The Capacity of Imagery to Be Loving and Be Loved



The Capacity of Imagery to Be Loving and Be Loved
-Notes on Recent Work by Duan Jianyu


We need to reckon with not just the meaning of images but their silence, their reticence, their wildness and nonsensical obduracy. We need to account for not just the power of images but their powerlessness, their impotence, their abjection.[1]
——W.J.T. Mitchell
Art is the highest method of nourishing life. It’s not only sufficient to nourish the Chinese people; it can also nourish the wellbeing and longevity of all humankind.
——Huang Binhong (1865–1955)


Duan Jianyu, The River Snail Maiden No.2, 2021, oil, acrylic and oil-based marker on canvas, 200 × 150 cm


        In Duan Jianyu’s rendering of another Chinese folk tradition, the “River Snail Maiden” (in River Snail Maiden (2022)) is nude, plump, and plain. This interpretation is representative of the ways in which the images in the artist’s paintings are gifts—not objects of desire. Here, Huang Binhong’s burnt ink landscapes and Fu Baoshi’s portraits of feminine beauty—a collective aesthetic inheritance—once again form the ecology of Duan Jianyu’s canvas. The river snail maiden finds herself unwittingly and uncaringly in their midst, and the table on which she reclines seems to be yet another stage where a performance of life can be viewed.

        Huang Binyong’s theory of using art to cultivate one’s life pulls us into the tug-of-war between lived experience and formal experimentation that characterized the cultural crises of China’s modern history. After all, a debate still persists over the extent to which formal ruptures have shaped the modern destiny of Chinese art. It has been said that “in the world of Chinese painting, nature is essential to human life, and human life is essential to nature.”[2] According to this way of thinking, life can be entirely invested within the boundaries of art, to the point that we are born for the purpose of art: “it renders the heart happy and peaceful, bringing one benevolence and longevity.”[3] Thus do Chinese people adore gardens and courtyards, birds and flowers , vases and bottles—all motifs that appear in the paintings of Duan Jianyu, with connotations of hidden, distant, and uncertain delight.[4]

        When Duan Jianyu’s paintbrush touches upon the collective memory of generations, her color palette and composition resonate with structures of desire deep within our bodies. These structures, built over long periods of time, are always calling upon us. They are not distant places or sources of nostalgia; rather, they are, quite possibly, the soil in which “evolution” can take root.
Duan Jianyu, Duckweed, 2020, oil, acrylic, oil-based marker and pencil on canvas, 180 × 250 cm


        “Duckweed”: a symbol (in Chinese culture) of aimless drifting, a suggestion of motion without limit—a creative concept that perhaps corresponds to “evolution” on a different level.
        The flatness of the picture plane in Duckweed (2020) releases us from our perceptions of depth. As we look more closely at this canvas, we discover a vista something like a vast starry sky. The hairstyles in Duckweed: one corner of this painting’s fluid world is what appears to be a composite photo of rebellious youngsters, still seeking to define the boundaries of their selves. The photo recalls a certain boy band and their song “Green Apple Paradise”, a song about following rules and breaking them, blending the sentimentality and mischievousness of budding youth.
        In the large-scale series Sharp Sharp Smart (2014-2016), Duan Jianyu strenuously explored the displacement and rebirth of imagery generated by the vitality of juxtaposition. Indeed, could we not posit the artist to be a confederate of “smart” culture[5], those acolytes of anachronism? The key question is this: in what sense can we truly trust an authentic correspondence between the imagery in the painting and the lived experience of the artist?
        The imagery in the series Green Apple Paradise (2020-2021) suggests a further exploration of smart subculture. The participants in this subculture likely derive their cultural inspiration from Douyin (TikTok) and other forms of social media, remaining unaware of the latent structures that have contributed to their collective aesthetic: Chinese gardens, patterned screen windows, and mandarin ducks at play in the pond. Perhaps these youths also long to throw themselves onto the stage of their times, even if that means being ruthlessly relegated to the cultural fringe. Duan Jianyu’s paintings occur precisely at this apparently impassable intersection of life’s boundaries, where love cannot be attained; they arrive precisely at the indescribable place where the imagery of impossible love is bestowed, and where one’s image presents the silent plea to be loved in return.
        There is a correspondence within Duan Jianyu’s recent work between settings, postures, allusions and transformations of paintings within paintings, the arrangement of objects within paintings, and the multiplicity suggested within spatial structures: between desire and its absence, between the potentiality of narrative and the language of poetry, between the performativity of imagery and the agency of the painting itself, Duan Jianyu maintains a highly circumspect perspective. She suspends us between fiction and corporeal reality, such that the painting can no longer easily become a tool of realizing or awakening desire. This also implies that the imagery of these paintings ultimately establishes a profound relationship of “not-requesting and not-desiring” with us, thereby creating the possibility of vital exchange at our deepest levels of need. In this richly dialectical approach to painting, the artwork goes beyond the mere exposition of reality’s nuances to form a dynamic reciprocity between its own visual language and the bodily experience of the viewer. These works of art express the due inclusivity of coexistence, which facilitates the potentially epiphanic emergence of the basic conditions of life on a primeval and elemental level.


