Nanjing is not one of the biggest cities in China. Despite a population of over 7 million, it has a modesty about it.  The traffic though congested, flows along in a civilized way, a sort of ballet between cars, bikes, scooters and pedestrians. There are flashy shopping areas, but they aren’t enormous. Most everything is on a reasonable level, a human scale. Anything edgy or provocative is kept under wraps.

Given our interest in art, we have been perplexed by the lack of a contemporary art scene. The art faculty and students with whom Don associated at the University are deeply academic in their approach, with students copying the work of western old masters and their own teachers’ works in a version of an ancient Asian tradition of learning. The professors, though very well connected and supported, make art that is more akin to work from the first half of the 20th century than to anything of the 21st.  And neither students nor faculty seemed to have much of a handle on contemporary trends. We asked around about art to little avail. There is an art museum, but it is closed for reinstallation. The modesty of the city appeared to keep a lid on any alternative spaces—at least we never found them.  We got a glimmer of an idea of another world one evening when, on our way to a dinner, we passed the Nanjing Institute of Fine Arts.  We wondered what might be happening there.

On our last day in Nanjing, Cathy Zhang—translator, Chinese instructor at Grinnell, English instructor at Nanjing, and friend—took us for a farewell lunch of delicious light dishes, then whisked us off to see the studios of some artist friends. The taxi drove east, and drove, and drove, and drove, and got lost, and tried again, wound around small, almost rural streets, turned into a drive lined with graffitied walls topped by found art sculpture, came around a bottled water plant and stopped among some quiet disused factory buildings.  A sign said Nanjing Qinghe Current Art Center and there was a wonderful big open space for art—no one around, no art in sight. Cathy makes a phone call and dashes off down a drive. Soon she is calling us over to an open door and we step into a terrific artist’s studio.

Her friend Huang Jun makes large paintings of babies and children, painted in differing scales and degrees of finish. They are relentlessly individual and expressive, but also assertive and disturbing. He told us that he paints children because he doesn’t want to grow up. To grow up is to succumb to what the government wants for him and he’d rather not accept their view of the world. Huang Jun became our host and guide for a great afternoon of studio visits. Scattered throughout empty factory buildings are over 30 artists’ studios. We visited 8 or 9 painters in spaces intimate and vast. The quality of work was uniformly high and the artists clearly have a community of peers in this place they call MuFu.

Above all, we were struck by the quality of the painting. While the artists are clearly looking at everyone from Francis Bacon to Morandi, David Salle to Wayne Thiebaud, the work is not derivative but tackles a range of subjects with fresh energy. None of them was making abstract work.  Figurative painting predominated, laced with sentient animals and hybrid creatures. There were also effective still lifes, object studies and some terrific cityscapes.  We learned that many of the painters had recently been part of a group show in Shanghai, curated by Chris Gill, and we were given a precious copy of the catalog. Happily, a portion of the show remains on view in a Shanghai gallery. We made plans to see it.

By the end of our visit, cut short only by a previous engagement, we felt deeply relieved to know that contemporary art flourishes, albeit quietly, in Nanjing. All these artists are associated in one way or another with the Nanjing Institute of Art so it clearly is the creative hub of the city. Had we more time, we would have explored it with more intent. Alas, the artists of MuFu will soon have to move to a new location as the government wants their secluded factory buildings for commercial ventures. Or perhaps they are attempting to discourage the free-thinking of these artists. As another artist noted, he paints pain and anxiety in direct opposition to the government’s desire for peace, happiness and achievement. He prefers not to become one of the “happy animals in the zoo,” caged by the official view of reality.

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