You’ll have seen Xu Zhen’s Under Heaven
paintings before: candy-colored squiggles, swirls and rosettes of thick paint, they look a lot like icing on a cake. What’s more, and much like frosting, it turns out achieving the saccharine-sweet aesthetic isn’t nearly as easy as it looks. That was the takeaway from a workshop I tried out last week under the guidance of MadeIn Company’s resident paint-piping pro, Xiao Lin.
The joker of Chinese contemporary art, Xu Zhen’s creative calling card is a deliberately confusing string of identities, brands and entities to play on ideas of authenticity and value attribution in art. To date, those identities include the man himself, art corporation MadeIn Company
(launched 2009), and MadeIn Company’s Xu Zhen brand, established in 2013. That last one is currently going all out with an “artwork retail store
” at the eponymous gallery’s
West Bund address. More on that later.
As well as being a lot of fun, the 45-minute long workshops are an extension of that same conceptual skulduggery. Xu Zhen already employees an army of artists to make the works for MadeIn Company with workshop participants becoming part of that propagation. Mostly, though, it’s an opportunity to get hands-on with a lot of paint and come away with something delightfully garish. It doesn’t come cheap, mind - classes cost 280rmb per person or 500rmb for a couple. Numbers are limited to two people per session, and all materials are provided.
From a pre-prepared ‘pastry bag’ loaded with white, red and yellow paint, Xiao Lin first demonstrated a signature rosette. The technique looked easy enough, producing a tantalizingly perfect flourish, not dissimilar in form and consistency from soft serve ice-cream. Confident, my first attempt on a test canvas nonetheless more closely resembled a turd, albeit a rainbow-bright one. Things continued in this vein across a range of different-shaped decorative tips, from star to spaghetti to ribbons. The trick, apparently, is to apply constant pressure both at the top and the side of the bag. It’s no easy feat, and when the time came to move onto the actual, take-home canvas, I’d squeezed out enough painty poos to cover the practice surface almost entirely. Fail.
Because the super thick paint will never completely dry, canvases feature a perspex box so you can enjoy the fruits of your labor without risk of damage. Fortunately for the purposes of these pics, MadeIn had one they’d prepared earlier. For anyone more dextrous than me, here’s what the finished product should
You can try your hand at making an Under Heaven
painting today -- Wednesday, November 16 from 4pm to 8pm -- and Saturday, November 19 and Sunday, November 20 from 4pm to 8pm. Details and how to book here
After, do have a browse of the gallery’s temporary exhibition-meets-retail store. Shanghai art watchers will recall Xu Zhen’s convenience store
on Yuyuan Lu earlier this year where shoppers could stock up on mysteriously emptied packs of Pocky, bags of chips, and cans of drink. This is different: the concept features everything from limited edition sculptures (a 99-edition hand-painted bronze ‘Rainbow Buddha’ goes for 15,000rmb, for example)...
to surprisingly comfy foam furniture.
While 980rmb for gold polyester pajamas seems steep...
2,300rmb for a pair of sunglasses from Xu Zhen’s 2015 hook up with will.i.am’s ill.i
brand is actually pretty tempting.
MadeIn Company has spared no attention to detail. The store features the kind of rotating display carousel you might find in a conventional shop, as well as changing rooms for shoppers to try before they buy. Each features a video work from early on in Xu Zhen’s career. In the men's it’s 18 Days
(2006), documenting the artist and his buddies driving toy tanks across China’s various borders; and for ladies, 2005’s 8848 - 1.86
, allegedly showing Xu Zhen and his cohorts lopping off a chunk of rock equal to the artist’s height from the summit of Mount Everest.
The Xu Zhen brand professes a commitment to “the production of creativity and the exploration of contemporary culture’s infinite possibilities,
” with “artwork as necessity
” as the store’s manifesto. A typically tongue-in-cheek extension of various themes the artist has been exploring in recent years, a playful amplification of an oft-pilloried wedge between contemporary art and craftsmanship, and a parody of the exclusivity that veneers the art world, it also has rather nice sunglasses.
Xu Zhen Store continues until the end of this year, and for everything else check the art calendar