What and who are these animals we have seen in Feng Shuo’s paintings over the past few years? Were these people masquerading as animals or animals that had miraculously become people? Those owls or pigs that sat at the table, that giant panda fishing – how did they come to be there? What did they mean? Those children that wander through his paintings, sometimes with wings attached, were they angels or sprites, or just kids mucking about? Clearly this was an imaginative world he has created, or given birth to, but to understand what it might mean we must begin with the surface, with the very particular way it has been painted.
At the tipping point in Europe when painting returned in the early Eighties after a decade and a half of being told it was extinct, it returned not as a ghost but replete with energetic gestures and strange figures. Many artists, Christopher Le Brun in England and Judit Reigl in France are just two examples, had found the figure returning of its own accord in the to and fro of making abstract paint marks. For Le Brun it was the figure of a horse that repeatedly emerged out of a mesh of lines, for Reigl the figure of a man. There was a sense then of paint being a primal material from which life could be coaxed – just as in many early myths the gods created human life by blowing into clay or mud. We may have grown more ironic in subsequent decades about the truth-telling capacity of paint, but its fertility, the way as a material paint seems to call for the invention and making of figures, animal, people, demons and angels, is undisputed.Other artists who gained greater prominence as the century sputtered to an end were more ambivalent or ironic about their paintings: we do not know how seriously to take Polke’s pictures of magicians and the devil. Allegory or joke? Is his play with alchemy a revelation or a fraud? Is it a real drama or a parodist’s re-enactment? With an artist such as Kippenberger – “dear painter, please paint me” – the dramas he created were burlesques, games. But behind the rumbustious joking and his apparent refusal to be serious we detect seriousness – even tragedy.
Similarly, when we look at the paintings of Feng Shuo is it tragedy or comedy that we see? or tragico-comical farce? The surface of his paintings has often been like that of an unfinished rubbing: just as when as children we put paper over a coin and rubbed a pencil across to make an impression of the central image – in England this would be the queen’s head and on the reverse of the coin some allegorical symbol. Or it is like being in a train with misted up windows that one has to rub with one’s sleeve to see out of. One rubs away to let the image appear, giving one a glimpse of some strange scene that has so far gone on unseen. It is a world outside our world yet one belonging to it – we see it only indistinctly and in fragmented form.
If paint is some primal material, or genetic soup, then in these paintings by Feng Shuo it has given birth to a strange world, a world turned on its head where animals talk and the only people in sight are young children. It might remind us of a children’s illustrated book – where anthropomorphism is so prevalent- but the mood is far more uncertain, indeed potentially savage and nasty. In one early painting do we see a doll or a child dismembered and half eaten on a table where owls and mice sit? This is the world of carnival where normal rules no longer apply, where the normal hierarchies are inverted, where animals pursue people, where the master serve the servants and the ridiculous rules. Carnival – long extinct in England but still thriving elsewhere in Europe – is where people once a year don masks so they can say whatever they want and act however they want. They stay up late, do not go to work, drink too much, play music loudly. But the next day they return to work and normality, refreshed and happier. In a place where such a carnival no longer exists it emerges in art as the carnivalesque.
In paintings of the carnivalesque such as Feng Shuo’s no-one needs to wear animal masks: the animals can act as if they were people. This is Liberty Hall. Inevitably, of course, we read it as allegory, as a way of commenting on our way of life. In the world of these paintings it seems we listen to the wisdom of animals; we co-exist with them – or at least the children can. In the real world we just eat animals or gawp at them in zoos.
It is the paint or the way paint is applied that gives these animals vitality and their quasi-human character. (Paint is a human thing, animals don’t make it.) Alternatively, we can say that these scenes allow Feng Shuo to paint freely. These animals and children in their carnivalesque world allow him the freedom to paint. The very act of painting in these paintings is carnivalesque.
The English art critic Adrian Stokes once remarked that painting like sculpture was either modelled or carved, the emphasis being on either building thing up or controlling them. The different approaches defined different personalities. Feng Shuo is clearly a modeller: the surface looks like mud whipped into shape or modelling clay. For the carver completion is critical, but for the modeller the act of making, giving birth to life is what matters. If there is sufficient vitality or life in the central images there is no need to tidy up or complete the corners and sides. Indeed it would distract from that moment of “birth”. It is crucial here that the brushmarks are visible, so “up-front”.
One could say that the painting here is an event. The way the canvas has been left bare at the edges has often emphasised that fact. The drama that is played out and the act of painting can only emerge simultaneously. Eventually our recognition of what is going on and our involvement seems to happen simultaneously as well. This moment when all happens together is the moment of carnival.