Zhu Wei: Paint Stories Thick and Heavy in Colors
By Isabel He
Artist Zhu Wei’s new studio locates in the central area of the CBD in Chaoyang District in Beijing. With a space of near 300 square meters and the story-height of 5.6 meters, this loft studio looks huge and spacious. It has white walls, white staircases, polishing gray cement floors, huge glass windows, and green potted plants that scatter at all corners, giving the whole space a simple but modern flavor, which looks more of a space for some fashionable apparel stylist or building architect than for the bald middle-aged man before us who has painted ink wash for over two decades by using traditional Xuan paper and Chinese brushes.
“I like rock music and planned to be a musician at first,” says Zhu, who once signed a 12-year contract with Plumblossoms Gallery in Hong Kong and held solo exhibitions around the world for over a score times. The 42-year-old Zhu, now sitting at his pc desk, still persists in his belief he had chosen a wrong career. “What should painting count for?” He keeps mumbling and casually switches on the music player on his pc. “Paint ink wash on paper, I feel even more strongly it’s not a serious business.” He says.
However, a huge color-ink print of four consecutive parts - Amazing Tales Second Series hanging on the wall just facing the entrance gate, a two-meter-high bronze-cast sculpture set in the corner of the parlor, and the distinguished portrait of Deng Xiaoping just above the long table are all suggesting to us not to ignore the true identity of the master of the house. From 1997 to 2006 his ink wash works had shown up in US Times magazine four times; in English articles on Chinese contemporary art his name often ranks with Zhang Xiaogang, Fang Lijun and other star contemporary artists in China, and he is generally claimed to be a representative artist of Chinese contemporary art.
As an ink wash reformist and innovator who persists in native painting styles, Zhu doesn’t secure the crown of light enjoyed by Chinese contemporary star artists. For over two decades, art critics who are used to commenting on various “westernized” avant-garde art forms are even uncertain about his contemporary art identity. Nevertheless, these “setbacks” haven’t prevent his works from winning foreign collectors’ great favors since 14 years ago: Monet family collects his first work “Beijing Story”, and IBM company sets his sculptural work “China, China” alongside Andy Warhol’s block print work in the main hall of IBM Building at Manhattan in New York. Alexander A Sairo, a reporter from International Herald Tribune, directly called him “one of the most profitable young artists in China” in a 2005 special interview report”. So far, he has held over a score of solo exhibitions throughout the world, and his works now sell for over 50,000 Euro Dollars a piece.
The artist who entered PLA Art College to learn traditional Chinese paintings at the age of 16 has created symbolic images of big-head cartoon characters in traditional ink wash styles. In his paintings, characters wearing military uniforms or Chinese tunic suits set themselves in festive clustered flowers or at meeting places filled with red flags; their faces are dull and their eyes drift. To a certain extent, this familiar political pop style is similar to those of Fang Lijun, Yue Minjun and other artists’ works. Contemporary Chinese art scenes are rather sensitive to the issue of the inspiration sources of numerous big-head images and works of political criticisms. As a lonely artist who has few private connections in art circles, Zhu hates being associated with any contemporary art schools or painting styles. “I’ve been doing this since 1992; previously I didn’t care about contemporary art and never visited any exhibitions.” Zhu says straightforwardly, “I had no idea of the 1985 New Wave Movement and the post-1989 political pop until 1996 or 1997; At that time, I cared only about Cui Jian, the rock music star, and Zhang Yimou, a movie director.”
“What I paint is my life.” Zhu explains, “If you open your eyes only and take a look at any street in Beijing, take a look at newspapers and TVs, you would find all I paint is there.”
For a child born in 1966 (at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution) in a serviceman’s family, red flags, red scarves, red five-pointed stars, Big-character posters, army men’s marches and meetings, etc. - the “political life” in the eyes of folk people - have been almost all aspects of Zhu’s life since his childhood. During a decade of his service in the army as a literature and art soldier responsible for artistic calligraphy and blackboard newspaper, Zhu had an even sharper experience of the fanatical socialist revolution and the Utopia-like political dream. Though a rigid and suppressive army life and the harsh and dull skill trainings in ink wash were not in harmony with a free and rebellious spirit in artists’ characters, the long-time self-disciplined life had helped Zhu open up more “daydream” spaces in his mental world.
