ZHU WEI THE “BLACK SHEEP” AND “RED ROCK ‘N ROLL”
The first encounter with the artist Zhu Wei is like the first glimpse of his art: it leaves a strong and lasting impression. Clearly, he is a young artist with an extremely rich personality and an independent, unrestricted soul. His eyes reveal the untamed recalcitrance of a renegade. Even in moments of quiet or solitude, he trembles with enthusiasm for art and human interaction.
The style and texture of his work, as well as his character, have matured to have an unmistakable character. From an ordinary point of view, Zhu Wei’s appearance including that of his works may not fit the conventional definition of “beauty”, but as an artist he is gifted with qualities most of his contemporaries lack.
Zhu Wei is twenty-eight years old, yet his life reflects China’s recent cultural and social upheavals. He was born in 1966, the first year of the disastrous “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”. He grew up in a climate of political hysteria amidst the infamous “struggle sessions”, “self-criticism sessions”, public tribunals, Mao’s “little red book” and the Red Guards’ slogans. He joined the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at the tender age of sixteen to undergo a Spartan training. In 1985 he as admitted into the PLA Art Academy for further professional training. This coincided with the emergence of new trends and ideas in Chinese art. In 1989 his graduation coincided again with another cultural caesura, this time marked by the implosion of an entire generation’s artistic idealism. All these particular upheavals, personal and collective, forced him to allow his thought process to transgress the limits of individual experience and to focus his artistic view on the reality of the here and now.
Zhu Wei is of the same age as the post-89 generation of painters. He shares with them the traits of being born in the sixties, a thorough academic education and a subsequent confrontation with an evermore complex socio-cultural environment, together with a feeling of powerlessness and bleakness. These factors have contributed to the gradual espousal of self-irony, mockery and cynical irreverence towards the world, which is evident in their forms of expression. Traditional socialist icons such as heroism, idealism, self-sacrifice and sense of history are nothing more than empty shells for them. Groundbreaking changes in social structure and common ideologies together with the disintegration of traditional Chinese belief have functioned as catalysts to their artistic reflections on past and present. Initially, they tended to adopt the cold and distanced attitude of the observer. They dissected society using the tools of sarcasm and mockery to depict reality and the tools of ennui and indifference to depict daily human activities. They juxtaposed reminiscences of the Cultural Revolution with the post-89 commercial culture in a highly ironic manner, or profaned “sacred” revolutionary symbols in an iconoclastic manner, by caricaturing and ridiculing them to reveal their absurdity. All this is representative of the post-89 movement of Cynical Realism and Political Pop. Zhu Wei is concerned not only with similar thematic elements but also means of expression.
His paintings also often carry mocking and playful overtones, however they differ in some important aspects from those of his contemporaries. I would characterize his attitude as half solemn, half farcical, but not devoid of a spiritual content with idealistic aspirations to purity. In the timeless figures and mysterious forms in his works, we are able to perceive underlying sacred elements. His ability to sense social change provides depth to his works, whereas his military experience lends them uncommon dignity. Ten years of life in the PLA with its iron discipline have left unmistakable marks on his personality. The particular importance he attributes to the soldier in his works is linked to that experience. The soldier appears not as the egoless, mechanical receiver of orders, but as an archetypal allegory for the human spirit of struggle. In this context he is capable of expressing independent consciousness and strong self-esteem, even to the point of possessing a certain mentality of resistance. In his works one is often confronted with visual signals from the world of PLA: tactical signs, uniform insignia, red stars and flags, and revolutionary slogans. This is mostly uncharted and neglected territory for his fellow artists. He, however, has interwoven these signals with his personal concern for society and life, as a means for translating his point of view.
