BEIJING - Of the scores of canvases Su Xinping has painted over the past two decades, few capture the drive behind modern Chinese life as deftly as "Century Tower."
The painting depicts a crowd of Chinese people climbing over each other, their hands outstretched, straining to grasp an invisible tower. Variously dressed in boxy, Communist-era suits, Western business clothes or just underwear, the mob includes the late Chinese leaders Mao Tse-tung and Deng Xiaoping.
To anyone living in China today, the subject is obvious: the desire to acquire and possess in a nation that seems to have swapped the social safety net of Mao's "Iron Rice Bowl" for Darwin's "Survival of the Fittest" in just a generation.
"In China, tradition was thrown away and material desires have taken its place," says Su, a handsome 40-ish artist from Inner Mongolia as he relaxes in his studio here amid his many canvases and the aroma of paint thinner. "In the West, there is religious belief and rule of law which restricts behavior. In China, in the 1990s, it was more or less chaos and people killed and used other ... means to gain material things."
In a culture and authoritarian system where direct criticism is at best discouraged, artists such as Su are among the sharper social observers of the kaleidoscope of modern China.
Economic development and the dismantling of Mao's stifling utopian dream have improved the lives of many urban Chinese over the past two decades. At the same time, new freedoms, increased mobility and dislocation have given birth to new social problems. Without any guiding ethos, many people seem to pursue money at all costs in a society where traditional relationships between family, the neighborhood and the regime are collapsing.
The wrenching changes provided inspiration and rich material for China's "cynical realist" painters beginning in the early 1990s. Today, Su and other contemporary artists continue to develop and explore similar themes of alienation, materialism and spiritual yearning.
In "Desperate Hurry III," Su paints three people walking in different directions across the globe utterly unaware of each other - a scene replayed each day at intersections across Beijing. In the lithograph, "Weightlessness I," two men in tunics float at odd angles amid the clouds.
"We are used to having spiritual anchors whether it's communism or whatever," says Su, who seems happy to talk a visitor through the symbolism and thought process behind each canvas. "If you lose spiritual support, you can't touch the ground."
The work of Su and other contemporary painters marks a sharp departure from earlier Chinese art. In the 1980s, artists often tackled grandiose themes such as the nature of civilization and the changing of society through political means.
The turning point came in 1989, said Li Xianting, one of the nation's leading art critics. In February that year, the national art gallery held its first avant-garde exhibition; authorities closed it twice. Then, in June, the People's Liberation Army crushed the Tiananmen Square democracy movement in a massacre that left hundreds, perhaps thousands, dead.
"After these two events, all the idealism was lost," says Li. "The younger generation started to feel a sense of boredom and loss."
In the 1990s, deepening social problems and the ideological decline of communism fed an increasingly darker view of society. Having failed to change the country in 1989, people began to focus on changing their circumstances, taking advantage of the opportunities for private enterprise and becoming rich.
In a once rigidly controlled country, drug use and AIDS have become serious problems. Divorce, rare in the past, has risen to at least 12 percent nationally and much higher in the cities, where more men use newfound wealth to pay for mistresses. Prostitution, practically wiped out under Mao, is commonplace. And all these changes are reflected in art.
Liu Manwen, a female artist in her late 30s, from the far northeastern city of Harbin, used to paint idealized landscapes. In 1995, she switched to portraits in which she explored alienation in families and the frustration of modern married women, specifically herself.
One painting from the year 2000's "Ordinary Life Series" portrays a family that comprises a man in a suit whose face is barely visible, a mother hovering in the background and a skinny, naked daughter facing the opposite direction. Another canvas, a self-portrait, depicts Liu leaning toward the viewer, her face covered in white makeup with a caged bird in the background. Liu says she doesn't have a good relationship with her husband and sometimes sees herself as the bird in the cage.
"I don't want to be like that. I want to leave. Recent critics interpret my work as signifying hopelessness and emptiness," said Liu, who is glad her message gets through. "I feel satisfied."
Among the urban archetypes of modern China is the young woman who shops incessantly, slaves over her appearance and dreams of bagging a sugar daddy, "Dakuan," in Chinese. He Sen, a painter from Southwest China's Yunnan Province, portrays these sorts of self-absorbed women playing with stuffed animals, applying make-up, smoking cigarettes or fondling themselves. To make his point, he paints them without eyes.
"Contemporary society has never been better, it is cleaner and prettier than before, but we do not know its content," He writes in a catalog for an exhibit last year organized by Beijing's Red Gate Gallery. "Just like the women in my works, on the outside they are beautiful, but they are hollow on the inside."
Cynical realism peaked in popularity during the mid-1990s. The art world has since atomized with people exploring new themes and experimenting with different types of photography, installation and performance art. Underground exhibits in recent years have showcased works that included a severed human arm hanging from a ceiling and a giant wire curtain made of live lobsters, snakes and frogs. In theory, the works of artists such as Su , Liu and He should be popular among ordinary Chinese as they seek to address their frustrations and concerns. If the subjects are accessible, though, the paintings are not.
Su sells his canvases for about $10,000 each - at least several years' salary for most Beijingers. Because China's nouveau riche has yet to take up art collecting in a serious fashion, he sells most of his work to wealthy foreigners.
Even if Chinese could afford Su's paintings, it's hard to know where they would put them. The canvases in his recent series, "Holiday," measure about 4 feet by 5 feet. They might fit in American suburban homes but overwhelm the tiny apartments where the majority of Beijingers live. Chances are that few have heard of Su. Like most contemporary art here, his work criticizes society a bit too directly to receive wide attention from China's state-owned media, whose reporters rarely cover private gallery exhibits.
"Most of the time, they don't know about them," said Li, the art critic. "They are also afraid."