These unique living environments and personal life experiences have all been recreated later in his ink wash works via jocular and satirical techniques. “I’ve been in the army and know their joy, anger, sorrow and happiness and their experiences very well. I paint them as ordinary people and I feel quite close to them.” Zhu says. All his models and colors originate in life; the character images he painted are mostly the familiar army men and officials around him; frequently there are those light-headed lengthy meetings.
In the famous Utopia series (2005), Zhu painted over 50 works, portraying and describing in detail these meeting scenes: huge red flags and flourishing flowers ornaments borrowed from classical ink wash paintings have the meeting scenes take on an absurd modern royal court atmosphere. All officials have big heads and sit solemnly as show of respect but are actually overcome with boredom. Some have eyes narrowed into slits and are lost into meditations; some sit in repose with their eyes closed and doze off; still others are writing down something with pens but their eyes focus on nowhere.
Under deep influence of traditional art, Zhu can make skillful use of the metaphorical styles of “reposing one’s feelings in landscapes, flowers and birds” in traditional Chinese ink wash paintings; he borrows the technique of “white-eye” fish and bird by Bada Shanren Zhu Da, a famous painter in late Ming Dynasty, in his portrait paintings. “The characters under Zhu Wei’s brush strokes”, lady Alfreda Murck, a researcher at the Palace Museum’s research center of ancient painting and calligraphy and a Ph. D in Chinese Arts and Aesthetics from Princeton University, emphasizes in an article that “those characters are using their eyes instead of their body language to reveal their feelings. Though some of these characters look puffed up with pride, or look obedient and patient, and some look vigilant, alert and resourceful, but others still have to resign themselves to fate, so wear a sad face and seethe with anger.”
In 1991, Zhu, at the age of 25, got enrolled in Beijing Film Academy to further his trainings. An academic atmosphere of active ideas helped to put Zhu in touch with large amount of western movies and rock music. “Previously the upstairs of the college studio are dancing floors and vocal practice rooms,” he recalls his college life with a touch of inferiority, “Painting is the most silent thing and I always believe it isn’t the strongest thing. You see, below a rock music platform so many people would raise their arms and acclaim you.”
His friendship with Cui Jian, the progenitor of Chinese rock music, had once been an inspiration source for his early creations, and the titles and signatures on his numerous paintings are borrowed from the song words in Cui’s special rock music collections. By now, Zhu still takes pride in the huge 19X10-square-meter stage curtain he created for Cui Jian in 1995, which had accompanied Cui’s music band on performance tours to the US and other countries and, later, to the exhibition of “Retrospective Fifty Years of World Rock Music” conducted at Roman Art Museum. Zhu draws upon source materials in novels, dramas, rock music and other art forms, and the influx of pop culture invests his painting works with a more modern flavor. “The subject themes he makes use of are not directly related to the paintings he creates,” remarks art critic Jia Fangzhou, “This (idea borrowing) indicates that Zhu has found a ‘breakthrough’ in the interpretation of the existing world in his creation processes.
And movies also provide Zhu with unique painting perspectives. “The scenes in many of Zhu’s works remind us of movie shooting or a closed group of screens; some picture compositions resemble story plates or movie scenes.” Lady Alfreda Murck says. As a calm and insightful observer, Zhu, with a permanent tone of exaggeration and ridicule, uses his painting series to narrate in thick and heavy colors some allegorical stories.
Benefited from an art style of fine techniques and rich colors of Chinese Song Dynasty’s court paintings, Zhu’s works are characterized by a strong theatrical flavor. To make pictures appear with antique flavors, Zhu boldly reforms on traditional media. He would use the latticed floor tile or the back of carpet as the base on which to spread out special-made Xuan paper and then apply to it dark-brown colors; after drying it in the sun he would further wash it until color fades and it shows effect of old times, so that when applying colors the pigment can form natural and fascinating mottled chaps in the picture. These unique methods make one feel even more puzzled at the images before his eyes - is it a recent story or is it a remote history?
