Context and Logic The Art Career of Zhu Wei
In the field of contemporary Chinese ink painting, Zhu Wei plays an important role with his works involve a in a variety of themes, which not only have a clear developmental trajectory and artistic language, but also reflect the change and breakthrough of contemporary Chinese ink painting and traditional Chinese Gongbi after 1989. For example, his works subverted and deconstructed the painting paradigm and aesthetic taste of traditional ink painting; in the post- 89 art movement and in the 1990s when Chinese contemporary painting were transforming. Zhu Wei's understanding of reality and current affairs and presentation of people's living condition and spiritual life expanded the depth and scope of contemporary Gongbi, and his emphasis of visual effects, aesthetic taste and image narrative brought new possibility to the development of contemporary Gongbi and ink painting. Zhu Wei's dialogue with the tradition, his knowledge of the tradition, and his quest of contemporary transformation of art language can be found in his works created after 2000. In his opinion, Chinese contemporary ink painting and Gongbi should develop in two ways: first, artists should get rid of the influence of Western art and create new and original art language and rhetoric on the basis of tradition and art history; second, artists should concern themselves with reality, culture and aesthetics, and keep up with social changes. In fact, in the past three decades, Zhu Wei, with intervention or alienation, was always thinking about the relationship between history and reality, traditional and contemporary society, system and individual, culture and language. Sometimes he was ambitious, and sometimes he was hesitated and suspicious. Of course, these problems have various facets, but due to the changes of history and social context, these problems cannot be resolved in any singular action by any artist. And these problems enable us to see the painting trajectory and inner logic of the artist.
Zhu Wei began his creation in the middle and late 1980s. At the beginning, he consciously integrated personal creation into the art history where the contemporary ink painting placed itself. Briefly, since the reform and opening-up of China, the development of contemporary ink isn't just an artistic issue, but also a social, cultural and even ideological one. Especially in the early 1980s, under the influence of the reflection of Cultural Revolution, modernized revolution, and Western modern and postmodern culture, contemporary ink painting bore an important cultural mission— to reverse and alienate socialist realism, to reject and deconstruct traditional ink painting, and to accept and absorb Western modern art and post-modern art language. These artistic and cultural demands are not separated but interwoven.
In the early stage of his artistic creation, Zhu Wei faces three transforming forces of contemporary ink painting in the 1980s. The first is to pursue the construction of modernity— the modern transformation of theme, language, aesthetic taste and painting paradigm and then endow them with contemporary cultural connotation. This wave of changes took place in the mid-1980s. The second is subversion and deconstruction. At first sight, this artistic thought was influenced by Dadaism and postmodern deconstructionist thought, but its inner power came from the "anti-traditionalist" trend in the 1980s. In fact, these enlightenment thoughts basically reached a consensus on "anti- traditionalist" in the 1980s. The consensus formed a concerted effort that derived into a distinctive sense of rebellion in the field of ink painting: to completely abandon the painting paradigm and artistic flavour of traditional ink painting and explore its new possibilities with an attitude of experimentation and deconstruction. The third tendency is "new literati painting", which emphasizes personal taste, sense of humor, satire and parody to digest the depth of history and reality, resulting in a strong sense of civility. "New literati painting" neither overcame its own cultural limitations nor developed into a constructive artistic force. But its deliberate gesture, including satire and parody, had an impact on cynical realism in the early 1990s.
In the Imitating Zhu Da series, viewers can unveil Zhu Wei's thoughts and responses on the changes of contemporary ink painting in the 1980s. Although he was a student at the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Academy of Art, he had been thinking about the inevitable fission of traditional ink painting in contemporary cultural context and expressed his ideas in personalized ways. In this series, Zhu Wei gave up the traditional taste and liberated the noumenon, making his works more inclined to a modern expression. His emphasis on the plane means the rejection of the narrative function of traditional ink painting, which paved the way for the change of his paintings in the 1990s. In fact, in Western modern artistic logic or the context of contemporary Chinese painting, one method of the construction of modern art language, is the return to language and plane. Only the liberated and independent language can resist the narrative function undertaken by ink painting in its past traditions and the ideological discourse behind the concrete language system. As can be seen from the works in this period, Zhu Wei was more in favour of the subversion and reconstruction of ink painting. At the same time, those narratives formed by the daily discourse embodied the artist's nonchalance and ridicule attitude rather than consider the visual composition of the painting. Is this a response to "new literati painting"?
