Academy Summer Residencies 2016: Beijing

Our second dispatch from Beijing comes from Isaac Mann MFA 2017.

Getting Started

Here we are, halfway through our month in Beijing on the Central Academy of Fine Arts Artist Residency and none of us want to go home. I can tell you that lately not a day has gone by without one of us suggesting a new strategy for tricking the New York Academy of Art into extending our stay. Most recently, in a panic, we considered just FaceTime-ing Dean Drake and crying until he caves.  

I should only speak for myself, but I think it’s safe to say that none of us have ever been somewhere like this before. We all knew this was going to be an entirely new experience and honestly we all had a few moments of reticence as our departure day grew closer. But here’s the rub: we were excited to be going together, we knew we were up for it. 

The first week in Beijing was a little stop and go. Two of us were supremely jet lagged, and we were dealing with considerable language barrier to boot. I’d even admit to being a little frustrated at first. Exploring a new city is usually easier alone; totally cut off. You don’t have much choice but to adapt and do it quick. Instead there were four of us, complete with different sleeping schedules and dietary preferences. (Worst two words in Chinese: “Bù là” - not spicy.) And to top it off we found the CAFA campus to be under heavy construction, which only spelled trouble for us and the nine other CAFA students we would soon be working in close quarters with. 

Okay. So that was week one. My preference for going solo dimmed once i realized that this residency relied on the four of us being able to do this together. What started as nerves of forced community and imposed company became a treasured outlet of support. Friendships strengthened, boosting morale and giving us patience, both during tough critiques and on those days when someone may have left the alarm on snooze for the majority of the morning. 

The point is, after a shaky start we hit the ground running. Each of us took serious steps to reassemble our professional studio practices from scratch. We navigated cavernous art stores, successfully mimed the purchase of large format stretchers from increasingly entertained canvas-makers in an alleyway shop near school and, finally, we got in the studio and started making a mess. 
I know I had some preconceptions about the type of work I’d make this month, but at the same time i was preparing myself for something new. A few days before leaving New York I had finished the second painting in a new series I’m exploring. I specifically wanted this painting completed so I didn’t feel the pressure to continue the idea in China. I wanted China to be an intermission, where I would open myself to new concepts, aesthetics and practices, whatever the outcome.

Now keep that in mind when I tell you that one week into my residency I hilariously began my first plein-air painting. This practice came out of my interest in the methodologies of certain Beijing artists like Xie Dongming. One upside of CAFA being totally renovated this summer is that there was no shortage of amazing mountains of rubble everywhere you look. Last year, I learned to use some 3D-modeling software specifically to create realistic piles of junk on the computer, save myself the mess, and here I find so much demolition that it felt like Christmas. 

Painting from life, with fading light, and in the blinding heat of the CAFA courtyard sounded like a character-building experience. I spent three sittings in the courtyard, painting a pile of rubble that changed every time a new wheel barrel was unloaded, or a new collection truck arrived. (Needless to say, I became pals with all the CAFA janitors.) I moved inside after the third day and a little bit of the thrill left me. I felt like the painting was tightening and under the artificial lights my colors looked less saturated than I hoped, as always. So I headed back to my favorite alley of canvas makers and bought my second canvas. This one was big, 200cm x 220cm, and pretty awkward. Almost a square, but just not quite.

The canvas sat in my studio for a few days, looking too big and weird to approach. It’s tough to talk about it now, mid-process, but I can say something exciting is definitely happening. A conversation from a few days earlier had popped into my head. We had been discussing how depressing the first day of a new painting is. That moment when you’ve ruined a flawless surface with some idea that seemed good the day before. We decided Day-1 Depression can be deconstructed into two camps; one being general everyday frustration and the second scarier one, boredom. The former seems inevitable but the latter I decided must come from tired personal conventions — a previously-prepared system that fails to energize.

While the thought was mostly hypothetical, I decided to test it. I decided to start the painting with a giant problem, rather than looking for one later on. I covered my beautifully awkward canvas with a bright yellow ground. Then I made myself ‘deal’ with it.

I’ve started investigating a new dialogue between color relativity, edge, and surface. Around the corner from my studio, at the CAFA Art Museum, I recently saw an exhibition of John McLean, a hold-over from AB-EX, with lean work that I personally dig about half the time. What stuck with me was his color. McLean was a master colorist; with an honest Matisse-level understanding that left my head spinning. It wasn’t exactly my plan to come to China and get influenced by a Brit, but i guess no one gets to choose.
Okay. Jesus, this is getting long. If you’re still reading i’ll buy you a beer. 

Last Part
Each night, when the O.M.S. fumes get serious, the second part of our residency begins. We’ve tried our best to explore this city from top to bottom and we haven’t made a dent. So far, no Wall of China, no Tiananmen Square, no palaces, no temples and no canals. So what have we been doing you ask? We’ve found underground gallery openings in the second ring, AV collaboration events in tiny residential apartments, a hole-in-the-wall bar which is secretly the heart of the Beijing punk scene. (If you’re lucky you’ll even get to meet the drummer of Chui Wan, he’s serving the drinks.) And how about the fact we’ve been to not one but TWO Charlie Chaplin-themed bars? Our invitation came from Alex, our new friend from Kazakstan, who designs restaurants in his free time and was dressed to the nines in full Chaplin regalia the night we met him.

And on a more clandestine note, we may or may not have found another crucial organ of the Beijing underground music scene, a celebrated venue, apparently notorious until the Chinese Government shut it down two months ago. Well guess what? Evidently these punks don’t get stopped.  They still throw shows there, you just have to know when to go.
Lord, I haven’t even mentioned the food. And the CAFA students! Jessica, Jiao, Haoung, Li Shan, Huang all the rest! These guys deserve an entire blog to themselves. They’ve been nothing but kind to us since we arrived. Oh and their work? Amazing, not like anything I would have expected. But here’s the thing, I’ve realized there’s no way to fit everything from these first two two weeks in one post. But stay tuned. Next entry will be on the food. It’s incredible.*

Wishing you all the best from China,

*Please don’t ever try Bat soup. It’s a bat’s nest, made from saliva, and cooked down with mushrooms. Definitely not a repeat experience.

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