Contemporary Chinese Painting and the Studio: When and Where does a Painting Practice Begin and End?

Yifei He

PhD Viva completed 2019-2020

Yifei He,Painting installation, Emotional Labour. 2018

Yifei He: Contemporary Chinese Painting and the Studio: When and Where does a Painting Practice Begin and End?


Discussion of the painting studio in China is relatively underdeveloped on a theoretical level and has a tendency to be dominated by approaches that range from the photographic documentation of spaces and artists’ texts to artworks that reflect upon issues of studio space. My analysis is based upon first-hand observations, experiences, discussions, interviews and art theory in order to develop critical understandings of the studio and its myriad developments. This hybrid approach gave rise to a new method which places the studio within the much broader notion of the apparatus (‘dispositif’ in Foucault). In turn, this has led me to identify three conditions of painting practice in the contemporary Chinese context. My practice emerges from an Anglo-Chinese context that I have mapped through interviews with Chinese contemporary painters. The critical revisiting of the Western context starts from the 1970s painting-related practices and notions of the studio, and includes works of Daniel Buren, Robert Smithson, Marcel Broodthaers, Blinky Palermo, Howard Hodgkin, Jessica Stockholder, Ian Kiaer, David Hammons, Tracy Emin and Jutta Koether. In the Chinese context, I use nine case studies in order to develop a more general commentary on the apparatus of painting practices in my interviews with seven Chinese artists from different generations (1950-1990).

In my research and practice, painting functioned as a mode of thinking that embodies a conceptual and affective engagement with the technical processes; the studio was reevaluated as a critical and affective space, through the revisiting of the methodology of studio painting. My painting-related practice is based upon the revised notion of apparatus, including within this, the notion of loop which is understood as a non-dualistic learning process and practice, in order to revisit parts of painting practice and by implication rethink the boundary of painting practice in relation to the studio, especially in regard to the Chinese context. More precisely, my practice embodies different aspects and applications of the notion of the apparatus that in turn enables broader considerations of different materials and mediums, including installation, performance and video, without resorting to the rhetoric of ‘the death of painting’ that has been so prevalent in Modernist discourse.

The aim of my research is not to reach a conclusion about when or where a painting begins and ends, but to study the shifting point of the studio, in order to open up the potential correlative frameworks of painting practice and the studio space from the viewpoint of both a practitioner and a researcher. The research leads to the suggestion that a new structure of spatial configurations is starting to occur within Chinese contemporary painting practice. Finally, the application of my findings will hopefully begin to have an implication within the educational framework with the transmission of approaches to painting which will contribute to the way that Chinese artists think and make painting.