clay sculpture, from a group of 31 pieces produced between 1979 and 1983
It would have been possible to write an entire book on the works contained in this exhibition; several books actually, for the display of two-dimensional paintings and drawings, as well as the hand-crafted objects that singularise Gu Dexin’s early career, merit tomes of their own. The Important Thing is Not the Meat was the artist first and only retrospective exhibition. It revealed Gu Dexin to be a genuine master of artistic innovation, which may seem surprising, perhaps, for those familiar only with his later installations, which comprised volumes of what often appeared to be mundane, old-fashioned children’s toys, or piles of rotting fruit and veg. Astonishing, then, to encounter the great volume of early paintings gathered together here, and to experience the full range of styles and approaches used to create them. Neither the pictorial works nor the sculpted objects had been seen together previously, or to such effect. It is not certain that the opportunity will arise again.
Oil Painting A07, oil on canvas, 130 x 87 cm, 1983
Gu Dexin is, was, a retiring, reclusive, avant-garde pioneer, will long be remembered for his large-scale installations: dolls, apples, bananas; masses of them placed together, then left to ripen and rot through the duration of an exhibition, after which the works ceased to exist. Recreated, as they were here, for a retrospective—a concept Gu Dexin viewed as an art-world habit aimed at bolstering commercial ambitions and forging the phenomenon we term “art history”—they were weakened. But even Gu Dexin would have been pleased with the impact of the paintings and objects upon the multitude of visitors that saw them. A wider mode of expression from a single artist is rarely seen—especially from within the art world in China—and, unless this exhibition is resurrected at a future date, will certainly not be seen again from Gu Dexin. In 2008, he elected to give up art and resigned from the art world, politely refusing even to visit this exhibition. It is strange, then, to write about an artist who is alive and well, but who has absented himself from the scene: although this was not the first time he withdrew from a path with which he no longer felt an affinity. That first happened in 1995, and precipitated the end of the Xinkedu artist group that he’d formed with the artists Wang Luyan and Chen Shaoping in 1990.It is partly because the artist is no longer active that the achievement of his early career deserves serious discussion now before it is forgotten. Especially as no other artist of his generation proved so versatile. Not simply unique, Gu Dexin’s delightfully diverse body of early work was hugely experimental and wholly unaffected. It began with simple curiosity and resulted in pure innovation. The forms were intuitive, direct and honest. Seeing them in close proximity in the exhibition halls here felt as it must to have entered the atelier of a youthful Picasso just around the time he was moving from the Blue and Rose periods into early Cubism. Similarly, here were early life drawings juxtaposed with the romance of the paintings they inspired. But it was in the collection of objects amassed together, to recreate the world in which Gu Dexin immersed himself in the 1980s, where the use of unadulterated imagination produced pure fantasy in an astonishing range of works.
Embroidery A02, embroidery thread and watercolour on canvas, 52.5 x 74 cm, 1983