Fresh and mellow—Interpretation of Mao Kai’s painting works         Peng Feng Back



Since the invention of photography, painting has been declared death for several times but still exists now. In fact, as photography undertakes the practical function of painting, the latter could become a purer art form. It is the same that the modern transportation means did not stop people from running but made it a pure exercise with appreciation values. Therefore, when Arthur Danto claimed the end of art, we can’t understand his word as the disappearance of art. What Danto meant to express is that the narration of the art history has been ended and we cannot treat the development of art in the order of history. Art still exists after the termination of it, which is the same as painting after the invention of photography and running after the invention of automobile. To avoid any ambiguity, Danto calls the art form after the so-called termination of art the art at the post-historic period. According to him, art in that period of time would not bring us any stunning inventions but the combinations of different styles. In the other word, art in the post-historic period does not generate any extreme innovations but the comprehensive innovations of the artists according to their own situations. The painting works of Mao Kai belongs to the post-historic period, generally speaking.


People will easily classify Mao Kai’s paintings to a certain category at the first sight and then another different one at a closer look. Mao Kai’s paintings are actually the exploration of various styles, which makes it hard to be interpreted precisely. According to Kendall Walton, we cannot evaluate a work fairly if we fail to perceive it in the corresponding category. For example, only when we perceive Picasso’s Guernica in the category of Cubism, can we find it a masterpiece; if we just review it as Impressionism, we may find it clumsy. So, in what category should we perceive Mao Kai’s paintings?

Mao kai prefers to employ the light tone, unlike the classical painters who like the shade. We therefore perceive it as the modern Pop Art. If the classical painters are said to like employ the color of sauce, what Mao Kai prefers is the cream color which appears more chic and fresh—like the lightness pursued in the Pop Art. Honed by cynicism and gaudiness, Chinese modern art has accomplished its localization of Pop Art by simplifying its languages to make the artists more deft in exerting the critical function of art.


However, Mao Kai’s paintings are not the political Pop. He who is not anti-social or anti-art is completely obsessed in the fantasy of art. He never criticizes reality nor stays faithful to the representation of it. What he does is to life the reality to the height of dream in his own way of art and to virtualize the reality. We may also called it “the realization of the virtual world”. Mao Kai tries to break the boundary between the reality and illusion in his works to give “Zhuang Zhou dreaming of butterflies” the same position as “Butterflies dreaming of ZHuang Zhou”. Whether it is the “dream coming true” or “ a fond dream”, it is the transcendence of the reality. It is therefore evident to classify Mao Kai’s paintings to the Surrealism.  


Nevertheless, Salvador Dali, the painter of Surrealism painted in a more absurd and fierce way. The hysteric image in the well-known Soft Construction with Boiled Beans always make people chilly with thrill; the feeble clock in The Persistence of Memory looks rather weird. By contrast, Mao Kai’s paintings are neither thrilling nor absurd. In that sense, his paintings belongs to the atypical Surrealism. As a matter of fact, to attract more attention, the typical painters of Surrealism tend to express nightmares and obsession, making their works more powerful by pushing the life to the edge of death. Mao Kai also depict dreams in his painting but the beautiful instead of the bad one. He also illustrates inebriation but the intoxication rather than obsession. Mao Kai does not pursue eeriness and violence because he never wants to stand out in the art world today with that elements.


In the other word, Mao Kai never goes to extremes but rather keep moderate. His works is Pop Art but different, surrealistic but different in some way. It is hard to classify them probably because they are between black and white. Just as Francois Jullien said, “moderateness is different from extremes; the latter is definite but the former is undetermined, meaning numerous possibilities but not being fixed to any format. We will therefore find it hard to define Mao Kai’s paintings because he is always exploring between the two ends rather than follow any existed patterns.


Why is Mao Kai capable of going between the two poles? This question shifts my attention from his paintings to the painter himself. It turns out that before Mao Kai restarted painting, he had made some achievements in advertising and photography circle. Even after he decided to spend more time in painting, he did not completely get rid of the advertising industry he had been familiar with. Although advertising is said to be genetically related to painting, as time goes by, two have gone to opposite directions. In the word of Nelson Goodman, if painting is regarded as the art of autography, advertising has become the art of allograph. The advertising works can be copied, generally, in the way of constant repetition. With the development of information technology, the copy of advertising is no longer limited to the mechanical reproduction but the digital compositing, which has completely weakened the concept of originality in the sense of painting. What is more, advertising originality can be separated from advertising production, in the similar way as the musical composition can be separated from musical performance. If the advertising production is still connected to handwork, advertising originality is sheer pure art of concept. From advertising production to advertising originality, Mao Kai has deep understandings about the differences between the traditional handicraft and modern art of concept. He did not choose to be engaged in the latter because he never wants his skills to be overwhelmed by concepts. He has no tendency to the realism because he never wants his dreams to be shackled by reality. Mao Kai who is quite familiar with the advertising originality knows clearly that even the most brilliant concepts would be limited by time, but the skills, even with some awkwardness, may have the lasting values. In the terminology of psychoanalysis, the concepts that can be articulated are still in the domain of consciousness; only the indefinable skills have the chances to enter the higher-level of world of unconsciousness. Unlike the common people who regard the relationship between the concepts and skills, Mao Kai makes the concepts more superficial in his paintings with skills hidden behind, for he wishes to attract the audiences to his works with fresh advertising effect and then communicate with them more thoroughly with mellow language of oil painting. Why he refused to make absolute choices but content himself with lingering between the two extremes depends on the various roles he plays in the society. In that sense, those works of him which seem irrelevant to the reality are actually the portrayal of his own life.


As Mao Kai tries to get away from the life as an adverting design to devote himself to painting in his quiet studio, he must have been fascinated by a certain trait of painting which is probably the mellowness exclusive to the language of oil painting. In the works of Liu Yi, mentor of Mao Kai, we have found the unique texture of the language of oil painting which is also pursued by Mao Kai. Through that kind of texture with density, Liu Yi successfully helped the audiences to find the psychological concern behind the dramatic conflicts. Therefore, through the similar texture, Mao Kai guided his audiences from the external freshness to the mellowness with depth. In the modern visual culture, we have had enough of the superficial freshness and in the traditional painting we have seen much of the implicit mellowness. But Mao Kai is capable of combining the two smartly, which eventually helped him have his own style in the process of the digestion of styles.


April 12, 2016 in Weixiu Garden, Beijing University

(Peng Feng: Doctor of Aesthetics, professor and vice president of College of Art at Beijing University; deputy director of Research Center of Aesthetics and Aesthetic Education at Beijing University; executive member of International  association for Aesthetics; famous curator; planned China Pavilion at 2011 Venice International Biennial Exhibition. Main research fields include: philosophy of art, art criticism, principles of aesthetics, Chinese classical aesthetics, modern western aesthetics, comparative aesthetics between China and the West)