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Zhu Wei’s Recent Work:

From Strange and Sardonic to Strange and Bland


Britta Erickson


Zhu Wei and Chen Hongshou

I have not had the privilege of meeting Zhu Wei, but having seen his paintings and now having read through many of his published essays, I very much look forward to doing so. His writings and imagery both lead me to expect him to be a contemporary version of the late Ming artist Chen Hongshou (陈洪?, 1599-1652), an extremely talented painter who thrived outside the artistic mainstream. I even am beginning to imagine Zhu looking a bit like the Ming artist in his self-portrait (the scholarly self-portrait, not the drunken and disheveled one), slightly aloof and swathed within a cocoon-like long robe.

Both Zhu Wei and Chen Hongshou came to their profession via a circuitous route, and both have adapted elements of archaic figure painting in order to express their alienation from the mainstream, as well as the value they place on maintaining their integrity as individuals. The archaism hints at a disjuncture with the present, as if the deep past was a purer era. There is the sense that they are out of step with their times, observing and understanding but not participating in contemporary movements.

Chen Hongshou had aspired to follow the family career as a scholar-official, but he failed the provincial examination that would have opened the door to such a position. Instead he became a professional painter, a status beneath that to which he had aspired. He painted figures, and developed a mannered personal style that, at its most extreme, included distorted facial features and body proportions. Zhu Wei avoided the medical career his family urged on him by joining the army, in 1982. A few years later he entered the PLA Art Academy in Beijing, where he received a rigorous and predictably doctrinaire art education (graduated 1989). Upon completing his stint in the army he studied at the Beijing Film Academy (graduated 1993), and afterwards finally became an independent artist. Zhu Wei’s painted figures are guai 怪, or strange, in the extreme. Their grotesquerie would be admired, were they rocks or roots or other such objects treasured and collected by Chinese scholars. Unlike Chen Hongshou, who frequently created complex settings for his figures, Zhu Wei tends to zero in on the figure, and often on the face, rather in the manner of a film close-up. Thus, it is impossible to avoid the distorted, blocky features of Zhu Wei’s stocky figures. With their big lips, jowly cheeks, and squared-off foreheads, many of Zhu Wei’s figures elicit pity: they seem adrift, disconnected from their environment. His most recent works, the Hills Beyond a River, Ink and Wash Research Lectures, and Study of People series (2005-2012), comprise bust views of single figures. The quality of those figures remains essentially guai, while at one point achieving a fascinatingly elusive state of blandness or the Neutral (as Barthes terms it—explained below).

The Hills Beyond a River series

The title of Zhu Wei’s ongoing series, Hills Beyond a River, is taken from James Cahill’s book, Hills Beyond a River: Chinese Painting of the Yüan Dynasty, 1279-1368. Although Zhu is a figure painter, he is also an adept landscape painter, and long ago had aimed to complete a master’s degree in landscape painting.[1] In the past few years, many high profile figure painters who work in oil or acrylic on canvas have turned their hand to landscape painting. There is a new trend among artists to seek both imagery and inspiration among the major monuments of Chinese art history, most notably the great landscapes of the past. This tendency has been encouraged by a flurry of large exhibitions on the theme of Shanshui (landscape). Although he has the training to create landscapes Zhu Wei has not chosen to participate in this trend, keeping to the genre of figure painting. His nod to historical landscapes is restricted to the title Hills Beyond a River, which he likes because it conveys a sense of alienation. The phrase originated to describe a typical landscape painting composition developed and favored during the Yuan dynasty by such noted artists as Ni Zan 倪? (1306-1374). It featured a foreground land element backed by a wide stretch of water and, in the distance, hills. The two land elements are eternally separated, hence the implied sense of loneliness or alienation. In the case of Ni Zan, the landscape elements became farther apart as he aged.

