Ma Desheng, trajectory of a star
Ma Desheng is a painter, sculptor, performer poet, affiliated and founding member of the 'Xing Xing' movement (the 'Stars' in Chinese) in the late 1970s; Ma Desheng is currently exhibiting his most recent works at A2Z Art Gallery.
What is an 'artistic vocation'? It might seem a little bit old school because of its romantic and religious ambiance, in a world where people don't believe any more in destiny. However, despite confronting, exile, a serious car accident and suffering from a chronic illness, nothing can reduce Ma Desheng's urgency to see something born from his hand. Going to be septuagenarian, this man with sliver long hair, a wide smile and laughing eyes, inhabited by his words and deeds, continues to receive visitors in his workshop which is like a cave filled with canvases. When talking about his works, his acrylic stained fingers fly around with erudite ambiance that fulfils the air.
This man incarnates the idea of 'vocation'.
Birth of a star
Ma Desheng began in Beijing in the 1970s as a self-taught painter and then a wood engraver. It was during period that the Chinese Cultural Revolution played its hand in both military and artistic domain. The four Chinese 'old-fashioned' (old-fashioned thoughts, customs, habits, and cultures) were attacked, finding a new order behind Mao Zedong. The Chairman's death in 1976, lightened the horizon somewhat. Thereafter the 'Xing Xing' group was formed, which included among its ranks other illustrious exiles: Ai Wei wei, Wang Keping and Huang Rui. 'Xing Xing' the word for 'Stars' in Chinese. 'It's because there is only a Sun, but there are an infinity of stars', explains Ma Desheng, where there is a political meaning the sun refers to 'the Great Helmsman'.
If the 'Xing Xing' group is famous today, it's because it has brought a contemporary art form to China and hold this great project to renew creations without denying Chinese history and his 'old fashioned' that the socialist realism tried to crash with their ideological images and heroes. Art is not interrupted; it will always hold the traces of traditions. On the contrary to socialist realism, 'Xing Xing' extols the individualism and experimentation. A group that behaves like a torrent and has escaped the censorship. They did so by exhibiting outside of diplomat's houses and on the gates of the National Art Museum of China in 1979. There were two glorious days during which the crowds hurried to see the work of these artists of a new kind, before the police took down the exhibition. 'Xing Xing' was a spanner in the works of the well-oiled machine that was the Chinese dictatorship after Mao's death. When the revolution became institutionalized, perhaps it was better to propose another revolution.
Painting bodies as landscapes
In 1985, Ma Desheng left his native country for Switzerland and later France. In 1992, he was bedridden after being involved in a horrendous car accident, in which time he prepared for a period of intense production: 1994–2002. During these 2 years, he produced over 4,000 drawings, which lay the foundations of his work: female figures, some are archetypal, some are naturalists or almost, others like stacks of stones. According to Ma Desheng, 'everything is in the body because we have to go back to simplicity, to the suspension of reflection, to listen and to think less'. What he condenses with this expression, which comes back as an antiphon in his words: 'listen to his heart'. More and more, the bodies he represents are a bit like cairns (moulds of rough stones [as a memorial] ) or stacks of Tibetan stones in an unstable equilibrium. Since 2002, due to being diagnosed with chronic polyarthritis, the stripped shapes extend on other mediums than ink: acrylic and sculpture. His painting is sculptural. The volumes, strongly modelled by visible, textured and undulating keys, emerge from coloured backgrounds. Ma Desheng is a painter and sculptor of stone, seduced by their permanence and their 'soul', born of telluric forces and altered by the millennia. His heavy and unbalanced stones are the images of a paroxysmal moment, a fall announced or in progress. The fragility of pouring stones is like an answer to that of a broken body.
It has often been written about the Taoist content of Ma Desheng's work. Actually, he has never hidden from the search for the breath, the 'qi'. A simple and profound search is the pure tradition of the 'xieyi' style, which literally means, 'writing the idea'. Aiming to represent the spirit of things rather than their surface, his painting keeps this mastery of the gesture to deliver a spontaneous execution of the essence of things, without repentance if possible. Unaffiliated with the court and 'Gongbi', the 'xieyi' was the style of the literati in sixteenth-century. Ma Desheng, without seeming to be so, is inheriting a tradition of Chinese landscape painting. He paints bodies like mountains and talks about respectfully the 'single brushstroke' of Shi Tao (1642-1707), one of the masters of the 'xieyi' style. And coincidentally, the name of Shi Tao means 'waves of stone'. Above all, Ma Desheng is not in dissociation, but synthesis. His work does not build dualisms, rather monism. He does not divide things to create dynamics; he brings them together to appease them. He who says, 're-stick to heal the world' actually brings together painting and sculpture, landscape and portraiture, balance and breakage, mineral and organic...
Healing the world is a bit like the project that animated him by preparing the exhibition entitled The soul out of stones, which can be viewed at the A2Z Art Gallery. The vivid colours of the traditional backgrounds have given way to dark and grey shades. Black predominates the canvases, as if to express a world filled with tragedy and negative emotion. We must listen to the masters.
'Where philosophy and art die'. Ma Desheng
Press release courtesy A2Z Art Gallery.