When compared to other artists stemming from the post-89 movement, who have confronted themselves almost exclusively to oil techniques, Zhu Wei excels technically and stylistically in his mastery of the traditional gongbi techniques. However, one cannot draw easy comparisons between Zhu Wei and the establishment of gongbi painters. On the contrary, his paintings are clearly outside of the current gongbi mainstream. Zhu Wei’s artistic distinctiveness has undergone many successive stages of development, which all have strong links to the Chinese painting tradition. This holds true not only in terms of technique, but also in terms of inspiration. It is still impossible to label or to categorize him; not does he fit into any niche to which one would like to assign him. One can only characterize his gongbi style as a kind of “uncoordinated harmony”. If compared with the leading practitioners of gongbi, he is like a rebellious “black sheep”, charging out at full speed from the slow-trotting herd. However, this is not to say that there is no high artistic and qualitative achievement within the gongbi tradition. Theoretically, this art form is overburdened with “civilized” connotations, and appears to be an aseptic ivory tower, another world concerned mainly with visual beauty, nonconfrontational and idyllic in nature. It is the antithesis of Zhu Wei’s aesthetic character, which is full of vigour, raucousness and sarcasm. Placing Zhu Wei’s paintings and such mainstream art side by side could only result in nonsensical absurdity and have a destructive effect on standard forms of gongbi. His is to be praised for bringing certain modernist qualities to gongbi and for seeking to harmonize its currents with contemporary concepts of art. It is this contemporary “spirit” which has been neglected by modern gongbi painters.
Viewed from these angles, it is easier to understand the extent of Zhu Wei’s individualism. This however does not imply an individualism confined merely to expressions of personal experiences or emotions. He perceives his individualism as a vocal, visual and tangible reflection of Chinese society and the entity of human existence. He has always strived for a direct and objective view in his creative activities and explores everything with utmost sensitivity. Beginning with subtle changes perceived in modern urban life, he analyses changes in culture perception. One of his tasks while living in the PLA barracks was to produce huge billboards of political slogans for propaganda use; now the minds and visual fields of city dwellers in China are monopolized by commercial advertising billboards. This signifies a replacement of political characteristics with commercial ones. In this period of cultural conflict, the people are forced to make a painful choice: modern Western versus traditional Chinese culture. The Hutong and its low-walled yard or the steel-and-glass skyscraper, Peking Opera or Beijing Rock ‘n Roll, Imperial Cuisine in the Forbidden City or fast-food at McDonald’s - these are the paradoxes contributing to the rapidly emerging urban lifestyle and society. This is the thematic approach of Zhu Wei’s series of paintings called “Beijing Gushi” (“The Story of Beijing”). In these works, ancient and modern Chinese allegorically appear sharing the same space. He implies a social attitude and cultural characteristic which is a mixture of traditional aspects and modern consciousness.
Zhu Wei’s artistry possesses a strong sense of expression. This expression is not solely determined by the emotional quality of the brushstroke, but also by the individual qualities of the artist’s character. The peculiarity of Expressionism is the total absence of example to follow. The roots of expression lie within the individual qualities and biological characteristics of the painter. Comparisons can be drawn to the masters of Expressionism like Van Gogh, Munch, Soutine, Schiele, Nolde and Grosz. In Zhu Wei’s work one does not perceive the richness of emotion flowing through the conduit of brushwork so characteristic of expressionist works. However, in his seemingly calm, though unbalanced, application of colour, the viewer perceives an inherent violence and agitation, as well as unrepressed spiritual animation. These elements surface when he renders clothes and hair or become visible in structurally independent brushstrokes or in the way bright tones of red or green “jump out” from the aged and treated paper. The visual effects of these tense, emotionally provocative forms are comparable to the sound effect produced by the rough, throaty voice of Cui Jian, the well-known Beijing rock singer/composer. In his context, it is not inappropriate to dub Zhu Wei’s art as the “Red Rock ‘n Roll” of Chinese gongbi.
Technically, he faces a challenge with each attempt to extract these special expressionist qualities from the gongbi medium. Gongbi is a drawing technique requiring the use of fine, meticulously worked, precise brushstrokes. Zhu Wei’s work raids this “holy citadel”, aided by an art form which carries strong overtones of the spirit of contemporary Chinese culture. Thus, it breaks a creative silence which has lasted for far too long. Notwithstanding this fact, he is reluctant to portray himself as an iconoclast. He defines himself merely as someone “with fear of danger and angst when confronted with unknown reality” and also as someone “with a strong craving for sacred purity and love of a good time”. Zhu Wei, this irrepressible galloping “black sheep” focuses on the search for a “pure, free and brilliant way out”. Deep inside he harbours a sacred aspiration “to build a new idealistic world”. Still such a young man, he is certain to be understood in his era and to gain the acknowledgment of history.
11 September, 1994
First published in Zhu Wei - The Story of Beijing, p.10-14, published by Plum Blossoms (International) Ltd., Hong Kong, 1994