Though small in scale, Duan Jianyu’s new solo exhibition, “Automatic Writing – Automatic Understanding,” covers the artist’s creative output from 2014 to 2020, giving viewers a sense of how her practice has evolved since her two-person show with Hu Xiaoyuan at Shanghai’s Rockbund Art Museum in 2013. Duan’s motifs remain consistent, evoking elements of traditional Chinese painting, Western modernism, China’s contemporary cityscapes, and shifting conceptions of femininity. Of course, male identity figures in Duan’s painterly world too, in works such as Gong Xian, 2014, and Automatic Writing No.1, 2019, with their comic and pathetic masculine types. In the former, the lines that describe the epynomous seventeenth-century hermit painter’s swollen body seem to collapse into the traditional Chinese landscape behind him. In the latter, the paintbrush poised between a besuited gentleman’s toes implicates him as the maker of the painterly marks and signs scattered across the composition’s background.
Duan has made artist’s books and novellas, and her paintings have never lacked a literary quality. Viewers might surmise from the rich details of Michelin Seven Stars No.2, 2020—the decoration of the room, the bedraggled hair and lonely expression of its female protagonist, her body hidden beneath a large, wrinkled Issey Miyake–style gown, and the glass of red wine clasped between her fingers—that the painting portrays an haute bourgeoise woman in the midst of a mid-life crisis. At the same time, Duan invokes the painterly grammar and spatial flatness of European modernism, seeming to thread endlessly between discourse and figuration. What matters is where our eyes fall.
Translated from Chinese by Qing Zhang.