Paintings in Zhu Wei’s Hills Beyond a River series each portray a single figure from the chest up, against a flat background of patternized water. There is no distant group of hills, and only a few bear any hint of a setting beyond the flat background of flowing water: the figure is completely isolated. One figure has his jacket unbuttoned and holds chopsticks poised, ready for action . . . but we see no dish of food waiting to be savored. Another figure is clearly identifiable: a bust portrait of Joseph Stalin (1879-1953), the Soviet Union dictator responsible for the deaths of ten to twenty million people, is backed by the patternized water familiar from other Hills Beyond a River paintings. His image is as particular as the other figures are nondescript. Stalin’s familiar uniform with gold epaulettes seems more solid and lasting than his head, whose feature are faded, and eyes closed: the individual fades in history, but the powerful role represented by the uniform endures.

The Ink and Wash Research Lectures series

With tongue in cheek Zhu Wei named his most recent series the Ink and Wash Research Lectures series 水墨研究课徒系列. The title has a scholarly flavor, and there are serious issues behind the series, but they have nothing to do with ink and wash. Instead, the series is concerned with contemporary society in China, and the potential for social instability. China has now experienced three decades of reform and opening-up policies, resulting in a higher standard of living and increased expectations. Thirty years ago everyone held great hope for the future; during the last ten years, however, it has become evident that the rigid power structure remains, corruption has established such deep roots that no-one expects a fair chance at anything, the distance between rich and poor is growing ever wider, and the country’s extreme commercialism ensures that no-one is ever satisfied. As Zhu Wei has remarked, “In the past we based our development on the over consumption of natural resources. In the future, however, there will be no more resources to consume, so our development pattern will transfer into a hundred tricks. With tricks being played, political stability will be very important and the foundation of everything. One of the central aims of the government will be social stability. The aim of the Ink and Wash Research Lectures series is to depict and track the social changes of this period. The figure wearing a microphone is a ‘stability maintenance’ person such as you can see everywhere in the streets. It is a real portrait of China. Tourists who make a short stay in China won’t notice that easily.”[2]

The fact that the title of the Ink and Wash Research Lectures series completely avoids the paintings’ subject mirrors the fact that the subject—the widespread unease identified by Zhu Wei—is rarely discussed. So far Zhu Wei has painted only four works in this series, but he sees it as a long-term project. Ink and Wash Research Lectures No. 1 depicts a passive, stolid man with a tiny receiver tucked behind his ear, set against a background of red drapery. The receiver and red background suggest that he is working in the service of government forces, listening dispassionately to comments and instructions relayed to him as a monitor of public safety, or a “stability maintenance” worker. He could, however, be anybody, as almost everybody contributes mindlessly to “stability maintenance” through compliant behavior. People each have a role to play, and they are resigned to accept it even though in doing so they subject themselves to the ongoing and widely shared stress of life without self-determination. The almost identical figure (but with hair parted in a different place) in Ink and Wash Research Lectures No. 2 has his eyes closed, and appears to have reached a state of emotionless calm akin to that of a Buddha. Rather than Buddhist mindfulness, however, it is a state of mindless attentiveness to the instructions issuing from the receiver in his ear. We can read the receiver and its instructions as a metaphor for the unstated rules that govern life in China. Although those rules remain unvoiced, or may be only whispered, they nevertheless carry weighty, oppressive power.

The Study of People series

If we compare the passive, emotionless, unattractive, lumpen protagonist of the Ink and Wash Research Lectures series with similar precursors, we see that although he looks much the same as the key figure in other series, he appears older and tired, he sports the tidily combed hair style typical of Chinese authority figures, and he is garbed in power red, with a red backdrop—a refrain of the red drapery isolated in the Red Flags series (2008-2010)—rather than the indigo or PLA green of, for example, the figures in the Hills Beyond a River and Study of People series. Study of People, painted during roughly the same years as the Ink and Wash Research Lectures and Hills Beyond a River series, is a study of a single person painted in identical three quarters view against a white ground, the only change between images other than clothing being a slight indication of aging: the lines from beside the nose to the corners of the mouth become more pronounced. We can trace this passive, emotionless bald male figure (The artist? Maybe yes, maybe no.) back through Zhu Wei’s oeuvre, to slightly different manifestations as early as 1998 Sweet Life No. 21. In 1998 Sweet Life No. 21 the protagonist looks slightly bemused: by 2012 he is utterly still. We can consider the rendering of the subject in the Study of People series as the epitome of blandness in figural painting.


