Southern Weekly, November 7 2013
Ink Paintings Cannot Be Always About Radish or Chinese Cabbage
Reporter: Li Hongyu
Illustration of picture:
Ink painting Spring Herald No.3 by Zhu Wei
Ten years ago Zhu Wei created his Spring Herald, in which with its white ropes hooping round a bold-headed man's head, a white mask bulging on his face. In the spring of 2003, this kind of pit-snout-shape masks in the painting could be seen everywhere in the whole Beijing city. Today we can get new meaning from it, although it's still the same painting.
On November 3rd 2013, after heavy smog lasting for two days in Beijing, the sky returned blue finally because of a small north wind. Painter Zhu Wei's solo exhibition opened at Today Art Museum in Beijing on the same day. Ten years ago Zhu Wei created his Spring Herald, which should be his self portrait, in which is a half-length profile of a bold-headed man, with a white mask bulging on his face, and two white ropes hooping round his head. At the bottom of the painting, there is a branch of peach blossoms stretching out and shining its colors. In the spring of 2003, this kind of pit-snout-shape masks in the painting could be seen everywhere in the whole Beijing city. Today we can get new meaning from it, although it's still the same painting.
Utopia No.46 was painted in 2004, with a background of red flags, tassels and bonsai, a middle ground of rows of people who bury themselves into a meeting, eyes narrowed, seemingly asleep, and a foreground of part of two gorgeous flower baskets.
The brushwork of the peach blossoms in Spring Herald was derived from a fan painted by an unidentified painter in the Southern Song Dynasty, and the baskets in Utopia series are adopted directly from The Flower Basket by Li Song of the Southern Song. Zhu Wei loves to deploy the materials from traditional gongbi paintings (meticulous painting) into a contemporary scene. He worships the traditional painting techniques: "Fan Kuan of the Song Dynasty, Shi Tao and Ba Da of the late Ming and early Qing Dynasty are my frames of reference, and objects that I want to challenge and surpass." But he never paints landscapes, flowers and birds, figures in traditional patterns which many ink painters embrace today setting aside any characteristics of the times. Zhu Wei believes if he uses the traditional techniques to record his contemporary life, experiences and feelings, then the tradition can be really alive.
And Thus How Boring the Meeting Is
Paintings being showed in this exhibition were created from 1988 to 2013. Zhu Wei was born in a military family. In 1982 at the age of 16, he enlisted in the People's Liberation Army, and three years later, he was admitted by the PLA Art Academy to study ink painting. The training was both rigorous and tedious. One exercise was to practice drawing lines and circles with a rolled up paper tube. The tip of the tube had to be inked just so, and the arm had to be suspended above the paper. Hours of drawing like this drove some young minds to distraction, but if you stuck with it, then the discipline took hold and eventually provided precision, deftness of touch, patience, and a sense of pride.
In Zhu Wei' paintings army men and officials often can be seen, as well as those boring meetings in some solemn conference halls. Chinese are very familiar with the meeting atmosphere in his Utopia series, in which the painter ridiculed it with small details: no matter male or female on the rostrum were all wearing earrings or ear studs, a male cadre even wearing a low lip stud. In 1989, Zhu Wei graduated from the PLA Art Academy, but he didn't come back to the army as required. In the next year, he enrolled in the Beijing Film Academy.
In 1993, Zhu Wei brought his works to an art exhibition in Guangzhou, where he was found by an American who opened a gallery in Hong Kong. This encounter led to a 12-year sole agent contract between the artist and the Plum Blossoms Gallery. Although what he painted was ink and wash, price of his works was more or less the same with some contemporary oil paintings by such as Fang Lijun in the Western market, which "made him rich" early. Comparing with most ink painters, Zhu Wei is totally different. He is a professional painter not belonging to any unit, association, or institution - he made a living by painting and selling paintings.
James Cahill, the former professor of art history at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote a book named How Artists Lived and Worked in Traditional China, in which the writer told us a true story. In Song Dynasty, there was a collector who likes a painter's work very much. Windy or rainy, he went to the hills in front of the village the painter lived every day, or climbed up to a tree in the village, to observe whether the chimney of the painter's house was smoking. If it wasn't smoking, it meant the painter ran out of food, so that he could bring food, good papers and ink, to visit the painter for asking for his painting. Zhu Wei likes this kind of "customer relationship" -- artists should survive with his works. "How many famous contemporary artists are there relying on China national academy or institute today? It's an important progress or return. Likewise, for sports games, the national team is no longer the only resource of the athletes such as Li Na who win the glory for her motherland. As in Europe or U.S., when sport games approaches, some active athletes were found from the streets, and sent out to the games. They will win several gold medals home immediately. It proves that a nation has higher sports level and better national physical quality, which is also the original intention of a sport competition."
But he is not keen on the market. When a journalist asked him about the market "blowout" for a certain kind of painting, he went straight to the heart of the matter by pointing out how ignorant and insensible to extend the industry term to describe the market, "It's a disaster. This word is frightening to drilling workers, and freak out their wives and children."
Why Cannot Ink Painting Be About Rock 'n' Roll?
"Chinese really haven't lived a good life for hundreds of years and sometimes even could not find the basic safety. Thus people began to doubt everything around them including our cultures. Ink paintings suffered two big disasters in the latest one hundred years: one is the May 4th Movement which denied our own cultures including ink paintings, the arranged marriage, the imperial examination system, and exorcism; the other is the traditional Chinese painting revolution after liberation, which introduced sketch and the laws of perspective into ink paintings." Zhu Wei said, "It’s almost thirty years since I started drawing ink and wash painting and all my materials and techniques come from tradition. I never left tradition yet what I depicted are peoples and things which are in progress today, namely the contemporary subjects we normally refer to. Therefore, using the past to serve the present is the idea and clue in my ink and wash painting."
