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VOGUE Chinese version 《服饰与美容》

November 2013 二零一三年十一月

VOGUE Chinese version November 2013

Zhu Wei—a Loyal Supporter of Ink and Wash Paintings

Photo: Li Xiao | Article: Yang Jun | Editor: Charlotte Hong

Contemporary Chinese art has thrived and boomed in the past three decades. There are so many stories to be told and Zhu Wei is definitely one of the most outstanding figurers among them. As the first artist who introduced Gong-bi that was born thousands of years ago into contemporary art, Zhu has been acting as a living fossil of contemporary ink and wash paintings. In all these years, Zhu has devoted himself to ink and wash, though few people were in this field, Zhu sticks to his passion and is becoming more relaxed and splendid.

Zhu Wei’s solo exhibition had its opening at Today Art Museum. Before the exhibition, I saw him at his studio. Just coming back after an overseas vocation, Zhu looked comfortable with tanned skin and a T-shirt. He showed his energy and passion during our talk, just like a man in his prime years. Zhu is a humorous artist. He could always explain complicated painting or living concepts with simple metaphors. As a Beijinger, you can hear all those enlivening Beijing dialects and slangs, from his criticism and sarcasms we know that Zhu has not changed. Maybe, he never did. It’s the times that underwent turbulent transformations.

2013, for Zhu Wei, is a brand new year. After many years of preparation, since the beginning of this year, Zhu started to prepare his serial exhibitions at MOCA, Singapore,Indonesian National Museum and the Today Art Museum. A dozen of his new works that took him seven years were displayed at these exhibitions. We saw his fresh personal experiences and improved techniques. Art Museum of Nanjing Art College, headed by Li Xiaoshan, a well-known figure in ink and wash painting as well as a renowned art critic, will hold Zhu’s solo exhibition at the end of next year after successfully holding Francis Bacon’s first exhibition in China.

In most people’s impressions, Chinese ink and wash painting focuses more on emotions and they are outdated aesthetics, but Zhu Wei is more ambitious than that. He made ink and wash more accessible and culture-intensive. Simply by borrowing traditional Chinese paintings’ graphs and symbols, Zhu’s pictures kept a strong interaction with people’s living states, environment and social changes. Zhu has repeatedly said that “undoubtedly, there are limits and rules about ink and wash painting, but artists can’t be held back by them, they must keep fresh emotions. To view my painting, you need to feel my pulse and heart beat during my creation. Playing with elements and symbols are far from enough. Good works are those convey potential message to viewers and captivate them.”

Art pioneer holing a traditional banner

In 1996, Zhu was born into a soldier family and grew up listening to revolution songs. Later, he spent over ten years as a soldier. For that reason, Zhu frequently used soldier and great man as the main visual symbols, and images like five-pointed star, red flag and military cap also recurred in his works. During Zhu’s study at Art College of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, he couldn’t afford pigments for oil painting and gouache, so he finished his sketch, color painting and figure painting with Xuan paper that costs several Jiao (one tenth of 1 RMB). However, since then, Zhu had been practicing Chinese characters with writing brushes, multiple rendering on felts and thinking about Shi Tao, Zhu Da and Huang Gongwang as his spiritual companies every day.

Whatever Zhu paints, they are related with ink wash paintings. It may sound pathetic, but it also made Zhu focused and started to experiment all kinds of possibilities since graduation, wondering how to go with the times. Back then, the aggressive artists in China were in “political pop” and “cynical realism” cultural movements. In contrast, Zhu displayed China’s social reality with traditional Gong-bi. He was young, courageous, and knowledgeable and had lot to express. “I wanted to talk about everything, though my language was weak, but I had passions.” Now, Zhu is much more mature in aesthetics style, but he still retains radical thoughts in his youth. He even put rock music lyrics on his paintings. Tradition and vanguard constituted a splendid memory for him. The appreciation of the west towards him was not only due to curiosity about alien culture, but also because of his originality—Zhu refuses to duplicate anyone. “As a visual approach, paintings are understandable internationally. Foreigners can also understand ink wash paintings. They do not require translation. Anyone can appreciate them as art. What matters is the already existing stuff. Local concepts can also go global.”

