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Jacky Tsai: Designing a Unique Brand of Chinese Pop Aesthetics


Jacky Tsai: Designing a Unique Brand of Chinese Pop Aesthetics
Jacky Tsai, The Hyperreal Embrace, Acrylic on Canvas, D 130 cm x 4.5cm, 2016, Image Courtesy of Contemporary by Angela Li and Jacky Tsai Studio

The strikingly vibrant artworks by artist Jacky Tsai, currently adorn the pristine white walls of gallery Contemporary by Angela Li, for his solo exhibition, Human Nature.  Instantly captivating viewers, the vivid hues of the work enrich the numerous intricacies contained within the pieces.  Highlighting the inherent energy of the work, the details also reveal contradictory social imageries juxtaposed: traditional and modern objects, Chinese and Western characters, and scenes from present– day and ancient times.   Through cleverly fusing elements of Western pop art with ancient Chinese crafts, Tsai explores the dynamics of cultural exchange and complexities of modern life aesthetically, thematically and always with a humorous, whimsical twist.  

On a quest to revive old Chinese arts, Tsai employs many methods to create elaborate, distinctive surfaces and textures. His intent in revitalizing these often forgotten art forms is to remind a younger generation of their existence, by presenting them in a relatable manner.  Well versed in a range of techniques himself, for this exhibition he has specifically applied lacquer work, woodcarving, su zhou embroidery, porcelain and guo hua painting.   When combined with bright colors, the utilization of graphics imagery, personalities from Western comic books, and different modes of print and mixed media, Tsai’s own brand of Chinese pop aesthetics is conceived.  

'Tug of War’ (pictured below), perhaps best exemplifies this.  Lacquer carvings on a wooden panel form a classical landscape interspersed with contrasting components.  The presence of various comic book heroes namely, Superman, Batman, and the Flash caught in a literal tug of war action with Chinese protagonists who appear to be comparatively relaxed in demeanor, effectively illustrates the difference in the definition of heroism between two cultural ideologies.  The graphic speech bubble saying “WTF!” further invigorates the visual and references western pop art.   While the presence of Western female figures, who are observing the competition from the side of the Chinese characters, gives rise to a subtle social commentaries prevalent throughout much of Tsai’s art.  

Jacky Tsai, Tug of War, Lacquer carving on wood panel, 83 cm x 200 cm, 2017, Image courtesy of Contemporary by Angela Li and Jacky Tsai Studio.

Detail from Tug of War, Image courtesy of Contemporary by Angela Li and Jacky Tsai Studio.

These undertones are concealed in the exquisitely embroidered work, 'Shanghai Tang Café', which is inspired by the décor of the actual Shanghai Tang café in Shanghai.  The brilliance of the colors enliven and activate the narrative, scattered with objects alluding to childhood memories(piggy bank, bicycles), furniture and other eccentric items one would find at the café.  The two Chinese women are the prime features, one looking into a mirror with the reflection of a Caucasian woman peering back, emphasizing the standards of beauty.  The other, looking at a picture of Superman, underneath which is a barely visible playboy magazine, doubly implying the consideration of notions of beauty in China.

Jacky TsaiShanghai Tang Cafe, Embroidery on Silk Satin, 50 cm x 150 cm, 2017, Image courtesy of Contemporary by Angela Li and Jacky Tsai Studio.

Detail from Shanghai Tang Cafe, Image courtesy of Contemporary by Angela Li and Jacky Tsai Studio.

In addition to social influences, Tsai also grapples with the consequences and effects of modernity in China.  In 'The Retirement', he portrays an animated scene where notes of money are flying around and young children seem to be having an abundance of fun.  Making the connection between the rapid rise in wealth and materialism in a culture with its effect on a younger generation.  However, due to the comical and amusing nature of his work, criticism or judgment is not evident, rather simple observation and playful jest characterize his intent. 

Jacky Tsai, The Retirement, Lacquer carving on wood panel, 107 cm x 180 cm, 2017,  Image courtesy of Contemporary by Angela Li and Jacky Tsai Studio. 

In one of his particularly comical creations, 'Pokémon go in China', comic book heroes are depicted struggling, on a minuscule scale, and have been given dragonfly wings.  They seem to be attempting to avoid capture by Chinese women, (who are playing Tsai’s version of Pokémon Go) or rescue Wonder Woman who is caught in a cage, and all the while Captain America’s shield is floating down stream.  The use of humor and socially current subject matter engages viewers make the work more accessible to a wider audience. 

Jacky Tsai, Pokemon Go in China - Silver Version, Lacquer carving, gold & silver leaf on wood panel 木板漆雕及金銀箔, 150cm x 123 cm, 2017, Image courtesy of Contemporary by Angela Li and Jacky Tsai Studio. 

Similarly, 'The Artificial Intelligence' uses the stereotype of the old (presumably wise) man pitted against a robot, to illustrate the divergence from ancient wisdom towards a futuristic technological train of thought.  Made from porcelain and adorned with floral patterns, the delicate material of the work translates to the fragility of the concept of artificial intelligence and the unreliability of technology.

Jacky Tsai, The Artificial Intelligence, porcelain, 90 cm x 90 cm, 2017, Image courtesy of Contemporary by Angela Li and Jacky Tsai Studio.

Tsai’s art can be seen as his way of making sense of his own experience.  Born in 1984, he grew up in Shanghai, and only left China to obtain his Masters degree from Central St Martin’s in London, where he is now based.  Effected by two nations, it is no surprise the theme of cultural exchange is so pervasive in his work.  He is a young millennial Chinese artist, trained in print, multimedia, and fashion, most well known for designing Alexander McQueen’s iconic floral skull motif. Tsai is exemplary of the trend of contemporary artists blurring the lines between art and design, and is skilled in a diverse range of visually creative mediums.  In 2011 he set up his own fashion line, and has worked in collaboration with Harvey Nichols, Lane Crawford and most recently Shanghai Tang. His commitment to traditional materials and aesthetics reflects the strength of his connection to his heritage as well as his dedication to informing younger generations.  Through humorously fusing two cultural extremes and referencing pop culture, he also makes art more accessible to them.  


Human Nature is on at Contemporary by Angela Li until Dec. 18th , for more information click here.   

Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.


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