Sunday, 20 September 2009





Xiao Fan has spent most of his career in Paris, where he has lived since 1983. French critics associate his work with a New Pop movement in art – a revival of influences from the 1960s. The truth is, however, that his work remains uniquely Chinese, and is closely aligned to some of the most significant developments in contemporary Chinese culture.


Despite the vast, destructive upheaval of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s – an upheaval that Xiao Fan lived through as an adolescent and a young man – Chinese culture still tends to divide itself into two broad categories – literati and popular. Literati culture prides itself on being self-consciously intellectual and refined. Conceptual artists working in China think of themselves as Neo-Confucians – heirs of the old imperial bureaucracy. Popular culture is the culture of the street – riotously colorful, exuberantly inventive and not at all afraid of being kitsch.


It is to this wing of contemporary Chinese art than Xiao Fan belongs. His paintings are stuffed to overflowing with kitsch objects – toys, cheap jewelry, lipsticks, artificial flowers, balloons of all shapes and sizes. These are entangled with looping strings in various pastel colours, which sometimes turn into real spaghetti or real rigatoni. The compositions emphasize the density and complexity of the modern material world. Though the paintings are anything but abstract, in the sense that they are full of immediately recognizable things, the ‘all-overness’ of their compositional structure makes it clear that they owe almost as much to American Abstract Expressionism as they do to Pop Art.


In another part of his production, Xiao Fan has turned his attention to single images of flowers, represented both in paintings and in sculptures. These are portrayed in a deliberately simplified way, stripped down to their function as sexual organs. This gives them a strange, alienated quality that suggests a kinship with classic European Surrealism – with the sculptures of Joan Miró for example. It may also be intended to recall the fact that, during the stormy years of the Cultural Revolution, cultivating flowers was seen as a bourgeois, counter-revolutionary act, and was strictly forbidden.


The diversity of Xiao Fan’s sources accurately reflects his situation as a Chinese cosmopolitan. So, too, does the refinement of his technique – in technical terms, these are extremely accomplished works. The kitsch element borrowed from Chinese popular culture  is disciplined by an exquisite feeling for the consonance and contrast of colours. It is always evident that his art is the product of an extremely sophisticated sensibility.


His work shows how Chinese art, in the thirty years that have passed since the death of Mao, has explored new avenues without cutting itself off from deep roots in the heart of Chinese culture.


This site was last updated 20-09-2009