Figurative art based on people and stories has become a dominant part of the art world. Although figurative work had been created centuries, the contemporary styles are new, innovative, and non-traditional. Global boundaries are gone, and the standards for European-Western art are jettisoned. Figures become reconstructed, paint jumps and slashes across the image, and colors are bright and conflicting. The designs, styles, and imagery vary; however, a few themes cross through all the work. One central theme resounding through the artwork is color; it is bright, colorful, and mixed. Another reverberating concept is the exploration of cultural identity, racism, and heritages. Since the early 2000s, figurative art has exploded worldwide, emphasizing identity politics.
Women artists are using the figure to challenge current old stereotypes and the sexual portrayal of women throughout history. Women now feel free to manipulate the image of the female body in their views. They use exaggerated features or contort the figure in ways understandable to other women. Much of their work is based on domestic settings and events in a woman's world. They use narratives in the contemporary culture, exploring sexuality, identity, and humanity. Artists of color seldom see images of their culture as significant figures in historical portraits. Now they are increasingly visible and changing the dialogue of figurative artwork to be inclusive and represent multiple cultures.
Chiho Aoshima (1974-) positions her figures in a more haunting landscape, balancing the whimsical and the more surreal fantasy. She was born in Tokyo and studied economics at Hosei University. Aoshima did not find the subject exciting, and after she learned about Adobe Illustrator and graduated from the university, she abandoned economics to pursue art. Aoshima said about her art, "My work feels like strands of my thoughts that have flown around the universe before coming back to materialize." Her work incorporates spirits believed to exist in the universe and includes them in creating the relationships between nature and humans while visualizing alternative realities.
Aoshima's work is based on traditional Japanese painting while using modern technology to create her art. Her work is flat with a single plane of depth. She uses digital drawing tools to design the images and reproduces them on immense digital prints, a more simplified manga-looking image. The results often resemble surreal dreamscapes with colorful and cartoon-like images, although the figures usually are in the middle of a dark, disturbing landscape.
Aoshima is part of the Kaikai Kiki artist group run by Takashi Murakami. Kaikai Kiki means powerful and sensitive, two yin-yang forces. The group is collaborative and follows the ideas of the Superflat imagery found in manga style. The artists in the group use new digital technologies to create and produce their work. Aoshima does her design work in Adobe Illustrator to develop futuristic sci-fi imagery. Her work is easy to replicate in new technological printing processes. The way the group works is similar to the ukiyo-e art from the past. Ukiyo-e was also made in a workshop with a talented, skilled leader who taught younger artists.
The Divine Gas (10.2.27) portrays only part of the complete mural of an enormous young girl lying in a verdant landscape. Around her are butterflies and deer and other images producing an idyllic place. Storm clouds and the storm genie gather in the sky. Some figures tumble to the ground, while others still wait in the clouds for their eventual fate. Aoshima has created a fantastical daydream. The installed mural in Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art was 12.8 meters long. When the mural was removed for another installation, Aoshima required the museum to cut the image into small squares no bigger than 10 x 10 centimeters. She had the museum send her photos of the destroyed image to ensure the destruction was completed correctly and small pieces could not become a souvenir.
Some of Aoshima's work may be seen as catastrophic scenes where nature rages and humans are battered. She uses conflicting colors to create emotion and demonstrate the power of nature. Magma Spirit Explodes (10.2.28) and Tsunami is Dreadful (10.2.29) portray the human mind's perception of nature's wrath. The 12-meter mural has two parts, one fiery destruction and the other, the giant wave of a tsunami tidal wave. On the Magma Spirit side, she used a candy-colored young girl spitting out the magma while looking at the mirror, reflecting her more ghostly-like face. Conversely, the brilliant blues wave crashes onto the Magna-filled land like two warring factions. The mural's long horizontal design is reminiscent of past Japanese handscroll paintings, unfolding the apocalyptic image across the scene.
Yue Minjun (1962-) was born in China, where his family worked in the oil fields and constantly moved to follow the work. After high school, Yue became an electrician, painting when he had spare time. In 1990, he moved to Beijing in a district supporting an artist's village. China was changing from some of the older concepts to new postmodernity. The artists also were part of a revolution in the style of Chinese art. Yue worked in multiple disciplines, including sculpture, watercolor, and print. He became known for his unusual depiction of images frozen in laughter. Yue was also part of Cynical Realism's attitude in China, ridiculing the political and commercial views. Yue's paintings were usually based on self-portraits that were humorous and lighthearted. He frequently based a concept on well-known European compositions or iconic Chinese images Yue adapted to his aesthetics. Theorist Li Xianting described Yue's self-portraits as "a self-ironic response to the spiritual vacuum and folly of modern-day China." Yue usually portrays his portraits all distorted and grotesque with bright pink skin and large toothy laughs. Laughter was a way to lighten pain and an antidote to the cruelties of life.
