FANG LIJUN IS ONE CHINA’S MOST RESPECTED ARTISTS — AND MEN WITH TOTAL HAIR LOSS ARE A FIXTURE IN HIS CANVASES.
A bald-headed man of indeterminate age dominates the canvas. At first glance, he seems to be an adult, but on closer examination that impression doesn’t seem right. There’s a pudginess to the cheeks, a slackness to the brow, that gives him an air of infantilism, of a person still growing and developing; yet the body is too big, surely, to belong to a teenager. And then there’s that mouth. Of course you noticed it before; it’s not something you miss. But it manages to convey both subtle menace and naive innocence, and its very ambiguity causes a slight sense of discomfort.
Welcome to the art of Fang Lijun, a 47-year-old painter and woodcutter who is one of China’s most well-known and respected contemporary artists. Lijun is a leading figure of the Cynical Realist movement, which flourished as a response to the Tiananmen Square massacre and which is characterized by an ironic and postmodern attitude. Lijun’s art speaks to the dislocation felt by many in Chinese society as it struggles with a Communist political structure that utilizes many of the capitalist ideas it theoretically opposes. On a more personal level, his work seems to be addressing how this conflict exerts itself on the individual in China and how it creates a “disconnect” between individuals and government, individuals and society and individuals and other individuals.
And at the center of the majority of Lijun’s work is a shaven-headed man or men.
Originally, Lijun, who frequently favors a shaved-to-the-bone look himself, implied that these figures represented the disenfranchised youth of his country. Later, the artist widened this explanation so that rural farmers were encompassed in his representations of bald men. Yet artists are notoriously gun-shy about letting the “true” meanings of their work be defined by themselves or anyone else, and Lijun’s bald-domed men are so deliberately ambiguous that they are clearly intended to signify any number of things, depending on the psychic associations that each individual brings to them.
Often working on a monumental scale, Lijun imbues his paintings with a visual clarity that belies the shiftiness of their ultimate meanings. The folds in a leather jacket are vivid, the clouds in the background crystal clear, the toothy grin of his stock character unmissable. The figures and details stand out in high contrast, yet Lijun captures objects in a hyper-real manner: Things are a bit blocky, a trifle cartoonish, even as they feel so real. This conflict adds both weight and emotional distance, or perhaps dislocation, to his work.
Fang Lijun’s woodcarvings
Lijun’s woodcarvings, which again are often on a much larger physical scale than is often associated with this medium, are frequently more immediate than his paintings. Perhaps because woodcarving creates a somewhat scratchier, clumsier, less pristine picture, his woodcuts have a bit more warmth, a bit more emotional resonance to them, even though their subjects are similar to those of his paintings.
And again, as in his paintings, there are the bald men.
Why bald? As previously stated, the artist himself favors this look. And his painted and woodcut figures are clearly individuals whose heads have been shaved. They could be men who were balding and chose a shaved look, or they could have been men with full heads of hair who opted for the same. In real life they could do this for any number of reasons, but here they are bald as a means of making a statement; but what kind of statement? Do they feel empowered by shaving their heads and finding their inner strength? Do they do this as an act of rebellion, because in modern China a person is left with few ways of expressing himself as an individual except through what he chooses to do with his own body?
Or are these men not shaving their heads of their own free will? Does their baldness represent the ultimate encroachment of the State, demonstrating that the government and the government alone has power over every aspect of a person’s fate?
Lijun is certainly not saying. It may be revealing, however, to note that the artist, who was born in 1963 and grew up during the Cultural Revolution, has often talked about being forced to denounce his own grandfather publicly for the crime of being a landlord and how he was persecuted by teachers, children and other families for this. Whatever his hairless men represent, the muted discomfort they evoke in viewers could easily be seen as a representation of the turmoil Lijun endured during those years — and one could make a visual equation between having one’s private life thrust into the public and the image of a man whose head is shaved, revealing symbolically his innermost thoughts and feelings.
Of course, this is oversimplifying; there are many layers to Lijun’s work, and the bald look may mean any number of things. But those of us who delight in studying bald representations in popular culture can be sure of finding plenty in Lijun’s work to make us think and ponder.