Zhu Wei's paintings are never lack of the signs of the times. In his early works he inscribed the lyrics of songs Resolutions, Speculators, This Space written by Cui Jian on his paintings; he even signed his pager number with calligraphy on one of his Pictures of the Strikingly Bizarre series. He also used his seals "to serve the present" by stamping seven to eight leisure seals as well as personal name seal on his paintings. When internet became popular he built his official website, and imprinted it on his works; another example was his "Yu Shi Ju Jin" seal, which means "keep up with the times". "There was no enough time for me to carve some other seals such as 'Yi Ren Wei Ben (people-oriented)'. 'Yu Shi Ju Jin' is easier for kids to understand and won't astonish them. Deriving from I Ching - The Book of Changes this phrase had been a self-motivation which people kept in mind to encourage themselves in the past, while today people just exercise it in mouth." Zhu Wei said.
Zhu Wei inscribed Cui Jian's lyrics because he likes Rock 'n' Roll. In 1995 Cui Jian invited him to create the massive 19 by 10 meter backdrop which Cui Jian used for all the band’s performances at that time, of which he is particularly proud. "Nothing could have pleased Zhu Wei more than Cui Jian telling him that his paintings 'had music in them'.” Art curator Karen Smith said.
"Many people think there is no connection between ink painting and Rock 'n' Roll, there is no connection between ink painting and anything contemporary, and I think ink paintings cannot always be about radish or Chinese cabbage. Things should be changed. In some ink paintings you cannot see any characteristics of an era, which is pathetic, because what they paint is all the same, and boring." Zhu Wei said.
Wipe off the Dusts and Rusts
The white eyes, which are always staring upward in Zhu Wei's paintings, reveal his fond of Bada Shanren. And in his painting Sweet Life No.21, Zhu Wei even juxtaposed his white eyes human figure with the source of those white eyes, which are some of Bada Shanren's fishes.
In the painting series Vernal Equinox created in 2008, Zhu Wei placed several small figures on his painting, whose clothes, hair and faces are clean, while their clothes are not the ancient Chinese robes any more, with their hands folded into sleeves or tucked into pockets, their eyes staring upward at sky, and bright-colored peach flowers and leaves levitated amid these small figures as if just falling from the sky. "Looking upward with folding arms" is a typical pose Zhu Wei persists, and has been one of his personal symbols in the meaning of painting. If we think about it we will understand it's a precise summarization of the social habits in our reality. Of politics, economics, culture, or personal life, spring is the symbolic season which is the new China's favorite; these rootless peach blossoms are reporting the spring, but these urbane gentlemen's faces are indifferent as usual as if they have been accustomed to the report.
The German sinologist Michael Kahn-Ackermann said, "The essence of ink paintings lies in freehand brushwork, which is an expression of inner experiences of self, nature, society and reality. Accumulating this kind of experiences is a painful process, but one has to cultivate himself in Chinese traditional art, without which, one cannot hand-paint one's idea freely."
Another Zhu Wei's symbol is he antiques the paper by brushing on a mustard-colored wash before he starts to paint. The paper being treated lies on a wooden grid or nubby carpet which creates background patterns of an antique look, as if inviting you to travel to hundreds years later, to watch the painting and grasp the temperament and characteristics of where we are today. In an essay Zhu Wei wrote for an art magazine he ridiculed the era he is in: "It looks like a transforming period but in fact it's a stagnating, circling-in-the-same-spot period."
Similar clues can be found in his two pieces of "transboundary" sculptures that created during the 50 anniversary of new China. China Diary - Star is a huge five-pointed star with a looking of ancient bronze and a motif of Tao-Tie mask.
China China is two huge figures wearing Mao suits, standing respectfully, lifting up their heads, leaning forward their bodies, expressing a strong feeling of moving forward. With their surface covered by a layer of sands and dusts, the bronze sculptures look like newly unearthed and being displayed in a history museum. The IBM in US collected this piece. When installing it in the hall of IBM building in New York, because the workers had no idea that the dusts and rusts are part of the artwork, they wiped off all of them and made the sculpture clean as a pin.
In 2010 Zhu Wei took out the red flags from the background of his Utopia series and started to paint them independently in a way of abstract, and the texture in those paintings reminds us the focus-out method created by German contemporary master Richter. However, what Zhu Wei is looking for is the outlining methods of the drapes of ancient clothes such as "Cao’s clothes rising from the water” and "Wu’s clothes carrying the wind". "It's close to orchid leaf outlining, the representative works of which are Celestial King Delivering a Son and The Eighty-seven Immortals. Modern people dress conveniently so this kind of outlining technique is not fit for them." Zhu Wei said. He has seen some new fine brushwork made during the period of Cultural Revolution, "for example, when they are drawing the subjects of somebody inspecting some hydraulic construction site, somebody stopping the frightened horse, etc., the painters combined wire outlining and orchid leaf outlining, which made the figures excessively elegant and unsteady, as if they cannot do any labour work, and they are just a group of peasants passing by the construction site in a sleepwalking state. And the cadre who is inspecting the site is like an immortal descended to the earth, coming with clouds and fogs, staying for a short while, leaving in a minute. It's not based on reality."
Although the traditional outlining methods of clothes are rarely used in modern environment and motifs, "I found the red flag series is a unique symbol of our contemporary reality and living conditions. We have a so-called five thousand years of history, but until the current moment, there never was a dynasty or time as now that we are facing a same color and same image which so overwhelmingly affects millions of families and several generations."