He Hongbei is a Chinese artist who paints hyper-realistic portraits of beautiful, but pitiful, women who are struggling under societal pressures. While not defining herself as a ‘feminist artist’, her art does involve a lot of commentary about the media portrayal of women, the practice of being a female painter in a heavily patriarchy-saturated art form, and what I feel is this unspoken understanding between many women who feel they simply cannot speak out against any unjustness upon them because it is simply bu neng shuo (not able to be spoken about).
Her first series developed due to seeing a friend go through an intensely emotional break-up. These paintings revolved around the idea of ‘painting out the inner feelings’ that her friend was experiencing, a traumatic, but visually effective construction which used a lot of liquid-like environments (realistic water smudgings and explosive bodies in muted pastel tones) to give a viewer this sense of despair and loss. While the faces of the models were simple, soft, and serene, the mid and backgrounds felt rougher, more textural.
The second series we saw was titled ‘Dumped Garbage-Relax’, showing more hyper-realistic, hyper-beautified women gazing out to corners of the canvas. Most women wore little to no clothing, and all had their hairlines culminate into crumpled paper with various objects (pills, apples, tools, etc) spilling out of the space where their brains should be. The last and most recent painting had a lot of Jeff Coons inspirations and motifs that helped explore the interweaving lines of traditional Eastern upbringing with western thought imports.
While technically I think Hongbei has excellent control over the medium of painting, I find her dialogues to be disheartening. Sure, I won’t deny that many women in China and abroad face huge pressures to be obedient and submissive, which is shown by Hongbei through many of her models faces and body language, but the fact that she finds these aesthetics to be more interesting to paint, rather than searching for stronger women, was a bit of a letdown. It felt like she merely wanted to say ‘look, another woman being subjugated’ rather than taking a pro-active stance of ‘look, here is a woman not giving a fuck and doing her own thing’. For one woman to say that there is beauty in being second feels, quite frankly, like the ultimate betrayal.