It is ironic that a painter with such a talent for satire should arrive at a superlative visual representation of the bland, dan 淡, an achievement generally reserved for scholarly landscape painters. In Chinese figure painting, such extreme blandness was only common in posthumous ancestor portraits. This is because the latter paintings were executed by a lower class of painters who had never seen their subjects, with the solemn function of commemorating the deceased. By contrast, according to the Yuan scholar-painter par excellence Zhao Mengfu 赵孟? (1254-1322), “In painting human figures, excellence lies in capturing character (xing 性) and emotion (qing 情).”[3] Regarding character, however, blandness was considered an ideal: “When a man’s character is plain and bland and does not exhibit any particular proclivities, then he is master of all his abilities and uses them most effectively: he adapts himself to all changes and never encounters an obstacle.”[4]

In his book In Praise of Blandness: Proceeding from Chinese Thought and Aesthetics, the French Sinologist Fran?ois Jullien (b. 1951) has noted that not only does the concept of blandness underlie multiple branches of Chinese philosophy; it also was a desirable quality in the music, poetry, and painting of various periods.[5] Throughout his career Zhu Wei has demonstrated a strong interest in painting of the Yuan dynasty, the era during which blandness came to represent the pinnacle of artistic achievement. Yuan scholar-painter Ni Zan’s landscapes epitomize the concept of blandness in painting, stripped bare of any hint of excess, with little variation in ink tone, no dramatic brushstrokes, and calm minimalistic and repetitive compositions. The value of blandness or, as French philosopher Roland Barthes (1915-1980) terms it, the Neutral, lies in the state of the Neutral as poised on the brink of becoming. It could become one thing or another: the vast potential vanishes the moment the Neutral commits to a defined state. Referring to the work of Swiss semiotician Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), Barthes has stated, “the paradigm is the wellspring of meaning; where there is meaning, there is paradigm, and where there is paradigm (opposition), there is meaning è elliptically put: meaning rests on conflict (the choice of one term against another), and all conflict is generative of meaning: to choose one and refuse the other is always a sacrifice made to meaning, to produce meaning, to offer it to be consumed.”[6] The neutral is “everything that outplays {déjoue} the paradigm” or “baffles the paradigm.”[7]

Contemporary Figure Painting and Blandness

Blandness is anathema to contemporary art, where superlatives are common and artists pursue the shocking so as to capture the attention of jaded viewers. And it is not just that viewers are jaded: attention spans seem to shortening as the volume of visual cues skyrockets due to the ubiquity of online culture and the saturation of the city environment with signage. Figure painting in particular eschews the bland. In China this is largely because contemporary Chinese figure painting is the descendent of nineteenth century European academic realism on the one hand, and that same academic realism altered to be an effective propaganda tool in the form of socialist realism. As a result of the May Fourth Movement, early twentieth century art students traveled to Europe for an education. Upon their return to China some sought to meld academic realism with Chinese ink painting. Zhu Wei rues this “reform” or bastardization of ink painting, writing, “I do not think we should be grateful to the ‘returnee artists’ who were devoted to reforming the ink painting tradition. I wish they had never returned. If only they had built the courage to reform western oil painting . . . even if Picasso and Matisse might have kicked them out of the country.”[8] In the mid-twentieth century, the promulgation of socialist realism distorted realism via the addition of dramatic modeling and lighting as well as other tools for emotional manipulation: the same look and feel were deliberately—as a matter of policy—imported into figure painting with the Chinese brush in ink and color on paper. For Zhu Wei to move decisively away from verisimilitude and emotional drama in pursuit of the Neutral is a major step. A few figures approaching this neutral state appear in Fang Lijun’s 方力钧 (b. 1963) paintings from around 1990, but Zhu Wei’s push toward absolute blandness in figure painting is unique. If it was difficult for landscape painters to achieve blandness in the fourteenth century when they shared their values with a small coterie of like-minded individuals, how much more difficult it must be for a twenty-first century figure painter to do so. This is both because we live in a time when there is a widespread yen for stimulation and sensationalism, and because the painter must be more personally invested in the subject, a human being, either like or unlike himself.

