Asian Art, published by Asian Art Newspaper Ltd, London, April 2001, p.12
When the Hong Kong-based art dealer Stephen McGuinness decided to open a New York branch of Plum Blossoms, he knew that it had to be in Chelsea, where new art galleries are arriving on the streets faster than latte bars. McGuinness also knew immediately which artist’s work he had to open with. “There was no question, it had to be Zhu Wei,” he said.
MCGUINNESS FIRST MET ZHU in 1993. He had gone to the mainland to visit one of his artists who was exhibiting at the Guangzhou Art Fair: “I was a bit reluctant, because we were all exhausted after Art Asia in Hong Kong, which was happening at exactly the same time.” The fair had been bewildering and huge - two floors of booths, no vetting “and loads of airport art” - and he hadn’t seen anything that interested him at all until on the way to lunch on the last day they went down and aisle they hadn’t seen before. “And there he was, in a tiny booth covered with red crepe paper so that it stood out. The paintings were just pasted onto the crepe; they weren’t framed or anything.”
McGuinness was, he said, “just knocked out” by the work and became the young artist’s sole agent. “I was knocked out by the same thing that knocks me out today,” McGuinness said, gesturing to a large ink painting hanging in his gallery, showing a man in army uniform, his shoulders like a shrugged landscape, his expression one of aloof confusion. “For someone of his age, who could not have a classical education because he was brought up in the Cultural Revolution, then in the PLA, Zhu Wei has an incredible knowledge of Chinese tradition,” McGuinness explained. “He works in the tradition of 1,000 years; it’s subtle sometimes, but most of his work has a message which is an international and political commentary.”
Zhu was born in Beijing in 1966. He still lives in China’s capital - and indeed, living in China is a very important part of his work, which he often refers to as a visual diary of his thoughts and things that he sees in a rapidly changing nation. However, he does not show his work in his home country - it is too openly controversial, it too clearly places cadres and communism on a rather comic pedestal, so that it is hard to take them seriously. As McGuinness explained, the Chinese government tolerates Zhu and other post-1989 contemporary artists. They are allowed to live and paint without interference, “but the one unspoken rule is: don’t put this in our face and we’ll leave you alone.”
Zhu started to paint when he was eight, going regularly to classes in Beijing’s Children’s Palace. He showed talent and interest and when, ten years later, he joined the People’s Liberation Army, he was immediately transferred into the army’s art college - his brief there being to paint propaganda for the glory of the motherland. In 1989 he graduated from the college, and stayed in the PLA for another three years until his unit was demobilized, and he found himself a free agent with an ambition to paint.
His first work - which is what caught McGuinness’s eye - typically included ink paintings of soldiers. They had monumental hands and sculpted heads. They might be carrying flags, standing before a red lacquer screen or looking down on the Forbidden City, but whatever the narrative, there would always be a sense of the state’s control of the individual and of the sense of anonymity that creates.
Since 1993, he has increasingly included pictures of civilians in his work, although the message of anonymity and the state exercising its muscle is still the same. A recent series was called Sunflowers, not because of yellows, flowers or van Gogh, but because sunflowers tend to turn their heads towards the sun. Zhu’s pictures are drawn as if from inside a home, looking out onto the street, where strangers have fixed their gaze on something outside the frame. They could be in a public square gazing on a leader or they could be watching television; we can only guess. But their eyes, like most of the eyes painted by Zhu, are central points of the paintings. They are modeled on the deceptively simple eyes drawn by classical Chinese painter Bada Shanren - and can somehow express hope, blankness, confusion or love in just a few brush strokes.
This was a reaction to the celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, in which the government demonstrated just how easily it could play the nationalist card. In 1998 he did a bizarre and brightly coloured series based on oversized fruit, called Diary of a Sleepwalker. In one, a man stands at an industrial loom, seemingly oblivious to a 5-metre-high tomato just behind him. In another, a man carrying an umbrella walks through a rice field, carefully avoiding a giant aubergine as if this were an everyday obstacle.
What kind of man is Zhu? McGuinness laughed. “For one thing, he’s an incredibly loyal person. The relationship usually between artists and dealers can be heartbreaking as soon as they become successful - and what are you going to do, sue someone in China or Vietnam?”
Zhu is also “a bit of a hermit”, who spends happy days on his own, just painting and creating. When he travels - most recently to the United States - he has a confidence that sometimes astounds his colleagues. “I remember in New York he went out on his own for the day, hardly able to speak English. When he came back he said he had a great day, and that he’d hired a guy to carry his camera and take pictures of him in front of all the monuments.” Giving one’s camera to a stranger is bold enough, McGuinness said, “but then I asked how much he paid the guy. And he said happily that he had paid US$7 and a can of Coke!”
Most recently Zhu has been working on some monumental sculptures in a pottery style reminiscent of the warriors from Xian. But this new terracotta army is of cadres wearing Mao jackets, leaning forward in an obsequious kowtow . And where the Xian soldiers each have their individual facial expressions, Zhu’s civil servants have no clear faces at all.