In Nature Chain, his latest exhibit at Klein Sun Gallery in Chelsea, Chinese artist Ling Jian pushes a macho motif and feminine mystique in equal measure. At the same time he riffs on art history and philosophy, referencing things like surrealism, Taoism, fashion, and feminism. Ling’s pictorial affections evince neo-Romantic longing and brilliant backhanded critiques of political authority, pop aesthetics, and contemporary Chinese art.
Ling communes with the past and probes the present, synthesizing disparate schools of art — from neo-Dadaist to Confucian motifs — to explore new artistic vistas. He interrogates the human condition in painterly ways while reflecting on the collective Chinese psyche in the face of breakneck change. Taken together, the show reflects a dense concatenation of fantasies and anxieties, dreams and nightmares. You feel the narcotic power of the artist’s naturalism, figuration, and abstraction, a kind of ‘metaphysics of presence’ that makes you feel, think, and cringe all at once. Hint kicked it with Ling Jian at the exhibition launch…
Where are you from and what’s your background?
I’m from Shandong, China. I grew up there, studied in Beijing, and later moved to Berlin to pursue a career in fine art and painting. I also did a stint in Vienna, Austria. I now flit between Beijing, Berlin, and Hong Kong.
What’s your art all about?
My work is all about East-West life experiences, assimilation, and philosophical speculation. It’s also about the synthesis of classical, modern, and postmodern schools in an attempt to idealize, visualize, and sublimate creative energy.
What are a few of your key references?
I’m really into philosophy and metaphysics. For me, philosophy gets at the fundamental nature of existence, of man, and of our relationship to existence and art. The task of philosophy is to provide us with a comprehensive view of life. This view serves as an artistic foundation and a frame of reference for our actions, whether mental or physical, psychological or existential. I incorporate a wide range of references into my paintings: the ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi (Taoism) is one of my favorite themes, as well as Nietzsche, Hegel, and Schopenhauer, whose works I’ve read and continue to ruminate over. Applying philosophy to painting and art is essentially a way to stylize our thinking, integrate sensory experiences, and expand our consciousness.
Whoa, that’s deep. What about all the girls, guns, and sharks in your paintings? Can you explain the symbolism?
They are all archetypes that I’m drawn to. I love to use transgressive and subconscious symbolism, but rendered according to my own artistic conjectures. I think art can have a lot of metaphysical and conceptual gusto if it is presented in theatrical and sensual ways. I create a lot of semi-erotic kitsch content with pretty girls, guns, and visceral anatomy. I think of the girls as reverential icons and intimate, sovereign individuals who possess a private world of affinities and fantasies that I’ll never know about. It’s also about the power of temptation and seduction, I think, so I try to channel that through my painting. The sharks represent a kind of timeless, wanton carnality combined with the idea that they are evolutionary survival machines that somehow link to us. All of nature, humanity and the animal kingdom share common traits and the biological aim to perpetuate the species and optimize existence.
What’s your take on Chinese contemporary artists today?
China is a fertile delta of excellent artists and cool creatives who are coming into their own and carving out their own artistic niches on a global scale. I’m very inspired by China’s avant-garde artists and happy they are receiving worldwide recognition.
Which artists influenced you early on?
Robert Rauschenberg, Ilya Repin, Lu Xun, Xu Wei, Shi Tao, and Fan Kuan.
Do you like fashion?
Yes, fashion excites me. Fashion is all about inner- and inter-subjective recognition. It’s about identity, sexuality, sociology, visual culture, and psychoanalytic signifiers that give life a richer texture and meaning. It articulates some of the essential truths about the body, femininity, and the self. I often read fashion magazines and am interested in many aspects of design — architecture, interior design, clothes, consumer culture, styling. It all inspires me.
What advice would you offer aspiring artists, your fans and anyone else?
Follow your passions and stay tuned in to youth culture. Youth is a state of mind. It is a matter of attitude, personal initiative, imagination, and vigor of the emotions. Youth is vitality and it’s essential to channel that energy creatively.
Ling Jian: Nature Chain, November 19 – December 23, 2015, Klein Sun Gallery, 525 West 22nd Street, NYC. Special thanks to Vera Lee and Eli Klein.