Zhu Wei and Early Chinese Painting

Zhu Wei’s approach to the Neutral in recent years is made more interesting by a consideration of his preceding works. From 1988, when he quoted Bada Shanren’s 八大山人 (1626-1705) brushwork in the lead up to his first major series, Beijing Story, he has consistently referenced widely recognized artists and paintings of the past, most often to sardonic effect. His Racing Horse on a Rainy Night, No. 2 and No. 3 (1997), for example, are postmodern pastiches directly quoting the horse and groom in Zhao Mengfu’s album leaf Training a Horse, and incorporating elements of contemporary culture such as a bicycle and inscribed lyrics from the rock star Cui Jian’s 崔健 (b. 1961) “Opportunist” 投机分子 (Touji fenzi). A variant on the Emperor Huizong’s 徽宗 (1082-1135) painting of a parrot wears a protective mask in Zhu’s SARS-era painting, The Heavenly Maiden No. 27 (2003)—the intrusion of a deadly modern disease into the emperor’s vision of a perfect natural world. Court painter Li Song’s 李嵩 (active 1190-1230) resplendent and meticulously rendered Flower Basket makes an appearance in several of Zhu’s Utopia (2001-2005) series paintings where they contrast with such disappointingly prosaic symbols of contemporary post “communist utopian” society as red flags, mandatory meetings, and red neck scarves. Everything from Tang court ladies (Comrades, 1995) to Bada’s fish (Diary of the Sleepwalker No. 24, 1998; South Sea No. 1, 2000) to communist martyrs and political figures (Deng Xiaoping in China China, 1997) are fodder for Zhu Wei’s art, where ironic juxtaposition plays a major role.

Social Commentary

In the early 1990s Zhu’s many humorously disrespectful images of Mao Zedong, PLA soldiers, communist martyrs, and the like brought him close to the widely promoted Cynical Realism and Political Pop movements, but he remained outside. Perhaps his touch was too light, perhaps it was that no ink painters found their way into those movements, or perhaps it was a matter of social circles: as a PLA trained artist Zhu Wei was not well acquainted with artists who had undergone a more mainstream education, for example at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and he chose to remain outside of Beijing’s art circles. In later years he continued to make social-political statements, for example depicting Tiananmen Square as a turbulent ocean stage for dramatic political events (The Square series, 1995-1996). In his paintings and essays, he frequently employs metaphor to make a point, drawing on common experiences such as the appreciation of varieties of cabbage, or fond memories of films seen decades in the past.

The Study of People series presents an exceedingly powerful metaphor. To represent China’s Everyman as existing in a bland state, in the Neutral, implies that Chinese society is at a point where it could be tipped in any direction. Until the future direction is determined there is unlimited potential. All that is needed to commit that society to move in a particular direction, however, is just a very tiny push, and it will be irrevocably set on a new course. Who can say whether that will be for the good or bad of future generations? The Ink and Wash Research Lectures series highlights the unspoken dread people feel about the future: they instinctively sense the negative potential of the moment. Juxtaposed, these two series magnify one another’s power. In the end it appears that referring to an attitude of past painting masters—the Yuan ideal of blandness—can carry even more meaning than the quotation of imagery or brush manner. Transplanting Yuan austerity into the raucous contemporary era requires great perspicacity. This is in accord with a Yuan ideal of purpose in art, as stated by the scholar Tang Hou 汤后 (active early 14th century), who noted, “When the ancients painted, they all had profound concepts. As they nurtured their ideas and manipulated their brushes, there was not one who did not have a purpose.”[9]

[1] 22 December 2012 email from Zhu Wei to the author.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Susan Bush and Hsio-yen Shih, Early Chinese Texts on Painting (Cambridge: Harvard-Yenching Institute, 1985), p. 271.

