LONDON — Some shows only tell part of the story. Walking into Ma Desheng’s retrospective exhibition at Rossi & Rossi, visitors found themselves surrounded by large canvases picturing black and grey boulders on bright backgrounds: red, gold, blue, green. A couple of nudes in Chinese ink hung by the door. More nudes — some ink, some acrylic on canvas — as well as an alluring series of woodblock prints, were displayed in the open office.
Endless variations on a motif, these rock paintings felt repetitive, while the nudes seemed derivative of, among many others, Matisse and Niki de Saint Phalle. Yet such a perfunctory evaluation entirely misses the point. To start getting a sense of what this exhibition (and by extension Ma Desheng’s practice) is about, one has to reach for the catalogue and go back to the history of the Stars Group (1979-83), of which the artist was a founding member.
An over-reliance on biographical information is a classic critical trap, yet context is key here. Having grown up during the Cultural Revolution, Ma Desheng was at the forefront of a wave of artists and thinkers — including Ai Weiwei, Wang Keping, Mao Lizi, and Huang Rui — who attempted to break the Socialist Realist mould in the wake of Mao Zedong’s death in 1976. In Beijing, the heart of the PRC, they championed individuality, the visual artists often drawing heavily on the Western avant-garde of the 20th century — forbidden only a few years before.
Ma Desheng’s polio-related disability meant that he was never admitted to art school, but he never let his physical impediment stall his enthusiasm. Old photographs depict him haranguing the crowds, leading rallies on crutches. And painting is only part of his prolific creative output; the artist is also a published poet and a performer. He moved to Paris in 1986 and embraced the traditional genre of the nude — prohibited in China at the time — as a gesture of defiance. Six years later, he completely lost use of his legs, and much hand coordination, in a car accident. Ink on paper and woodblock printing were now out of reach, but he devised a new technique to paint in acrylic, often on an ambitious scale.
An awareness of Ma Desheng’s extraordinary journey radically alters any attempted interpretation of his paintings. Even a modest vitrine with a selection of archival documents would have transformed the exhibition. With his back-story in mind, the rock paintings appear as the mind maps of an exceptionally resilient man. Stones, he said during a private tour of the show, stand for immortality. His obstinate declension of the theme can be read as an advocacy for a core sense of self, unhampered by history’s vicissitudes. It stands as an exercise in self-portraiture, in which the carefully balanced boulder arrangement is by turns trapped in a corner or floating above a large, landscape-like expanse of colour.
Towards the end of the tour of his Rossi & Rossi show, Ma Desheng burst into a short performance in which he shouted, with stupefying intensity, “shit” in several languages. “Ça, c’est l’art,” he said, smiling broadly from his paint-splattered wheelchair, “no money.” This fleeting moment offered a glimpse into aspects of the artist’s practice one wishes had been given more space in the exhibition. Discussion around contemporary Chinese art in the West is still too often dominated by the astronomical auction prices fetched by Zeng Fanzhi, Zhang Xiaogang, and Zhou Chunya’s work, or Ai Weiwei’s ongoing legal ordeals. Although Ma Desheng’s place in history is appreciated in specialist circles, it is yet to be recognized by the mainstream. Credit must be given to Rossi & Rossi for attempting to present the artist’s whole career, but focusing exclusively on visual art is, in this case, too reductive. What we need to see next is a more rounded presentation of Ma Desheng’s multifarious artistic production and political commitment.