Zhu has always had strong confidence in China’s culture, which gained him attention in as early as the 1990s. In 1993, Zhu met the boss of Hong Kong-based Plum Blossoms gallery at his solo exhibition. His several dozen works were all at once bought up by the boss and took to exhibit abroad. Since they received unexpected popularity, the Plum Blossoms gallery signed contract with Zhu. That’s when Zhu just graduated from college, so he never went to work for one day and became a professional artist right after graduation. From 26 to 41, Zhu led a comfortable life with fixed annual income until he fulfilled contract in 2005. That’s a happy creating period in his life, painting as he wants.

Art Requires Independence

Contemporary ink and wash artists who are nearly of the same age with Zhu almost all took positions in colleges, painting academies or institutions. Zhu is an exception. He never attached to anyone nor followed anyone blindly. For him, independent living states are necessary to guarantee independent creations. “I completely bet my survival on my works. Art creation is not like hunting wolves in the mountain. Teamwork is not that crucial.”

Because Zhu is so independent and has his unique style, for a dozen years, critics, artists, curators, art galleries and museums have no clue of how to judge and define him, since it’s so hard to put a label on him or classify him into one category. Zhu still enjoyed himself for all these years in the art community. He studied for a few years at Beijing Film Academy, though he did not do film arts for one day, he shot MV for his favorite rock music band “Miserable Faith” and designed a giant backdrop for his friend Cui Jian, which was enjoyable for him. Zhu does not only like rock music, but also plays Guitar pretty well. He carved wood prints, made sculptures in factory, wrote column for art magazines and designed official posts for music festivals. These changes are all evolved from ink wash paintings. They may seem mixed but actually simple.

After 2005, oil painting started to dominate the center of discourse power in contemporary Chinese art, and enjoyed a booming period in both collection and market capital operation. But ink and wash paintings started to go through a dark period. There is one thing against which Zhu still holds a grudge: someone invited him to exhibit in 798 Art Zone. Zhu was so happy that he especially created several new paintings, but shortly before the opening, the host told Zhu his works were not suitable to be exhibited. “They were just afraid of looking not contemporary enough, not fashionable enough.” Zhu was upset about it and felt hurt. Thanks to the special environment of contemporary Chinese art, Zhu’s original ink and wash paintings were regarded hard to sell and gained little recognition. Some years later, Zhu honestly confessed to the media that he thought of turning to oil painting during a hard time, but he quitted that idea at the last moment. “It’s hard for me to do that. Everyone can see me as an undetermined person and do whatever is popular. I’m ashamed of being someone like that. Art despises fickleness and speculation. I’m nothing like that.” This episode taught Zhu a lesson. Since then, he devoted all his heart and soul into ink and wash paintings with Rice paper, writing brush and Chinese painting pigments and created with Mogu (boneless) Gong-bi techniques. “Art creation is not cooking when oil is hot you put all the ingredients in. art requires sediments. It’s meaningless to ignore the value of art but only pay attention to auction deals.”

Zhu’s large ink and wash painting adopted from The Picture of Five Cattle by Han Huang in Tang Dynasty hangs at the New York Stock Exchange. Maybe due to the good meanings of this picture, the devastated Americans survived the recent financial crisis and contemporary Chinese art is also booming. In recent years, major auction houses are doing ink and wash business. Though things have improved a lot in ink and wash markets, Zhu is not so thrilled. He has kept vigilance about capital speculation. He even believes that we should wait longer. Because in his view, ink and wash paintings stress technique accumulation, which require long term practice. “artists should behave like scientists—improve existing things, explore new things, develop after inheritance and make further steps on the basis of comprehensive inheritance.” Zhu said in his age, his creations are more quite, understandings are more mature. Though his concepts may not undergo revolutionary changes, but it’s the time to make improvements or breakthroughs in techniques. After changes in personal aesthetics, Zhu’s paintings are more simple and conceptual. Time really flies. Thirty years have passed. You are welcome to view Zhu’s three-decade transformations at Today Art Museum.






摄影:李潇 | 撰文:杨君 | 编辑:红伶 Charlotte Hong