Ma Desheng was a key figure in Chinese visual arts in the wake of Mao Zedong's death and the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. Along with his contemporaries in the Stars Art Group (Xing Xing), he helped to pave the way for new developments in modern art, independent expression, and collectivity in China.Read More
Born in Beijing, Ma Desheng was afflicted by polio as an infant which had lasting effects on his health. He was rejected for university entrance under Mao's regime due to his limited mobility, and worked as an industrial draughtsman for the government in the late 1960s.
Ma later began working with woodblock printing and traditional Chinese calligraphy ink. In 1979, he co-founded The Stars (Xīngxīng; also known as the Stars Art Group), the pioneering avant-garde collective of Chinese artists which included Huang Rui, Ai Weiwei, and Wang Keping, among others. The group staged exhibitions and protests, advocating for individual expression and critiquing state sanctioned forms of art. Growing political pressure saw the disbanding of The Stars around 1983. In the mid-1980s Ma Desheng left China and spent time travelling in Europe before settling in Paris, where he lives today.
Ma Desheng's explorations in printmaking, painting, sculpture, and poetry have evolved from the politically-charged woodblock prints of his early years in China, to his widely recognised stacked stone assemblages, which appear at first as monuments of apparent neutrality. Guided by Taoist philosophy, Ma investigates endless visual possibilities for his signature forms, and their embodiment of energy, life, and spirit.
Following the Cultural Revolution, Ma Desheng and the Stars artists embraced the opportunity for individual artistic expression in a new phase of China's history, diverging from the propagandist art which had previously dominated the cultural scene. During this period Ma predominantly produced monochromatic woodblock prints. These ranged from geometric abstract compositions, such as Minions (1979) and Night Bird (1980), which reflect experimentation with line, negative space, and illustration—to politically responsive images with motifs related to freedom or repression. Solidarity (1979) outlines multiple outstretched arms which tower above a cluster of houses, while the energetic strokes depicting a hybridised bird-woman in Flying Goddess (1979) allude to a state of liberation. Ma has stated: 'We wanted to express democracy and freedom. And even beauty. At the time, beauty was not fashionable.'
Upon leaving China, Ma worked increasingly with calligraphy ink and acrylic paint. A car accident rendered him wheelchair-bound, however, he continued painting and used brush extensions to work with acrylics on large canvases. From the early 2000s, Ma composed images of piles of stones in endless variations of stacking and assemblage. Simplified, repetitive, and sparse, Ma's stone paintings explore dichotomies of stability and fragility; imbalance and equilibrium, lightness and weight.
Curator Jean-Paul Desroches has written: '...great stones with polished contours spring up from the rough backgrounds of violent contrasts, structured like the works of Brancusi, volcanic like those of Matisse, but as existential as Morandi's still lifes. He stacks up the stones to form his figures abolishing the boundaries between sculpture and painting.'
In his sculptural works, Ma Desheng translates his stone images into three-dimensional cast bronze forms, with his precariously balanced 'rocks' recalling the minimal biomorphic sculptures of Jean Arp, or the balancing rock totems of Ugo Rondinone. Varying vastly in scale — from the miniature bronze 'Untitled' series (2011), to the large outdoor iteration Scuptures (2019) presented at the Domain of Chaumont-sur-Loire—Ma's precarious forms may be seen to embody the Taoist principle of the decentring of humans, or the bridging of the earth and sky.
Ma Desheng has exhibited in solo and group shows worldwide since the late 1970s.
Solo exhibitions include: White dream, black soul, A2Z Art Gallery, Paris (2022); 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong (2019); Entre Terre et Ciel, A2Z Art Gallery, Paris (2018); Black White Grey, Kwai Fung Hin Art Gallery, Hong Kong (2014); Selected Works, Gallery Rossi-Rossi, London (2013); Ma Desheng: Beings of Peter, Breath of Life, Musée Cernuschi, Nice (2011).
Ma has participated in group exhibitions at major events and museums including ArtisTree, Hong Kong (2016); Busan Biennale (2016); and the British Museum (2015), among others.
Ma Desheng's works are held in significant collections in France, Asia, and the United Kingdom, including Musée d'Histoire Contemporaine; Association Mouvement d'Art Contemporain (AMAC); FMAC Paris; Macau Orient Foundation; Musée d'Art et d'Histoire de Melun; Fukuoka Asian Art Museum; Ashmolean Museum; University Museum and Art Gallery, The University of Hong Kong; Musée des Arts Asiatiques; British Museum; Musée Cernuschi; Centre Pompidou; and M+, Hong Kong.
Ma Desheng's Instagram can be found here.
Misong Kim | Ocula | 2022