Hi Art , December 2012
Out of Office
Pictures/Wu Jing, Gu Xiaobo
Zhu Wei, who has been avoiding exposure like a super star, is not “punk” at all as he was depicted. After 30 years of ups and downs, as almost the one and only “out-of-office” artist in the ink and wash painting community, Zhu Wei is like a specimen, full of stories and realities.
I don’t consider him as an “old punk”.
Maybe you have never seen an “old punk” shaking hands with people or inviting someone to have tea. In fact, Zhu Wei doesn’t see himself as a punk, neither. He believes there is no real “punk” in China. All right, that sounds really “punk”.
He regards himself more like a “specimen”. As an artist who has gone through almost three decades of a glorious as well as gloomy Chinese contemporary art, he is a “specimen” for others to review the past; as an artist who sticks to one way of creating and living style, he is a “specimen” for others to look into the future. He kept saying that he was not enthusiastic about anything with smiles, but I still felt strongly touched by his creating ferment demonstrated through his excitement when he showed me his latest works.
We have tried to identify the origin of that enthusiasm, while Zhu Wei argues that this era is dismissing all kinds of enthusiasm. Pointing at the rock music festival poster on the wall, he said it was his latest “work”. Perhaps, rock music and western “punk spirit” have enabled him to remain open and persistent. The red elements from those big scenes, maybe subconsciously, are in line with the cultural values and spiritual pursuits of Chinese rock music. Those red flags and vigorous rough images reflected the passionate pursuits and dreams of that rock-dominated age. That’s why the stage decoration of Cui Jian’s American show was designed by Zhu Wei, an ink and wash artist, and their friendship lasts over all these years. Meanwhile, it’s not hard to understand why Zhu Wei’s style thrives—rock music perpetuates, spirits never die.
Nevertheless, his works are ink and wash paintings, which enjoy a special position in China—they are our tradition as well as a cultural carriage challenging other art forms across the world. So, the identity of Chinese ink and wash artists is somewhat special. However, why him and why he could persist such a long time? In fact, Zhu Wei put it lightly. He said he was almost the only one “out-of-office artist”—no public employment, no salary and no organization, which I perceive as the most unique tag for him and that’s also the premise for his most abundant contemporarity, harshest sense of humor, strongest living crisis, most practical value, severest criticism and practicality. As a result, in his paintings, three “fan” and nine “ran” from the traditional ink and wash painting techniques and fine brush contributed to “contemporary” ink and wash with a practical sense and tendency. His works, born out of tradition, but still with distinct temporal characteristics and group memory, are enchanting.
The artists who first signed with galleries ushered in a new era in which art industry is getting more professionalized. Compared with “the majority” who live an unstable life, professionalized art and carefree artists are predecessors and trials of the beautiful future life. Therefore “out-of-office” artist Zhu Wei is embodied with more legendary color, and he is more objective, reasonably perceiving the society and art without worries for subsistence.
Officials, soldiers and strangers with fat head, big ears or woody expressions are main images in Zhu Wei’s figure series. They may be drawn from occasional encounter on the street or memories in his childhood. He said that some people were strangers shot on his trip, and some were old friends somehow left in his memories. We can’t help feeling laughable about those figures, but Zhu Wei always reminds people of the trivial memories of the background. Wavering red flag, clear, blue ripples, potted plants, blue sky and white clouds can always trigger something else, for example, politics or classics. The scenes left in our minds and from our shared temporal memories are weirdly calm. His painting brought more varied information to those prosaic images, resulting in humor and absurdity. That comes from an artist’s perspective or “white” humor from the adult world.
Zhu Wei doesn’t paint landscape nor favor strong coloring. We should say that he jumped out of the stereotype of ink and wash landscape and vulgar oriental ladies. Seeking contemporary breakthroughs in his own way, not catering to the tastes of the western markets that dominate the discourse power, he painted the contemporary times he sees and the era in his memory—his past, current situation and future. The images in his paintings are quite simple—clot organizations and his deliberate avoiding of oriental colors make people easily overlook the fact that Zhu Wei has been studying techniques. In fact, with his studio at the Apple District, Zhu Wei has been studying techniques in the manner of “sitting the working hours”. Or he is a sensitive artist lacking the sense of security, trying to keep up with the times through seeking breakthroughs, also, he speaks bluntly that he earns his living by painting, so we can see especially recently, though with few “productions”, he can always exhibit some “hard currency”.
Zhu Wei has prepared a series of new works on “Research” for his upcoming solo exhibitions at art galleries in Singapore, Indonesia and Beijing, which represented his thoughts and changes over recent years. Those figures are embodied with more delicate emotions, more complex background meanings. In Zhu Wei’s perspective, an era without changes can hardly produce artists with revolutionary spirits—the stable domestic environment made it hard for artists to make breakthroughs. Without opportunities brought about by time and environment, inner study became the only channel to promote art development. So after seven years of trail and error, Zhu Wei created a couple of Chinese color painting on paper spanning years, which demonstrate a sense of level and cloud and water wave decorations. The “old punk” who doesn’t feel to be a “old punk” has been committed to his own creating styles and making adjustments as the era changes. The sense of humor is still his company and reflections of visible effects shine in his paintings.