After 1990, methodology to reconcile with the relationship between personal painting and tradition from the perspective of language, form and narrative and how to explore the possibility and tension between them formed an important development clue of Zhu Wei's art career. For example, in the different types of works such as Beijing Story Colorful Sketch series (1991), Racing Horse on a Rainy Night series (1997), Great Water (2000) and China Diary series (2001), Zhu Wei not only absorbed elements in traditional Chinese murals and Gongbi paintings, but also drew from the languages and schemas of Han Huang, Guo Xi, Ma Yuan, Zhu Da and many other masters. For these languages and schemas, the purpose of the artist is neither imitating nor borrowing. Instead, these languages and schemas formed a visual representation, or a hint that showed the relationship with the visual mechanism and viewing habit of the traditional painting. In New Positions of the Brocade Battle series (1994), The Story of Sister Zhao (1994) and other works, there was a correlation with the "model play" of the Cultural Revolution in the respect of visual expression, which formed an intercontextuality to the works. If there was a relationship with the old tradition in Racing Horse on a Rainy Night and Great Water, then what was shown in The Story of Sister Zhao was a "new tradition", that is, the artist deconstructed the "encoded" visual and image resources which have ideological meanings after the founding of new China; he then re-encoded them and presented them in a new structure and narrative discourse. Of course, for Zhu Wei, the ultimate goal of the intersection with the tradition was still the personal expression in the context formed between the ancient and the modern, the tradition and the present, history and reality. From this point of view, Zhu Wei's painting is always narrative. The most representative work is New Pictures of the Strikingly Bizarre series created in 1994. Although the image and schema are born out of the tradition, but the story is about current things related to reality.
"I've been working on ink painting for 30 years and my painting techniques and painting materials are closely related to traditional Chinese painting. But my paintings are focusing on contemporary subjects. So I've never thought that traditional painting and contemporary painting can be separated. I pursue the policy of making the past serve the present", Zhu Wei once said in an interview.["Zhu Wei: We Can Only Learn Painting Techniques and the Use of Materials but not Spirit", Song Rui ]
Chinese contemporary art, including contemporary ink painting, has been focusing on the transformation of art language since 1980. And many artists have contributed a lot to this attempt. Indeed, artists have different ideas on the formation of art language and inner logic. For that matter, some artists focus on traditional Chinese art; some focus on the inner logic of art history; some focus on Western modern and post-modern art; some focus on the methodology of art creation. Zhu Wei uses traditional ways to construct the inner logic of his art language, even though he is influenced by deconstructing the nature of works. The paradox is that in the value system of Chinese contemporary art, the contemporary construction of language gives way to the narrative of the society. On the one hand, Chinese contemporary art needs to complete the linguistic turn, that is, in the discourse of "aesthetic modernity", form its own idioms and rhetoric to build a language system which is different from that of Europe and the United States. On the other hand, since 1980, the narrative of the society has become the dominant direction in the wave of "reflection of the Cultural Revolution", "emancipating the mind" and "cultural enlightenment". Thus, aesthetic narrative and sociological narrative are always in the state of game and encouragement, which was fully embodied in the seesaw struggle and confrontation between the purification of language and the need of the times for the soul in the mid-1980s. Of course, the inner reason is that Chinese contemporary art lacks a linear and self-disciplined modernist system that relies on the development of language, and it is based on the context of art history. Due to the innate deficiency, it is impossible to complete the construction of contemporary art system relying solely on language changes or "aesthetic avant-garde". In other words, sociological narrative or "cultural avant-garde" still dominated the value appeal of contemporary art. This feature was reflected most vividly by "political pop" and "cynical realism" in the early 1990s.
Zhu Wei starts to intentionally add sociological expressions to his works such as Comrades Caption (1993), The Story of Beijing (1993) and Sweet Life series (1994) in his 1993-1994 compositions. In Comrades Caption, the objective presentation of the soldier is completely upended while in The Story of Beijing and Sweet Life, "contemporary subjects" are closely represented in a calm way. In fact, the changes in social and cultural circumstances and artistic context in the early 1990s also indicated the changes in the creation of Chinese contemporary art. China undoubtedly became the focus of Europe and the United States after experiencing the changes from 1989 to 1992, especially in the context of the fall of Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. In the field of art, the Modern Art Exhibition in 1989 marked the decline of the modern fine arts, because when the early cultural criticism could not find the answer in reality, it naturally meant the decline of the grand and lofty modernist narrative which is full of enlightenment ideas. At that time, it was not by accident that in Zhu Wei's paintings featured soldiers, intellectuals and Chairman Mao, but his creation was always at a certain distance from the wave of "political pop". This sense of distance, on the one hand, was reflected in the expression of the image. "Political pop" mostly used the image processing methods of juxtaposition and borrowing and paid attention to the differences and conflicts between different images in politics, culture, consumption, visual expression and other semantic categories. Zhu Wei would not directly borrow or copy the existing image but would pay more attention to personal and original image expression. On the other hand, it was reflected in the different meaning appeals of the works. "Political Pop" concentrated on Chairman Mao and most involved the figures and various types of images in the period of Cultural Revolution, but Zhu Wei's works involved more intellectuals, soldiers, or ordinary people. For the artist, the image was not the goal since he was more concerned about these people with different classes and identities as well as the change in living conditions or personal values in the rapid social changes in the 1990s. From this perspective, "Political Pop" is closer to the Western post-modern art, such as "New Dada", while Zhu Wei's paintings, despite the humor and satire, diffused a strong taste of realism.
