Chinese culture are re-interpreted in a very imaginative way, so that they can be transformed into something completely different and unexpected. A female nude, inspired by Western art, is dazzled by the light of a flying saucer. A piglet and a woodcock join the woman, in an atmosphere of great intimacy, in an erotic vegetables-picnic (based on bananas and cucumbers). ※Many subjects have been ignored by visual arts while some others have been repeated endlessly but without imagination; here is how they can be associated and transformed§ Jianyu seems to tell us. Yet Jianyu does not plan the subject of her paintings, she does not know exactly why she combines such diverse and out of key elements. She experiments while she is painting, following the inspiration of a moment, perhaps taken away by the flood of memories hidden in the most remote corners of her mind. Bewilderment, weirdness, chaos and absurdity attract her and she transposes them in her paintings, through her unlikely stories where everything is mingled and where she gently spoofs everything. ※If my works were food§ says her ※they would never be coffee and croissant; they would rather be a badly rinsed mixed salad with some stones left in it, as a warning to chew carefully§
When she is tired of interlacing histories and encounters, where her lively imagination seems to need some rest, Jianyu gives herself time to reflect letting herself go to the joy of free and spontaneous painting, deprived of any conceptual approach. Thus, landscapes, flowers and birds - the most important subject of the Chinese traditional visual art - appear one after the other. Some landscapes can be daring re-interpretation of traditional elements: scraggy trees cling to the top of a bleak hill. All pictorial rules are ignored and a subjective perspective replaces learned quotations and a realistic point of view. Or else, the background of the sky is covered with printed paper, inspired by the sense of guilty of a couple of adulterous. Or again: rocky and steep cliffs 每 a traditional type of mountain- appear next to distant gentle hills: two genders that one can rarely find in the same painting. Such mingling creates a sense of relief, refreshment, as a breeze of fresh air, at the exit of a museum, by a colorful and rich flowerbed where blackbirds hops.
Since the end of the nineties, birds became the main subject of Jianyu＊s paintings. Maybe she found inspiration in the birds of the great Zhu Da with their white eyes and a grumpy expression (Badashanren, 1626 每 1705). Yet her birds are a different matter. Crowded on the space of the canvas, as in an aviary, they look like they have just escaped from an ornithology handbook. They do not fly and stay still, sometimes lying down, either asleep or dead, their rigid legs stretched out.
Often, within that space deprived of perspective and profundity, we can find some small and plumb female nudes lying next to them in their same size. The pictorial handling is rich and intentionally fluent: the colour can be lumpy or almost transparent. Yet, Jianyu not only uses oil colours and the brush, she also interferes with a pencil to obtain a sense of abstraction in the details and let an alternative key of interpretation. She does not like smooth and neat surfaces: every single trait that seems accidental, every little spot or blur enriches the surface, and thus enriches her vision on life. She can both use pure, shining and vivid colours, and dirty, dusty and messy ones. The brush strokes that seem to have slipped out of her hands help creating such a capturing feeling of spontaneity and intimacy.
Often the artist uses the canvas as it was the page of a scrapbook by cutting out round ad oval portions of it 每 like the openings in the walls of a traditional garden, the episodes of an illustrated tale or the surface of a fan 每 In every portion she paints a type of flower, a bird or the part of a human body. In the last period the painter feels more than ever the appeal of Chinese traditional painting and she uses its more classical subjects by repeating and twisting them: prune flowers, orchids, bamboos, chrysanthemums, which represent the four seasons are gathered in the same painting; and then the peonies 每 the national flowers 每 and the pine trees＃They are all highly codified symbols. Jianyu gives them a new appearance through her humorist swerve and her rejection of any academic technique, delivering them from their sclerotic rules.
Jianyu＊s approach towards life and painting strives for a reinterpretation of both with a self-ironic, creative and personalized slant. There is no point in taking yourself too seriously. You risk stumbling at the worst moment revealing your human imperfection to the world. You should admit such limits and such awkwardness from the start and enjoy it with a rustic easiness. There is always a way to ward off the dead-end of situations, which are too formal, pretentious and rigid. You can take them sideways, face them with a smile on your face, playing them down and take the control over them by spoofing them.
With the wit of somebody investigating life to find the best way of living it, Jianyu conceives of symbolic situations, which embody at their core an entire philosophy of life, that of the Chinese people, and particularly that of the people from Henan. Not being able to get on a plane to go somewhere very far 每 Italy perhaps? 每 she would sit on the closest bed flower, take off her shoes and there, together with her charming hostesses sisters, she would stuff her face with the cucumber that was hidden in her luggage＃
How could we blame her?
Vigolo Vattaro, 5th of May 2007
Translated by Francesca Dal Bosco