Song Ling: Beauty and the Beast

The calligraphic beauty in Song Ling’s portraits of young women grabs a viewer’s attention but it is the subject’s seductive lure that retains the viewer’s gaze. Ling’s manga-style works create intrigue with their ‘beauty’ and ‘beastly’ qualities, from their modest poses to their sexual and almost bondage-like actions.

On show at the Niagara Galleries in Melbourne, Ling’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is filled with complexity as he combines traditional and contemporary techniques, and images and narrative, with underlying cultural themes and social commentary.

Chinese-born Song Ling graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts at the China National Academy of Fine Arts in 1984, and the following year was involved in the important ‘New Wave’ art movement in China – a unique episode of art history when China began reinventing its own culture. This movement influenced not only contemporary Chinese art but also the work Ling would continue to produce in Melbourne. Most recently he has combined the traditional and contemporary with Chinese folk arts and embroidery, contemporary printing processes, traditional symbolic imagery and pop/sub-culture references ñ simultaneously competing and complementing one another to produce a cross-generational/cross-cultural narrative.

The merging of the traditional and contemporary techniques has resulted in the use of dots to produce images that carry strong influences of Pop art. These hand-painted dots, which are applied in bright, contrasting colours – as seen in his work Beauty and the Beast 10 – are a direct comment on the symbolism used in traditional Chinese embroidery and folk art, according to Ling, “in an attempt to represent the digital age as it is now by giving the paintings a sense of the times”. Combining traditional and contemporary practices and techniques has broadened Ling’s audience as well as the meaning of his works.

Ling uses colour to exaggerate and strengthen the image, consciously ‘rebelling against’ his formal training to create tonal harmony, instead inducing discord through strong opposing colours. Aesthetically, the colours are dramatic and vibrant, the imagery captivating and engaging. The palette he uses is symbolic and refers to the principle colors found in Chinese folk art and embroidery, but rather than use all colours in one painting, he selects two or three at most. Ling chooses colours which have the strongest contrast to create tension in the work as they are juxtaposed with heavy black and white images.

Ling’s latest work is inspired by Japanese animé and Manga characters. Manga and animé are often used to explore complex philosophical ideas, express social commentary, and to tell complex narratives. In ‘Beauty and the Beast’, the women in Ling’s paintings have a wide-eyed innocence but they can also appear provocative, almost seducing the viewer. The embroidered masks covering most of their faces can be seen as symbols of the inner and outer worlds they/we inhabit. The mask almost acts as an x-ray, exposing the ‘beast’ within the ‘beauty’. The viewer is forced to re-evaluate the situation of these characters and question their own hidden demons.
Ling’s works are full with contradictions: traditional versus contemporary imagery, old versus new techniques, colour versus black and white, and ‘beauty’ versus ‘beast’. The merging of traditional and contemporary influences has allowed Ling to re-invent and re-interpret an image into a different context that directly confronts or engages the viewer with suppressed or ignored social conditions. In ‘Beauty and the Beast’, symbolism and meaning is met with colour and beauty leaving viewers fascinated with the abstract qualities of the works as well as the subject matter.

Niagara Galleries
July 3 to 28, 2012

Beauty and the beast 15, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 122 x 91cm

Beauty and the beast 17, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 122 x 91cm

Courtesy the artist and Niagara Galleries, Melbourne