“Out-of-office” artist Zhu Wei is enjoying his “out-of-office” life and thankful for the freedom and enthusiasm brought about by it. The development of ink and wash paintings will not be about showing off techniques. Without contemporary colors, how could their beauty hold the measurement of the future?
Hi Art = Hi
Zhu Wei= Zhu
Paintings Rooted In Reality
Hi: How many paintings have you produced in this new series? And when?
Zhu: From 2005 to 2012, I have painted all together 12 new works. Four of them had been started in 2005. This can be said a breakthrough of the modern ink and wash paintings, since no one else has the courage like me.
Hi: Then what about your state this year?
Zhu: I surely had a tougher time than you. I had to sit in my studio all day, preparing for the tour exhibitions at MOCA, Singapore, Indonesian National Museum and at the Today Art Museum.
Hi: When did you begin to prepare for the exhibitions?
Zhu: Two or three years ago. Some of the paintings took me five years, and I made a quick ending this year. In the next year, I prepare to have a good rest.
Hi: Have you already had images in mind when you started to prepare for the exhibitions?
Zhu: I thought of this image years ago. Since 2005, I’ve been preparing to make some changes. This time, I made some alterations in figure and modeling. What’s more, the fine brush ink and wash paintings I draw are all related with reality. Whether ink and wash or oil painting, is form, and can’t be isolated from reality. I never create works behind doors, and I believe the paintings devoid of real life are tiring for people to view.
Hi: Are your pictures getting denser?
Zhu: That was affected by western contemporary paintings and even by televisions. Limited by the small TV screen, narrations were all about big close-up，with few medium shots. But movie is different. Contemporary art has been greatly influenced by material and technological upgrade. Back then, during the Renaissance and the classical periods, artists drew full length picture, yet now the reason is the limitation from technical progress. With the upgrading of technologies, artists must keep up with the pace of the times in materials, techniques and concepts.
Hi: Do you feel stressful toward creations now?
Zhu: The main problem is the lacking of material. Artists need materials to create. During the Chinese contemporary art movements like 85'New Tide Art and Post 1989, artists made works thanks to the social turbulence. At this point, the society is relatively stable, and artists are in a passive position. It makes no point painting something unrealistic. So I put more efforts in researches on ink and wash. I’m special, for I’m the only one professional artist who get the fame from painting ink and wash, others are almost all from painting academy or research institutions. I have no job occupation, that’s why I can paint at will. I can be regarded as a specimen in today. Back then, Ni Zan and Wen Zhengming were also never painted in court and painting academy. Since the early 1990s, I have been living on painting ink and wash. I’ve been living pretty well and my motives and thinking are different from those artists, also I take a different angle towards ink and wash. Correspondingly, I get the strongest senses of emergence and crisis, since my family would starve if I don’t paint.
No Literati, No Punk
Hi: Do you think you are a “punk”?
Zhu: “Punk” was born in the 1960s in the West when the Second World War was ended on the basis of anti-war. It didn’t appear in China until 20 or 30 years later. The same as contemporary art, punk is just a word in China. We have not yet fully grasped its meaning. We are just eager to have whatever exists in foreign countries. In fact, till now, there is neither “literati” nor “punk” in China, for both of the two kinds are steadfast idealists.
Hi: Is ink and wash, to some extent, a game of literati?
Zhu: No. first, there is no literati. Second, it’s not a game of literati.
Hi: What influence dose rock music has on you?
Zhu: Rock music is explosive and full of critical spirits. Around 1994 or 1995, I got in touch with rock music, and I think I blended it well with ink and wash. All together, I have paintings of 16 series and I tried my best to integrate the ink and wash with the times. For me, creating is not always a natural thing, sometimes you have to go against your will. I may have quit if I follow my will.
The Most Enjoyable 14 Years of Creating
Hi: How did you feel when you first signed with the Plum Blossoms gallery?
Zhu: For the first batch of domestic artists signed with foreign galleries, at least we did’t have to worry about our livelihood. I enjoyed my creations most during that period. After that, I have to organize all sorts of trivial things myself besides painting.
Hi: Are galleries more professional?
Zhu: I had my first solo exhibition in Hong Kong and Singapore in 1994. They signed a media company to deal with the media parts. They all worked diligently and did a professional job in the searching of documents. That gallery was next to Sotheby and it gave me a big flower basket.
Hi: Did the gallery provide a relatively independent creating environment?
Zhu: You have to be an independent person to create independently, and independent life serves as the foundation. I feel like keeping independent all my life. I’m used to this life style and I feel no attraction from systems.
Hi: Are your recent “Lecture Research” series born out of independent spirits?
Zhu: In living style and creation, I’m the same with the post 1989 generations. Maybe some people need to find a place to stay first and begin to paint after getting the sense of security. We are different in motives—I’m a researching artist. I can be counted as a specimen or a fossil in contemporary ink and wash. I completely live on creating works. I would like people to know that I’m a researching type and have noting to do with business. I have been seeking changes in ink and wash subjects and striving for greater success.