China Pictorial December 2013
Washed in History
On the afternoon of November 3, 2013, the public got its first glimpse of the Zhu Wei solo exhibition at Today Art Museum. The event pairs several years of Zhu Wei’s artwork with critiques from various periodicals to create textual and academic framing that sheds light on the work’s artistic value. Born in 1966 in Beijing, Zhu is grouped among the select few artists who have captured contemporary China using traditional Chinese ink-and-wash paintings as well as one of the most globally recognized names in Chinese art from the 1990s.
In the 1990s, when China’s new generation of artists began using oil painting to produce political pop art and ironic realist work, Zhu Wei insisted on maintaining his meticulous drawing method, an indispensable feature of traditional Chinese painting, to portray his country. In 1933 when he had just graduated from Beijing Film Academy, Zhu submitted Story of Beijing No.3 to an exhibition in Guangzhou. At the event, he was discovered by Director Stephen McGuinness of Hong Kong’s Plum Blossoms Gallery and signed a 13-year contract with the gallery. Since then, his name has been familiar in global artistic circles. His first painting, Story of Beijing No.3, was eventually acquired by Monet’s grandson. His work has been displayed in more than 200 large-scale exhibitions worldwide and acquired by 39 museums and galleries within and beyond China.
Born to a military family and once employed as a soldier, Zhu’s early work frequently featured military symbolism such as red flags, soldiers, and red stars. For this reason, his early work was considered ‘Chinese political code’ by Western critics yet he was dubbed an icon of political pop art - one who used ink and wash rather than oil. Nevertheless, the artist felt uncomfortable with the title for a long time and intentionally kept distance from contemporary art circles. Keeping a low profile but rebellious in nature, Zhu has not joined any academic groups nor accepted any official titles.
“My subjects are the images with which I am familiar,” Zhu explains. “In the beginning of my career, I just added fashionable elements to my work such as red stars and emblems. I didn’t think too much about their connotations.” He believes such content has devalued his work by causing it to be classified as political pop art. “Pop art is simple work, which in Europe and the U.S., employs commercial symbols. When it was introduced to the former Soviet Union and China, it turned to political symbolism, which was more popular with the people.”
In the lobby of the IBM Building in New York stands a statue Zhu sculpted. Garbed in a Chinese tunic, the work depicts two people attempting to move forward despite losing their balance. The bronze statue was originally covered with dust to make it appear like an unearthed relic from a bygone era. “I added the soil to allude to the weight of history because China’s long history has left marks on everything,” Zhu reveals. However, the American installer thought the soil was dust and cleaned it off. Even Westerners who purchase and display his work may not fully understand the creation.
“At the end of 2008, I finished my Red Flag series after a year and a half of work,” Zhu claims. “It included seven paintings altogether. I produced with the aim of simply practicing traditional Chinese painting techniques to help prevent them from fading away. But instantly some spectators saw political undertones. Should I avoid them? Or have I been pigeon-holed?”
After Spring Herald in 2003 and Vernal Equinox in 2005, Zhu seems to have found more space to develop Chinese ink-and-wash painting. Chinese tunics disappeared from his canvas and the artist’s individuality has stood out, with freer usage of color and posturing of figures. Zhu considers his work across the years as a salute to the ancient masters and practice of Chinese ink-and-wash painting.
After 2005, oil painting became mainstream in Chinese contemporary art, highly motivated by the capital market. Chinese ink-and-wash painting was left out in the cold. “His efforts are in vain if an artist cares only about auction earnings rather than his reputation in art history,” Zhu declares. He does admit he once considered switching to oil painting, but ultimately opted to hold firm to Chinese ink and wash.
“I don’t agree with the opinion of many critics who think Chinese traditional ink-and-wash painting cannot catch up to the rapid pace of modern life,” Zhu says. “Over thousands of years, traditional Chinese ink-and-wash painting has proved its ability to depict a wide range of society. The unanswered question is ‘how'. The modernization process for ink-and-wash painting has no reference points or written theory. Western contemporary art theory has never touched Chinese painting. The practice needs people to explore it.”