[4] Liu Shao 刘邵 (3rd c.), “Jiu zheng” 九徵 (Nine traits), in Renwuzhi 人物志 (The treatise on human abilities), I.1b, commentary by Liu Bing 刘?
 (fl. 386). Quoted in Fran?ois Jullien, In Praise of Blandness: Proceeding from Chinese Thought and Aesthetics, translated by Paula M. Varsano (New York: Zone Books, 2004), p. 60.

[5] Jullien, ibid.

[6] Roland Barthes, The Neutral: Lecture Course at the College de France (1977-1978) (New York: Columbia Press, 2007), p. 7.

[7] Barthes, ibid., p. 6.

[8] Zhu Wei, 野火烧不尽 春风 吹不活 “Wildfire Will Not Extinguish It, the Spring Breeze Will Not Revive It . . . ,” 《HI 艺术》 HIART (May 2008).

[9] Tang Hou 汤后, Hua lun 画论, translated in Susan Bush and Hsio-yen Shih, Early Chinese Texts on Painting (Cambridge: Harvard-Yenching Institute, 1985), p. 258.


(First published on Zhu Wei: Works 1988-2012 , China Today Art Museum Publishing House, January 2013, p.20)

Britta Erickson is a scholar and curator whose work focuses on contemporary Chinese art. She has taught at Stanford University and University of California, Berkley.
















朱伟正在创作的系列作品题为《隔江山色》,出自高居翰的著作《隔江山色:元代绘画(1279-1368年)》。朱伟虽是人物画家,却也擅长山水画,先前还曾计划攻读山水画硕士学位[1]。近几年,很多之前以布面油画或丙烯为材料的高调人物画家,转手画起了山水。艺术家们新近流行从中国艺术史上具有纪念碑式的意义的作品中,尤其是在古代的山水名画中寻找意象和灵感。以山水为主题规模巨大的展览风潮更是促进了这一流行。朱伟曾受过山水画的训练,他却不随波逐流,而坚守了人物画的创作。他对传统山水画的肯定仅限于为自己的系列作品选择《隔江山色》这一标题,而之所以喜欢这一标题,是因为它传达了一种疏离感。人们创造这个词汇,描述的是由元代著名艺术家如倪? (1306—1374年)等人兴起并发扬光大的一种经典山水画构图。这种构图的特点是,前景是大地元素,后面是广阔的水域,再远处则是山。两块土地永远两相分离,意味着孤独、疏离之感。至于倪瓒,他山水画里各种不同的元素则随着他年龄的增长,而愈加疏离。













考察朱伟早期作品,我们会发现近年来他对中性的靠近更加有趣。自1988年援用八大山人(1626-1705年)的笔法,创作早期主要作品《北京故事》系列以来,他持续广泛借鉴古代著名画家和画作,多追求讽刺效果。例如他的《雨夜跑马图 2号》和《雨夜跑马图3号》(1997年),就是直接引用赵孟?的《调良图》册页中的马和马夫,并融合自行车和摇滚明星崔健(生于1961年)歌曲《投机分子》的歌词等当代文化元素,创作的一支后现代主义混成曲。宋徽宗皇帝(1082-1135年)画的一只鹦鹉的变体戴着保护面具,出现在朱伟SARS时期作品《天女散花27号》中(2003年)——致命的现代疾病闯入了皇帝欣赏自然美景的视野。朱伟在他一些《乌托邦》系列作品(2001-2005年)中,引用了宫廷画家李嵩(活动于1190-1230年之间)华丽精美的设色“花篮”,这些花篮与当代 “后共产主义乌托邦”社会那些让人失望的乏味象征符号——如红旗、强制性会议和红领巾等——形成了鲜明对比。从唐朝宫廷仕女(《同志们》,1995年)到八大山人的鱼(《梦游手记24号》,1998年;《南海1号》,2000年),再到共产主义烈士和政治人物(《中国中国》里的邓小平,1997年),都是朱伟以反讽性并置为主体的艺术创作的养料。