Free Sky No 1 (8.5.9) and Untitled (8.5.10) reflect Yue's exaggerated people images of himself frozen in laughter. In the first image, Yue thrusts himself forward in the scene, wearing only his very white underwear. In Untitled, he replicates himself five times, each person wearing a ludicrous crown. One projection viewed in his work is the concept a grand smile does not mean the person is happy. Yue used simple basic colors to high contrast with the overly bright pink people. The open mouth and a large set of teeth represent the boredom and emptiness of the Chinese people at the time. Yue's art was considered experimental, contrary to the traditional images of Chinese art and a reflection of Cynical Realism, an attitude ridiculing China's political and commercial position. His work mocked himself as well as the community at large, his faces a trademark of his work.
Yue made twenty-five Contemporary Terracotta Warriors (8.5.11) based on the legendary Terracotta Army. The thousands of Terracotta Warriors each had distinctive faces and clothing. Each statue in Yue's sculptures was based on Yue's self-portrait creating a group of laughing soldiers who are positioned and holding tightened fists, making a satirical gesture. He believed using the same image and expression displayed the loss of individuality more accurately than distinct portrayals. Yue believed laughter represented how helpless people were when their rights were taken away.
Fang Lijun (1963-) was born in China and attended the Children Cultural Place for schooling. He studied ceramics for three years at the Hebei Light Industry Technology and then changed his mind after becoming fascinated with oil painting. After studying painting at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, he moved to a small village with other artists like Yue Minjun. They were also part of the Cynical Realists who became disillusioned with China's policies after the actions at Tiananmen Square and the resulting powerlessness of people in the restricted societal structure. Fang was one of the artists who rebelled against traditional Chinese art and modern styles displaying his disenchantment and anguish. One of Fang's significant themes in his paintings was the bald protagonist and taking on the issues of human rights and political oppression.
980815 (8.5.12) is an image of Fang's typical bald man appearing to be drowning in the water. Bald men in China were considered stupid. Painters were also looked down on at the time. Fang used the comparison to judge people based on their moral character instead of their occupation or appearance. He also used water in many of his paintings. A person drowning in water is like living in China with no voice and powerless in the governmental structure. Metaphorically, one can move through the water safely and speak for oneself or drown in the water or under societal rules.
Fang based his painting 30th Mary (8.5.13) on religious paintings found on the ceilings of European churches. The multiple, repetitive doll-like figures all display Fang's facial image. Unlike the church painting where the people are ascending into heavenly clouds, Fang painted stormy tornado-like clouds depicting cynicism instead of the ideological assurance of a savior. The small figures are wearing school uniforms, the spots of color adding to the motion. Each of the figures is bald as the apathetic or unintelligent followers of the Chinese government.
Zeng Fanzhi (1964-) was born in China during the Cultural Revolution. After dropping out of high school, he went to the Hubei Academy of Fine Arts. Zeng is one of China's most famous artists. He spent time in school studying the Expressionists, especially the German Expressionists. He developed his style based on unconventional standards and emotional, expressive images. Originally, Zeng was trained to paint portraits and other themes about the countryside. He became an expert in the human figure and facial expressions training, which developed his desire for figurative paintings. At the same time, he was supposed to portray the concepts of Socialist Realism and painted as required in a class, working on his emotional figurative work on his own.
Zeng lived by a hospital and noticed the different problems afflicting people who were being treated when he walked by each day. Part of the events he noticed involved the suffering people encountered, and some of the time, Zeng found the indifference and hypocrisy of doctors and others towards the patients. His series depicted the consideration for the individual's health versus the requirements of the state. In the painting Hospital Series (8.5.32), the man in the green jacket is looking at the weeping person on the chair. In the background are the waiting patients, emotionlessly waiting for treatment. The pain and anguish in the room are apparent, primarily through Zeng's use of color. Through expressive brushstrokes, the use of red (the color of blood) and gray brings an immediate sense of depression and sadness to the room. Each person resides in their foggy mind; no one interacts or seems to care about another person. The eye of the viewer is constantly returned to the man in the green jacket, reducing the viewer's interest in anyone else.
Tiananmen (8.5.33) is an image of Tiananmen Square in the background overlaid by a portrait of Mao Zedong, one of the most famous leaders of the Chinese government. The conflicting image relates China's relationship with the recent history of 1989. The bright colors of the square demonstrate the optimism for a better future and the heroism of people to change the course of history. As thousands of people stood in the square to demonstrate for democracy and freedom, the tanks and guns of the military killed thousands. Zeng used a network of brush strokes to depict Moa, who dominates the scene, the lingering rule of a ghost from the past repressing the people.
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