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  Beijing Scene

Reconciling Beauty & Decay
The blood-red bananas and dripping bicycle seats of artist Cai Jin

Blood-red paint oozes across the canvas, contorting and congealing. In the corner of the room, a bathtub is stained fuchsia. Thick sanguine clots mar pristine satin ladies' pumps. Menstrual-red oil paint covers a row of bicycle seats and drips onto the floor. As if watching the climax of a horror movie, the viewer is drawn irresistibly into the scene with both terror and fascination.

Meeting the artist of Off the Canvas and Beauty Banana Series, a solo exhibition at the Courtyard Gallery, which runs until Tuesday, January 18, only adds to the already disorienting experience. Nothing in the provocative boldness of her work prepares you for 34 year-old Cai Jin's calm nature. Unobtrusively descending the stairs, a shy, elfish figure in plain gray enters the room. Severe bangs frame her youthful face. Her eyes beam, almost childlike. Her voice is soft and precise as if every word is carefully prepared.

Drawn toward abstract expressionism as an art student, the New York-based Cai developed a uniquely powerful impasto brushwork technique. With it, she began depicting curves of the human shape, stringed musical instruments and more abstract forms. Soon she gained international recognition through an underlying, near-obsessive fascination with the banana plant, a single theme which she traces back to her native Anhui province in southern China.

Cai Jin, who started the Banana series in the early 1990s, explains how she was first inspired nine years ago when she came across a withered banana plant while walking through a field.

The huge leaves enclosed the blood-red pod of the banana plant. The original green of the plant had long faded. The shape and color of this withered tree completely transfixed me. It was a strange and inexpressible sensation, she says.

The contorted shapes of these wilting banana plants are what lend Jin's paintings their depth and lure. Shriveled leaves mutate into a decomposing crimson pulp that spreads and transforms itself across the canvas. The result is something like raw flesh, an almost visceral collage that, despite its state of decomposition, seems sensual and alive. It resembles an open wound that has not quite healed, yet breathes with the vitality of birth.

Cai Jin's captivation with the dying plant as something diseased and decaying, yet pulsating and alive was to become a consistent theme. Somehow it seemed that inside the tree inside its trunk and leaves everything was still breathing. After a few days I was still completely enveloped in the atmosphere of that plant. As my brush moved automatically across the canvas, I experienced a great feeling of pleasure, as though I were painting something that I had painted before.

When talking about her work, Cai constantly refers back to her early childhood, her face lighting up with each memory. Those years spent growing up in a small village in southern Anhui would later influence much of the color and form in her work.

In the South, the houses are very old and the walls are white. But because it rains so much, mold would grow and form patterns. These stains had a lasting impression on me, she says.

Those mildew patterns reappear as blue and green speckles in her paintings, weaving through worm-like funnels of pink and red. Also, Cai's memories of wooden, latticed windows and doors that framed her childhood house return as intricate, geometric patterns in her sketches.

Recently Cai began experimenting with painting on new media: cushions, mattresses and sofas. Her trademark fuchsia is splashed like clotted blood on the shiny, smooth surfaces of satin shoes, a silk-covered sofa and black leather bicycle seats. These objects bring Jin's paintings into the realm of daily experience. The softness of their shapes suggest the curves of the human body they serve. The red paint sits, without fully blending with the surface itself, suggesting stains left by human contact.

It is tempting to try to draw conclusions and label the work as repulsively raw, disturbingly violent, or overtly sexual. In a milder interpretation, her paintings have been described as distinctly feminine. Cai Jin, however, insists they're all wrong.

I don't paint to cause people fear and I don't want people to have the feeling that my work is sexual. If I see something I think would look good to paint, then I paint it, she says. I'm not intentionally trying to be different from others. I do everything completely by instinct.

Off the Canvas runs until January 18 at the Courtyard Gallery, Donghuamen Dajie, Dongcheng District, 9 am-5pm, free


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