Oriental Art . Master,
Zhu Wei: Cut into Contemporary Art through Ink and Wash
By Wang Hongzhou
As one of the first Chinese artists recognized by international art markets, Zhu Wei has a clearer and more reasonable recognition of art practices and markets. Nevertheless, since he chose Chinese painting as his painting language, he is often discussed via Chinese paintings.
Before them, Chinese painting was kept in the cage of history, wasn’t valued or simply got shelved and forgotten. The Chinese art market doesn’t have a sound system yet. Western technology and cultures have brought a huge shock to China’s domestic market, resulting in an ever decreasing space for Chinese paintings. Known as “Chinese” paintings, their limitations are strongly felt by artists, and they are devoid of the internationalization and contemporary international art environment. While till now, though Chinese painting has felt some warmth of the hot waves of the art fever, compared with other vanguard art forms, it still occupies an inferior position. Oil painting, sculpture and installation are all embodied with unshakeable stance and more vanguard meanings; mixed media goes viral; cross-boundary arts are common. But for coldly treated Chinese painting, it’s extravagant to talk about cross-boundary. Some ambitious young Chinese artists participated in contemporary art, but eventually landed themselves into an awkward situation of not being similar to any kind. It’s a frequently discussed question—the contemporary features of Chinese paintings. For artists eager to seek a outlet for Chinese paintings, that’s a problem they have to confront. Against that backdrop, the word “ink and wash” was born. Without the nationality of Chinese painting, ink and wash was an acceptable word. It can stand along with oil painting and prints, highlighting its media. However, that approach didn’t help Chinese painting gain revival. What hidden under that discussion were the decline of recognition of our own culture’s value and confidence in our cultures.
Zhu Wei witnessed the formation and development of “art circles”, rise and fall with other artists over these years, and the period in which Chinese paintings enjoyed equal popularity with other art forms. Nowadays, however, Chinese paintings are left far behind. We can’t help wondering: does Chinese painting really can’t thrive in contemporary times? Zhu Wei chose to create Chinese painting, but he was known and recognized in art critics by his creating methods of blending his works with contemporary living styles. In his early works, he successfully borrowed the images with high identification and integrated them with the current society, adding some “worth-noticing” political signs, thus some people call his works “political pop” and “cynicism”. He himself objected others’ definition with certain images. In his perspective, though artists are known for some kind of painting language, making breakthroughs is a permanent requirement of them, or they will get stuck. Artists of any form language, during their initial creating period, will try to add things up, exploring all ways to express what’s on their minds to “make things clear”. While when they keep broadening their horizon and accumulating art experiences, they would simplify things, replacing those hoarse cries with purer languages. So did Zhu Wei. His latest works, for example, the Ink and Wash Research Lectures series, Hills Beyond A River or Red Flag Series, were all new attempts and breakthroughs made on the basis of his original works, deleting the original political symbolic languages with more like a “part” of his early works, expressing contents in a simpler and more direct way.
Chinese paintings must deal with inheritance and breakthrough during its evolving process. Some conservative artists stick to traditional methods, while some artists have made some shocking new experiment art. Both of them seem to be a little extreme. To protect Chinese painting like an intangible world heritage could only strand it in its old position as art continues to develop; to put it out of the shrine and discard its unique qualities of stressing connotations, would lead people to blindly follow the ever changing contemporary art. For those people, they chanted “ink and wash is zero”, only blindly following the trends. For Zhu Wei, an approach between those two extreme acts is more acceptable and enjoyable for both the viewers and markets—recognize and respect the essence and status of traditional Chinese painting and Chinese culture, at the same time, not to be confined by it, pay attention to its material characteristics, layout and relation with the current society, and further express yourself at a suitable angle.
Zhu Wei’s insistence and proposition were also demonstrated in his stress of integrating poem, calligraphy, painting and seal. He doesn’t support the specific division of Chinese paintings, because Chinese painting makers have always emphasized integral art qualities. It’s absurd not to script simply for the reason of not majoring in calligraphy. In his early works, quite a few inscriptions and seals appeared in his works, which is natural for him. It’s like a man who has all kinds of tools, he doesn’t have to use them all together, but he can always pick the useful one when necessary. In Zhu Wei’s picture, a child stared with wide-open eyes motionlessly, who has a huge head supported by a short and fat body and tiny hands and feet that would hardly sustain. Under the carefully designed picture, layout and coloring, an indifferent atmosphere emerged, which require great wisdom to express a heavy subject with such an attitude. At his free time, Zhu also writes special column for magazines. His writing style is just like his painting style—seemingly lack of efforts but blunt and thought provoking. In the article Inscription on the Trend of Our Times written by curator Zhu Zhu, some well written paragraphs were quoted from his essays: “Over the dozens of years, whether you are vanguard or not, "a 1985 born" or '"a 1989 born", the people who are serious about art and with some culture responsibility are more or less depressed. No matter what they may say, their dreams have been shattered. For example, if we visit other people's home, and make a pizza with the flour and eggs we brought and their kitchen appliance. They would praise you if they taste good. But if you want to make a Jianbing (the Chinese pancake), they would be unhappy at the drop of a hat.”, “The Chinese contemporary art has been pulling all sorts of things together. We establish every art form the western has. In the 21st century, the western contemporary art is moving forward rapidly. It's sad for us to have no idea what would go into fashion and even can do nothing about it.”, “As contemporary art was not born in our homeland, the artists, critics, art dealers can only act like what railroad guerrillas did when they were fighting the Japanese soldiers--everybody hold a rake, as long as there is train driving near, regardless of the consequences, they use their rake to pull the stuff out of the train, no matter how much they can rake off.”
Witnessing the development of contemporary art, Zhu Wei not only creates pictures, he also provokes thoughts on the status quo of art. In today’s noisy and weird art circles, artists’ works are running in front of our eyes like cars. What did they leave behind? More thoughts or merely messy tracks? Volatile figures are not enough to measure the true value of art. It’s the contents behind that are meaningful to the general public that don’t engage in markets.