Ma Ke: Monkey and Beetle

15 December 2022 - 10 February 2023

PIFO Gallery is pleased to present artist Ma Ke's solo exhibition "Monkey and Beetle" from 15 December 2022 to 10 February 2023. The exhibition curated by Bao Dong. For more than a decade, Ma Ke has been portraying the same subjects and imagery over and over again, exploring the possibilities of images and variations in repetition, creating "Tough It Out", "Idiom Stories", "Landscape", "Reading", "Metamorphosis" and other series. Ma Ke is not interested in the them of "Journey to the West" because of its novelty, but because these images are so familiar. The artist does not need to focus too much on shaping them, and instead focuses on constructing a visual language through painting, returning to the most basic dimensions - point, line, stroke, and color block - to explore the creation. The "Metamorphosis" series was first created in 2016, with insects coiled in the picture, their segmented feet protruding unrestrainedly to the edge of the canvas. The "Metamorphoses" chapter here includes a number of Ma Ke's paintings in black and white, with extremely simplified animals and human bodies, seemingly as a response to Cubism, but also as a game between the artist and his own experience of nearly thirty years of painting, and the tradition.




Monkey and Beetle

By BAO Dong


Ma Ke’ s paintings have undergone a series of metamorphoses to become intellectually rewarding, stylistically straightforward, restrained yet theatrical and humorous simultaneously. Before that, his works appeared to be somewhat “fierce”, especially his paintings of human figures. At present, the artist awakens the audience’s curiosity about painting using his most simplified artistic language. 


The idea of painting with the theme of Journey to the West is not because of its novelty but because it is a distinctly familiar theme to audiences. It did not take Ma Ke too much effort to paint the four striking figures — Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, Tang Sanzang, and Sha Wujing; all he needed to do was to emphasize the symbolic differences between them: the magical staff, the big ears, the steed being ridden, the bulky luggage on the shoulders. Those figures can be recognized immediately by the viewers whose focus would then easily move to the artist’s artistic language.  


Moreover, Ma Ke’ s paintings help construct a visual language that is dimensionally different, which includes the techniques of blocking, flatly applied paint, and outlining. The artist minimizes the degree of reproduction, with which the geometric, low-definition visual manifestation however elevates the intensity of the paintings— an intensity that develops cognitive abilities. Ma Ke deals with paintings at their most fundamental depth; that being said, his paintings help construct a model — in the same way that the most extensive studies of humanities and social sciences are undertaken — which forms the basis of style and freedom of expression. Ma Ke’ s allegorical work “Journey to the West: Plato’s Cave” embodies his philosophy of painting. Where the four figures (the master and his disciples) appear in a cave in the shape of a silhouette of Plato’s portrait, the conditions of reproducing and being reproduced are formed and a reflection on such conditions emerges, all of which have reached an agreement in terms of subject and theme.


Concurrent with his “Journey to the West” series, Ma Ke created a series of paintings in black, white, and gray tones with animal and human figures as subject matters, accompanied by a response to Cubism, especially to Picasso’s art. However, the series is more reminiscent of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Although he does not draw on the imagery of the beetle in the novel, Ma Ke’ s narrative is as straightforward as the novel which is narrated in precise language that is defined by practical terms. Undoubtedly, he is convinced of the validity of the world of painting, through which he is showcasing the possibilities of the unique world to us. These monochromatic paintings composed of polyhedra, outlines and empty background constantly challenge the viewers’ way of perception, thus allowing the viewers to persistently switch between illusion and reality, space and plane, representational art and abstract art in agreement with the connection between the eye and the brain.


The images, including those of Journey to the West and animals and human figures, simply serve as models and objects; they are constantly assembled, dissembled, and reassembled. In this way, Ma Ke’ s works are characterized by a sense of playful self-sufficiency in the same way that engineering, music composition, and lyrics writing are done where it is all about order, characteristic form, adaptation, and deviation. At the same time, these paintings reveal signs of struggle in various places, traces of alteration and overlays, and an attempt to redo the same subject matter, all of which suggest that the artist has constantly challenged the traditional norms of painting.


The reason for such a literary title for the exhibition is that we intended to offer an immersive scene to the audience. Meanwhile, artists need to draw on subject matters to create art. However, one can view those paintings on display as an entertaining anecdote: what Tang Sanzang and his disciples experienced has constantly changed, including so much suffering as a result of attacks from various monsters and calamities, however, everything is ultimately for the sake of gain of knowledge (truth). 



MA Ke, born in Zibo, Shandong in 1970. He graduated from Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts, Painting Department, BA in 1994 and teaching at Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts, Oil Painting Department until to 2002. Then he graduated from Central Academy of Fine Arts, MFA. Between 1998-1999, he seconded to the Ministry of Culture and posted to Eritrea as a teacher. Currently lives, works in Beijing.


Bao Dong born in Anhui in 1979, graduated from the Art History Department of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in 2006. He is an active art critic and curator of the new generation in China, co-founder and artistic director of Beijing Contemporary Art Fair.