To soberly think about this dizzying advance, consider the experience of Xu Lele – an artist you might not expect to be riding this wave. Xu is a Chinese painter living in rural Jiangsu who has been active since the 1970s. She is a member of the New Scholars School, a group of contemporary painters that revive the traditional Chinese Literati school of painting. She has also experienced a 3,000 percent increase in sales from 2009 to 2013.
What gives her paintings their value? Even in contemporary renditions, Literati paintings are culturally rooted in rigid traditionalism. The painter is a storyteller who selects an ancient fable from the people’s history and retells it, repaints its players and scenes, and imbues it with modern import. As the character seamlessly fills their footing amongst the environment, so the painter installs the work into historical discourse. The value of a Literati piece is classically objectified as a matter of historical relevance.
It is unlikely that this explains Xu’s popularity. She is quite different from her colleagues, and has for decades been so. While classically trained, her work is perverse rather than conservative. She neglects the presentiment of harmonious framing, and emphasizes figures as being distinct from their environment. The artist puts meticulous detail into discretionary aspects such as the pattern of fabric, the details on tree leaves or the contours of a stone. She also easily conveys the idiosyncratic personas of her caricatures in her many works and they are silly and effervescent. Rather than projecting her storytelling into a greater history, she humbly tells the story of the moment. It would be shortsighted, however, to deny her work’s political intent.
The selection of her subject matter pursues the discrete rather than the grandiose. She eschews the storied male heroes in order to illuminate the lives of court maidens, children, maids, drunks and jesters. Figures in Leisurely Pursuits, a set of five scrolls depicting unnamed napping characters that pose amidst a natural backdrop, sold in Hong Kong for HK$375,000 (US $48,590). In Drunkenness, Xu portrays a young couple. The man sits on a straw mat, the only background to the scene, while a woman stands to the side. Both look upwards, inactive as if bored. The agency with which she conveys these secondary characters places her work in historical discourse. Her masterpiece is representative of a patriarchal history that sings the experience of those forgotten, or ignored.
The artist’s work, while garbed in traditional customs, is valuable in its contemporary perspective. Modernity certainly has an equalizing effect towards social misappropriations. While the top female artists still only gain 12 percent of the income of their male counterparts, they are beginning to receive due respect. Three other female artists, Elizabeth Peyton, Cady Noland and Vija Celmins, similarly have each experienced a 3,000 percent increase in sales from 2009 to 2013. Yayoi Kusama, a Japanese painter, sculptor, filmmaker and performance artist, is monetarily the 12th most successful living artist. Like Xu, the subversive perspective of these women, who would have been overlooked 50 years ago, now gives their work an alluring individuality. To the modern art buyer, social conscious is the new hot thing.
Xu’s work is sold to a predominantly Chinese population of buyers, a stark contrast to her cohorts who sell to an audience that is mostly Western. The steadiness of Xu’s repertoire makes her work very palatable to the Chinese. As she is both old and new, the ownership of one of her pieces satisfies the desire to celebrate tradition and dance on the frontier of experimentation at the same time. China is arguably a more conservative market that fits Xu’s more refined brand of modernity. It is precarious to say whether she is an outlier, or an indication of an inevitable trend. But while the social role performed by visual art in the political culture of China has changed greatly in the last four decades, the perspective of Xu’s work has spoken in a voice independent of the trend.