Looking for 'something simple'
Alexandra A. Seno
DECEMBER 2, 2005
KONG 'When everyone is looking for a better life on the mainland, I
am looking for something simple," says the Beijing artist Zhu Wei.
His striking colored ink paintings still feature his trademark
caricaturelike figures and an attitude that is somewhere between kitsch,
pop and reverence for the classics. And yet there appears to be a new
maturity in the works produced lately by the 39-year-old Zhu, one of
China's most financially successful young artists.
paint to remind people of changes in China. But I was disappointed that
my work didn't yield changes; what I only got was money," he
declares with his wry sense of humor. Zhu isn't giving up. "People
didn't get my message before, so I try something more simple, lower the
political message to give people space to think."
characters in military dress, the visual language of Communist Party
propaganda and the patriotism in his distinctive artistic style still
appear now and again - this time with pensive reflection. The people in
his art look more serious; the compositions seem less gimmicky and much
closer to traditional Chinese painting, with swaths of space devoid of
figures and objects, giving the viewer room to reflect.
artist's story is well known to followers of China's contemporary art
scene. As a teenager, Zhu entered the military. His soldiering days
ended when he was admitted to the People's Liberation Army Art College,
finishing in 1989. After a few years of painting propaganda art for the
motherland, his unit was demobilized in 1992.
had just graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1993, when he joined
an art fair in Guangzhou Province as a 27-year-old struggling painter,
selling his works for about $150 each. At the expo, Zhu's vibrant style
caught the eye of the Asian art impresario Stephen McGuinness; almost
overnight, Zhu became a superstar.
2004, the IBM building at 590 Madison Avenue in New York installed
"China China," one of Zhu's bronze statues in its lobby
alongside works by such established art names Andy Warhol and Alexander
Calder. Zhu also became the first Chinese to be invited by the Singapore
Tyler Print Institute as a visiting artist. Zhu's works are regularly
sold at auctions by Christie's and Sotheby's and can be found in several
prestigious personal, corporate and museum art collections around the
come so far, so fast, he says he intends to stay true to his art and get
back to his roots. Despite successful forays into different mediums like
printmaking and sculpture, in the immediate future he fully intends to
focus on how it all started for him: painting, Chinese-style colored ink
am concerned about contemporary Chinese art. People just mimic what
those outside of China are doing. It is dangerous," he says. As one
of the pioneers in his generation and having made a name for himself
early, he acknowledges that he is fortunate that he can choose what he
would like to do with his energy. "Some artists are doing lots of
things like restaurants and horse farms," Zhu remarks, "I am
quite stable. Getting a better life is not my aim."
have always tried to use traditional Chinese elements because we have
thousands of years of history," he says. "From the beginning,
I have been trying to show how to modernize the past." He works in
his own studio space in Beijing, often with the help of two assistants -
one Japanese, the other Chinese.
sketches extensively, making miniatures before painting a large work,
destroying everything but the final version. In the last two years, he
has only produced 20 paintings, half of which he has just sent to
McGuinness Plum Blossoms Gallery, which until Tuesday is showing them in
the Hong Kong branch (there are galleries in Singapore and New York as
well). These days, Zhu's "small" pieces, which are about 1
square meter, or 10 square feet, in size, tend to command prices above
who maintains the same buzz cut from his army days, likes to take
classic stories and ideas and interpret them in his own way. Similar to
the way that paintings used to bear the marks of the imminent
personalities who had viewed them, he uses dozens of his own red seals
to stamp his work not only with his name, but with his address and his
main Web site is almost exclusively in English, a curious detail that
underscores how Zhu is a lot better known and a lot more appreciated
among wealthy expatriates in Asia and art lovers in the West, rather
than among those in his own country. "Most 'contemporary arts'
don't happen locally," he says. True enough, the largest and most
prominent collectors of new-style paintings, sculpture and photography
from China tend not to be mainlanders.
has two main theories about the West's current love affair with
contemporary Chinese art. "Many artists are copying Western styles,
and the Chinese art only costs half the price. Second, since China has
developed so quickly, people are curious about Chinese art."
says he has also gained a new Chinese following. With the mainland
government clamping down on real estate speculation, Zhu says small
groups of local investors have shifted their attention to art, going
around the country purchasing the works of the more established Chinese
says: "I don't think about who is buying my work. Lots of
foreigners know more about Chinese history. Some Chinese people cannot
tell you the order of the imperial dynasties."
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