Of course, it was not that Zhu Wei relied on the interpretation of society, but the artist could not avoid social changes and reality in China. For the contemporary art in the 1990s, the criticism of the language alone cannot fully grasp the pulse of the society in that era: it will appear weak in objective reality. In Descended from the Red Flag (1994), Sweet Life (1994), The Square series (1996) and other works, there is no doubt that the images and expressions related to rock and roll, pop culture, and urban consumerism constructed a context of era, but Zhu Wei's expression on the reality was not a "mirror"; on the contrary, in the humorous atmosphere hid a profound and critical perspective. For example, the carnival of rock and roll shows aphasia; the consumer society brings alienation despite the longing of people; the "Square" is lofty but erodes personality. Obviously, Zhu Wei was always a calm observer of the changes the Chinese society. Sometimes, he was also like an "outsider" as he always kept a certain distance from the reality and society and was always vigilant against popular values. In the middle of the 1990s, Zhu Wei finished one of his most important painting—China•China (1997). It depicts Deng Xiaoping, the father of the reform and opening-up policy and one of the founders of China's socialist construction, who has an enormous influence on contemporary China. From this work we can see his reflection on Chinese society.
If one should study Zhu Wei's repertoire of works created after the 1990s, one would fine that the themes would naturally converge into a huge contemporary Chinese social landscape. They point to reality and the spirit with grand and fragmented expression. But the main theme is still the representation of the actual and spiritual situation of people. Utopia series is Zhu Wei's representative work after 2000. In those paintings, conventioneers, though bored, listen respectfully but they have no right to declare their opinions. They are outsiders if they cannot vote. "Utopia" shows a special social class, who are familiar with a political discourse and accustomed to uniform, collective life, and certain rule, but they are categorized and disciplined without personality. If Utopia is a miniature of the Chinese people's political life, then in Box, Sweet Life and other works, audiences saw another secularized survival landscape—micro, daily life which is full of desire. About these works, Zhu Wei said, "I painted my own world and my own experience, and as long as you open your eyes to look at any street in Beijing, read the newspaper, or watch TV, you will find it." In fact, the absurd of the reality and the awkwardness of survival perfectly fit Zhu Wei's painting style which compromises exaggeration, joking and uncoordinated shape.
After 2000, in a very natural phenomenon, contemporary art began to bid farewell to the trend and movement; much like the time when an artistic trend followed one another that is observed since the 1980s, forming a linear developmental track in artistic movement. This essentially means that the contemporary art since the 1980s, especially the kind of contemporary art (or modern art) that was grandly narrated and had a prerequisite of language in the period of modern fine arts and the kind of cynicism-appealed contemporary art that satirized politics in the 1990s, gradually lost the dependent cultural context and avant-garde. Especially in the irreversible tide of globalization, with the increase in international art exchange and the gradual maturity of the biennial exhibition mechanism, Chinese artists began to face a new problem, that is, what's the characteristics of rhetoric and expression of Chinese contemporary art compared to Western modern and contemporary art and whether Chinese contemporary art have its own idiom, language and pedigree. In addition to the anxiety from the language, Chinese contemporary art needs to eradicate the creative strategies dominated by western standards and postcolonial taste since 1990 and explore new ways for contemporary art.
After the Utopia series, Zhu Wei stops painting for several years. He is, in his own words, very anxious. "I think that ink painting, in its process of development, must stick with tradition, otherwise it will not be ink painting sooner or later", Zhu Wei once said in an interview. In his opinion, "I've been working on ink painting for years and I think I should make some breakthrough. But at last I haven't done anything so meaningful. Then I think there must be some problems with contemporary art—I'm not the only artist who is not creative. Chinese contemporary art is only in the exploration stage. Our main task is to stay active." The work Curtain series in 2008 marked an important transformation of Zhu Wei's creation, which on the one hand was the correction of the previous sociological narrative method and on the other hand was the turn of language, that is, return to the tradition, to look for a new personalized expression.
