IART, July/August 2016
Zhu Wei: An Independent Individual, Who Thinks As Free As Possible
By Wang Wei
It was not long ago that Zhu Wei's solo exhibition was held in Asia Art Center in Taipei. In this exhibition the nine ink paintings and four silkscreen prints which were also derived from his ink paintings presented the artist's recent style, as well as the conceptual expression that has been increasingly emphasized in the artist's works. Zhu Wei's contemporary art is brushstroke-and-ink-centred, and has always taken the Chinese social reality as its starting point. He creates painting patterns with the characteristics of the times by inheriting the traditional expression modes of meticulous brushwork, and through in-depth observation and analysis of the individual's internal state, he conveys his thinking of sociality which is closely related to the reality he is in from a historical perspective. These creations are undoubtedly successful. So far there are forty-two museums around the world have collected Zhu Wei's sixty-one artworks.
As one of the most important explorers and representatives of Chinese contemporary ink and wash, during the years that the "ink fever" is just unfolding, Zhu Wei, on the contrary, slows his creation, especially comparing to his early years' prolificacy. Faced with a temporary noisy environment of ink painting creation, this artist who started his art practice and entered into the international vision from 1990s is like a cool spectator, holding an independent and prudent attitude in response to the market oriented trend.
After finishing his creation in last year in the super low speed of one piece of a year, Zhu Wei simply used the cheap and ubiquitous newspaper as the media for ink painting. The two small alum paintings shown in the ninth International Ink Art Biennale of Shenzhen a little while ago are his newest works created in this way. "I found there is a trend in meticulous brushwork that we began to paint on silk in a more and more refined style. In the past the whole point of mass produced art is refined, and the selling point is the lot of effort spent on it. However, there was no content inside."
Under the influence of the market, the shiny and elegant works as a result of polishing highlight their commercial characteristics, and to a certain extent, inevitably lose the value and dignity of art itself. Obviously Zhu Wei does the exact opposite. Compared to the delicate and expensive silk, the simple and cheap newspaper is to provide a visual experience contrast, and at the same time, it also presents a meaning of anti commercial. The public awareness represented in the easily obtained media eliminates the elitist aesthetic taste in the "advanced" materials.
In the meantime, that Zhu Wei specially chose the newspaper, a mass media window, as his creating material is also quite interesting. Especially when we associate with his past works that based on Chinese social and political environment, the potential connection between media and pattern this time thus has effectively pointed to a preset and non-accidental expression. A conclusion of this intention is that his taking newspaper as media is not purely a form exploration, but also an inner concept practicing.
If we review Zhu Wei's overall creation in a timeline, we can figure out a gradually transforming process from narrative to conceptual. However, even in his early works with distinctive narrative features, such as "Beijing Story", "Sweet Life", "Comrade Captain", "Descended from the Red Flag" and so on, which is also quite different from the other documentary grand narrative works, an individual perspective and expression has already been implied. Or we can understand is in this way: the conceptuality has always existed in Zhu Wei's creation, but in his early works, the conceptuality was covered by the narrative patterns in a hidden way.
As his creation evolved, step by step, the narrative factors once dominated in his paintings gave place to the increasingly strong conceptuality. For example, in his "Utopia" series which was created during 2001 to 2005, the characters that obviously have a political identity and the flowers full of metaphorical meanings, have been totally disappeared in his later "Curtain" series, leaving the big red curtain which used to be the background in his previous series alone in the whole picture. That is, the symbol as background becomes the main subject now. The change of pattern seemingly proclaims that the conceptuality once behind the scene has been pushed to the front completely.
No matter how the human figures changed in front of it, the soundless yet eternal big red curtain seems to suggest a never changed environment. After removing the narrative characters, the conceptual expression has been strengthened. Zhu Wei adopts a method of "telling you everything without a word" to express his consistent historical social thoughts in a silent painting.
As is known to all, there was a trend in the creation of Chinese contemporary art in the 1990s, which is criticism and reflection on the special political and social environment in China. This creating perspective that once occupied a dominant position has been changing quietly along with the commercialization process in China's society in the past ten years. Critics use "depoliticalize", "de-Chinese-symbolize" and other concepts to describe the overall characteristics of Chinese contemporary art creation after 2000. Apparently, through his consistent social political perspective and constantly subtly changed painting patterns and moods, Zhu Wei reveals a strong perception that no matter how many changes Chinese society has experienced in these years, there has never been a fundamental change, and the political factors have never left too far away from our life.
In Zhu Wei's view, "any artworks which cut themselves from the current reality will have no historical significance. We have been so accustomed to the plenty of political factors in life that we can turn a blind eye to them. However, if you want to keep a social perspective in your creation, you will find these so-called symbols are still everywhere today. They are the reality that we cannot avoid."
In a way, it is impossible to thoroughly cut oneself from the real society. An individual's living state has to be coerced by the time he lives in, and be controlled by the environment to various degrees. And any discussion about social problems will lose its value and meaning without the basis of humanistic care. In fact, in Zhu's series of works based on the consideration of social political reality, he takes the observation and expression of people as a starting point throughout, and furthermore, through the in-depth analysis of the inner state of the people, he reflects a present China society that exists in the real feeling of the individual.
The human figures appeared again in Zhu Wei's painting in his recent "Ink and Wash Research Lectures series". The dress of the characters shows a special era and identity, while the tired and helpless expression on their faces delivers a new meaning which is totally different from his previous series. It is a true and general psychological reflection of today's Chinese as well. "Nowadays people are coerced by the ongoing large-scale economic movement, by the commercial Great Leap Forward, and by the inflated exaggerations in commerce, while every family has mortgage loans and inexpensive car, pop music and jazz, computer, cell phone and internet, however, the foundation of the society has never been slightly changed but has been strengthened. This is the present condition of Chinese society which makes people feel helpless." Zhu Wei said.
Art critic Lu Hong remarked, "In the new era emphasizing artistic invention and personality expression, Zhu Wei keeps good tension between “creation” and “reservation” which well worth learning from for other painters. The inspiration he gives us is: when seeking for the expression of contemporary life, what's important is not only to inherit the traditional expression, but also to figure out a way to innovate and enrich it. Against the background that contemporary art is going on a globalized homogenous development, this pursuit of differentiation expression is particularly important."
It is should be noted that in Zhu Wei's new "Ink and Wash Research Lectures series", no matter the composition of the half body, or the delicate depiction of the facial expression, or even the close-up depiction of the hand or foot, all show a focus on a part, which is clearly a sharp contrast to the panoramic composition way in the Chinese ancient tradition. On the surface, this amplification in Zhu Wei's works reflects a kind of visual experience transforming. With the development of science and technology, our daily live has been full of all types of video players, and they are becoming more and more compact and portable. As the mainstream form of viewing, cinema has long been given its way to TV, desktop computers, tablet PCs, mobile phones and other electronic devices. While the relatively limited screen size of the latter also inadvertently reacts in the selection of shooting perspective. Therefore, watching habits have been changed quietly. Zhu Wei's focusing on a part is to take this kind of visual experience implanted in his paintings.
And this kind of visual characterization reveals a general development in literary and artistic works, which is from macro narrative to micro analysis, from collective consciousness to individual expression. What it points to is the concern of the individual who is living in the society. In this way, we may be able to take the focusing on part in Zhu Wei's painting as focusing on individual and individual's inner state. The consistent gazing in Zhu Wei's works has been experiencing profound changes, from the outside to the inside, and from the surface to the centre, and in a familiar and succinct language, the rich and in-depth inside thoughts behind the painting has been accomplished here.