Lu Peng’s Theatre of the Mind
by Tally Beck
When we think of theatricality in contemporary Chinese art, we are likely to conjure up the bold experimentation of performance art pieces: Sheng Qi tethers a chicken to his genitalia, Zhang Huan sits nude, slathered with fish oil and covered in flies, in a Beijing public toilet, and Cai Guo-Qiang sets the landscape ablaze with his orchestrated explosions. These are powerful expressions, but they are confined to the reality of the material world. Lu Peng reveals a fantastic, theatrical world in two dimensions.
Lu Peng creates in ink on paper and acrylic on canvas with equal facility. Regardless of medium, he constructs his paintings like fanciful stage sets. The background builds forward like a sequence of diaphanous backdrops, but the scenes are usually groundless; his players and their props float and fly, intertwined in a maelstrom of activity. An expert colourist, Lu Peng heightens the drama by enveloping his figures in billowing swaths of fabric in saturated hues.
After the Rain is an example of one of Lu Peng’s more exuberant works. A celebration of sunshine after a spring rain, the work features quotations from classic poetry. A modern Chinese couple dominate the upper section of the canvas. Their sumptuous silk outfits dance in the light as their visages react with intense interest to an unknown event offstage. Several small flags adorn the woman’s back: a reference to Beijing opera’s nod to the traditional warrior’s practice of carrying protective banners on his most vulnerable side.
The woman delicately handles a slender spear that obliquely bisects the composition and provides a stable, linear counterpoint to the swirling forms around it. Beneath the spear, a contorted horse dominates the centre of the canvas. The muscular beast bucks in mid-air. He is riderless, and his genitals are readily visible. He represents freedom and limitlessness. One of his hooves threatens to interfere with a copulating couple. These two are an unmistakable reference to sixteenth-century erotic Chinese art. The man wears the robes of a mid-level imperial court official, while the woman sports tiny, deformed feet shaped by binding. As is the case with its antecedent, this erotic image is rather passionless but depends on surrounding attributes to lend it sensuality. Here, the background is a sybaritic magenta cloud, and the sturdy branch between the man’s legs is an effective symbol of his erotic enthusiasm.
The charming grace notes that contribute to the sumptuous composition are born of spontaneity: the obliterated face on the man below, the menacing mask on the woman’s shoulder above as well as her curious sporting of only one sock are all decisions that the artist himself cannot explain. He states that he creates these peculiarities in the moment. This allowance for serendipity combined with his painterly style creates the dynamic richness that characterises all of Lu Peng’s works.