Exhibition at Janet Clayton Gallery 4-29 April 2018
Extracts from Essay by Luise Guest
Published in The Art Life Oct 31, 2012
The ‘gong bi’ style of traditional Chinese painting was characterised by exquisite brushwork and superb draughtsmanship. Artists were skilled in rendering figures, landscapes and objects in meticulous, almost hyper-realist detail. This approach is a continuing thread in contemporary Chinese painting.
(Jin Sha's) technique is flawless and his ‘Salute to Masters – Conversations’ series allows him to combine technical wizardry with wit and humour. The underlying intention is a serious one, however. In his version of Piero della Francesca’s Duke and Duchess of Urbino the two Italian aristocrats are presented as literally disembodied – empty suits of clothes against a background in which some unpleasant things appear to be happening. Volcanoes are erupting, tiny warships are visible behind the Duke, and planes are circling overhead. The world is clearly unstable. The effect of this disruption to such familiar art historical images is unsettling.
In the Piero della Francesca painting Duke Federico da Montefeltro is represented as the master of all he surveys, including, no doubt, his much younger bride, Battista Sforza. Here, however, he becomes just a red hat (which may as well have sat on the head of a Chinese emperor as on the Italian Duke) and a red suit perched on the window ledge, all pomp and no circumstance. Magritte’s famous pipe, floating absurdly in front of his missing face, suggests that we should question what we see and take nothing for granted; everything might be other than it appears to be. The representation of worldly secular power is punctured and revealed to be made up of nothing at all. It’s not such a stretch to think about the way that in China all conversations about power – dynastic or political – are necessarily carefully coded. Meanings are hidden and revealed quite strategically.
The Duchess of Urbino no longer inhabits her elaborate head-dress, which now becomes an ornate empty shell. One of Magritte’s apples dangles in the air in front of where her face should be, perhaps representing the temptations of worldly wealth and power. These two aristocrats, however, are now literally ‘no body’. They are invisible, hollow and absurd. Their clothing and the symbolism of the masculine pipe and the apple of temptation suggest that both man and woman have been expelled from some garden of Eden which they themselves have destroyed. The biblical text the artist has chosen to paint underneath Battista Sforza is pointed: “For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, self-assuming, haughty blasphemers…..”
I asked Jin Sha why he selects such iconic images from the western art historical canon – Durer’s ringleted self-portrait in the Zhong Jian show; and in this one, Bellini’s powerful Venetian Doge, all gravitas and brocade, as well as Piero’s double portrait. He told me that he appreciates the interplay of east and west, past and present, and enjoys playing with symbolism. “In Salute to the Masters – Conversation with Piero della Francesca No.2, I’ve appropriated Magritte’s iconic image ‘This is Not a Pipe’ … referring to the temptations of man. I’ve also drawn from Biblical passages, to reinforce the imagery, the apple as a symbol for sin, for example.” He alludes to the notion of apocalypse in these works, to the destructive power of nature, and to the impact of mankind upon it, a common theme in the work of Chinese artists, which is hardly surprising when one considers the pace of Chinese modernisation and the consequent environmental damage.” In China, we have developed economically very fast, but in other ways we have lost our sense of tradition, we have lost our respect for culture and we have little power to stop this”, says the artist. “If only we could slow down”.