Duan Jianyu, Dining Table (Front), 2021, oil, acrylic, spray paint, oil-based marker and pencil on canvas, 180 × 200 cm


        Duan Jianyu’s work is diversely interesting. Like Balzac, she portrays a contemporary Comédie humaine,[6] engaging with all forms of life within the mortal world, as well as the refugees who traverse the boundaries between the human and the inhuman. Here, the formal process of painting echoes the diversity of life within the universe, fumbling about in search of togetherness.
        In this sense, the meditative microcosm of the river snail maiden is not completely unrelated to the abovementioned “moonlit public space”: they can both be seen as metaphorical settings of contemporary experience. Painting, as an attempt to encapsulate human life and activity, has long been characterized by excesses of desire, restrictions of reason, adjustments of perception, and various constrictions of culture, history, society, and biology. Painting is the sojourning offspring of the art family, having endured countless exiles and banishments. Painting has withered, been reborn, and been domesticated—only to tenaciously return to its wild origins. Painting never ceases its excavations of the possibilities between life and form: between setting and narrative, between spirituality and abstraction, between the corporeal and the ethereal, and between imagery’s capacity to be loving and be loved. Indeed, it is only within the liminal spaces—in the betweens—that the secrets of life quietly dwell.


Essay: Ren Yu
All works of art by Duan Jianyu ©the Artist
Courtesy of the artist and Vitamin Creative Space



[1] Mitchell, W.J.T. What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images. University of Chicago Press (2006), p. 10.

[2] Qian Mu, “Zhongguo wenhua zhong lixiang zhi ren de shenghuo, (ideal life in Chinese culture)” collected in Zhongguo wenhua shi’er jiang (Twelve speeches on Chinese culture), Guizhou People’s Press (2019), p. 55.

[3] Ibid, p. 54.

[4] This surge of reflective delight reminds me of a statement by the artist regarding the many dualities of painting: “Paintings are not merely some product for leisurely amusement, nor some ‘useful’ tool wielded for condemnation. If we regard paintings as a medium with energy and capaciousness, they can act as amusing products or useful tools, and yet a good painting does not stop there.” see Duan Jianyu and Peter Pakesch: Automatic Writing, Automatic Understanding, The Pavilion (2020), Chinese-English bilingual version, p. 8.

[5] Sha Ma Te (杀马特) is the Chinese translation of “smart” culture, a retro punk subculture originating in the late 2000s that was influenced by Japanese visualrock and British glam rock.

[6] “I’m learning to absorb every kind of energy out of life during the working process. Nothing is taboo. I like encyclopedic paintings; they don’t leave anything out. A painting that is both energetically powerful and capacious might in fact be visually simple.” ibid, p. 16


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