In his “Spring Heralding” series of recent two years, various odd seal stamps also become part of his narration. Seal stamps in 17 different calligraphic styles and in different languages frequently appear in combinations at the right and left margins of the picture. With one half being visible and another half vanishing at the edge, it seems to be showing to the viewer half-consciously: look, this is all I want to say.
“Some ideas two dimensions cannot cope with, so I have used three dimensions.” When coming to sculptural creations he is doing now, Zhu shrugged. To expand from painting to sculpture, the artist seemingly wants to overcome some limitations. “In early years I painted monochrome works but felt it didn’t look well; later I changed it to sculpture and it produced really good effect.” The first group of sculptural works “China, China” features two fat men in tunic suits and with indistinct faces, who stay in a ridiculous posture of leaning-forward standing, looking respectful and flattering. While in the second group of sculptural works “China, China 2”, the tunic-suited men are already bending and kneeling down on the ground. Perhaps the artist needs to let off his anger at some blind obedience and submission. “The present world is chaotic enough, and to represent the things before our eyes has been sufficiently enough.” He says.
作为一个坚持本土绘画样式的水墨改良和革新者，朱伟身上没有中国当代艺术大牌明星的光环。二十年来，习惯对各种“西化”先锋艺术形式品头论足的艺术评论家们甚至对其当代艺术身份的确认也一直含混不请。不过这些“挫折”并不妨碍朱伟的作品在14年前就深受国外藏家们的青睐，莫奈家族收藏了他的第一张作品《北京故事》，IBM公司在曼哈顿的IBM大厦大堂中将他的雕塑《中国中国》放在安迪.沃霍尔的版画旁。国际先驱导报的记者亚历山大 A. 塞诺在2005年专访报道中就干脆地称呼他为“中国最能赚钱的年轻艺术家之一”。如今他已经在世界各地举办个人展览20余次，单张作品售价已超过5万欧元。
对于一个1966年（文革开始时期）出生于军人家庭的孩子而言，红旗、红领巾、红五星、大字报标语、军人游行、部队开会……这些普通人眼中的“政治生活”几乎从童年起就充斥于朱伟生活的全部。入伍十年，负责写美术字、出黑板报的文艺兵生涯让朱伟对狂热社会主义革命与乌托邦式的政治理想体验更加深刻。虽然严肃压抑的军旅生活与水墨工笔画苛刻单调的技巧练习与艺术家性格中的自由反叛并不协调，但长时间的自律性生活却促使朱伟在精神世界中开辟出更多的 “白日梦”空间。 这些独特成长环境与个人生活体验日后都以诙谐、讽刺的手法重现、还原于他的水墨作品中。“我当过兵，对他们的喜怒哀乐和经历特别了解。我把他们当成人来画，觉得特别亲切。”朱伟说。所有的造型、色彩都来源于生活，他笔下的人物常常是身边熟悉的军人和官员形象，时常出现的还有那些令人头晕脑胀的冗长会议。
得益于中国宋代宫廷画技法细密、色彩富丽的艺术风格，朱伟笔下的作品具有强烈的戏曲舞台感。为了能让画面呈现出古色古香的面貌，朱伟大胆地对传统媒介进行改造。他喜好用有栅格的地砖或地毯背面做底垫，将特制的宣纸摊开以棕黄色颜料上色，晒干后再进一步水洗出褪色做旧效果。为的是刷色时能让颜料自然地在画面上形成迷人的斑驳皲裂。这些独辟蹊径的做法让人更加迷惑于眼前的图像 —— 这是最近发生的故事还是年代久远的历史？
在近两年的《报春图》系列中，各种奇怪的印章也成了叙述的一部分。中文 “鉴赏朱伟真迹”、“十有八九”、“朱伟水墨画宝”、“与时俱进”、 英文的朱伟本人网站网址 “www.zhuweiartden.com”等等17种不同书法字体，不同语言的印章时常组合出现在画面左右边界处，一半显露，一半消失于边缘。人届中年偶尔依然"愤青"的艺术家仿佛在微笑：“嘿，你得自己猜猜看不到的那半边是什么。”