From the perspective of cultural ecology, the tradition should be "four in one", which is reflected in the implements aspect of physical form, body aspect of practice and communication, institutional aspect of ethics and norm, as well as spiritual aspect of aesthetics and temperament. In Zhu Wei's view, the return to the tradition and learning from the tradition means that the artist should really mine the connotation and spirit behind the traditional schema, language, and style, and build new idiom and rhetoric under the guidance of new ideas and methods. The Curtain series reduced the use of ink and more relied on fine brushwork. The so-called turn of language is showed by dispelling the concrete content so as to get rid of the sociological discourse brought by the image, and in the process of the continuous purification of language, form became purer and simpler, relying on the line to intensify the abstract expression. Of course, what Zhu Wei pursued was not the abstraction in the sense of Western modernism. Western painting in the early stage of modernism emphasizes "meaningful form", and in the heyday stresses the personal and original abstract schema full of elite consciousness. That is to say, the abstract schemas are completely selfdisciplined, and they have nothing to do with nature and reality. However, in the Chinese painting world, the abstraction of the form is essentially the process that the creation subjects go toward the nature and understand objects. And different from the west, the subject and the object are not split nor in binary opposition, but on the contrary, they show the cognitive way of subject's pursuit of reason and insight into the nature. Dating back to the tradition, the "investigate things" and "acquire knowledge" in the Northern Song Dynasty deeply reflected the wisdom of such philosophy and art. In Zhu Wei's art career, his dialogue with the tradition, his learning from the tradition, and his seeking of contemporary transformation of language can be found in his earlier works, including Great Water series created in 2000.
His The Ink and Wash Research Lectures series continued the previous creative idea, but he injected image elements. Image is actually an important source of the significance generation of the work. As can be seen, Zhu Wei was still very tangled on form and content, language and meaning. The root of the problem, as previously stated, existed as early as the mid-1980s when "purify language" and "big soul" confronted. In other words, in the Chinese contemporary art pedigree without modernist tradition, only the concept expression of language is unable to complete the construction of the mansion of meaning. So, in The Ink and Wash Research Lectures series, it is not difficult to understand why Zhu Wei tried to seek for a balance between the form and image, language and meaning. In this series, there are three types of images, of which the most clear is the figure and rockery. In Zhu's paintings, the figures are generally dull, at a loss and they are very similar to each other from their faces to their gestures. It is clear that this is a group of people without personality. The source of these figures is not clear, but from their dress and look, they come from a same social class. Zhu Wei did not clearly explain whether they are the intellectuals or belong to the middle-class. For these works, the artist once said, "Over the past two or three decades, Chinese people's living environment has changed a lot. Many people have experienced jazz, bar, loan, mortgage and the like, but in fact, there is no relief in the ambition, and people have become tired, no longer passionate like the past. It seems that we are all enduring this state. So what I painted is just the state of enduring." Rockery in the sense of image will not be accompanied by clear social information, so, compared with the works of figure, it can more highlight the expressive force of language.
Since 2013, "new ink painting" and "new Gongbi" have been the integral part of Chinese contemporary art movement. But there is no clear definition of "new". However, there must be a frame of reference. It is traditional ink painting and traditional Gongbi. Actually, on mentioning traditional ink painting and traditional Gongbi, we not only refer to art form, art language, but also artistic and cultural system which is already complete after hundreds years' development. From this perspective, "new" things should be considered in the context of art history. How to create "new" art? Whether through language, rhetoric and methodology of art creation or through media, aesthetics and theme? Zhu Wei doesn't care whether his works are "new Gongbi" or "new ink painting". He keeps current art trend at a distance. As for the inner logic of art language, he is seeking for a way to stick with tradition without being fettered by tradition. He wants to make a breakthrough no matter how small it is.
In his work The Ink and Wash Research Lectures, he tried to paint on newspapers but still used the traditional ink-based rendering technique. The newspaper itself carried a variety of information, which was hidden or significant after rendering, so it was integrated into the meaning system of the work. Similarly, rockery can be seen as a symbol of Chinese traditional culture, but in the The Ink and Wash Research Lectures, it is the object of gaze. Rockery, together with the bright red curtain, clearly and directly transmits the unique Chinese visual tastes and cultural characteristics. Because in this series of works, the red curtain, as the carrier of abstract form, is both visual and full of ideology and can also bear the unconscious visual and cultural psychology of contemporary Chinese collective. From this point of view, regardless of figure or rockery, when they appear before the red curtain, the two images and visual meanings are in a state of confrontation. But for Zhu Wei, this image narrative is not important. What is important is that through his paintings people can feel the cultural and aesthetic experience of contemporary Chinese people.
He Guiyan, famous art critic and curator. Graduated from CAFA with a Doctor's degree, he is the professor and director of Art Theory Department of Sichuan Fine Arts Institute.