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Oriental Art . Master《东方艺术·大家》

Vol.147 总第147期

First Semimonthly of December 2007 二零零七年十二月上半月刊


Zhu Wei: Ink paintings, contemporary art in a different tone

Wang Jing 

Zhu Wei, an artist who has been labeled an “old punk”, paints aspiring works such as The Story of Beijing and China, China. Without his deep-rooted and ever-lasting passion, it would be tricky to handle these works with his degree of precision. These are not works that could be done by any “well-tempered”, “stand by the rules” artist either. 

When I first met Zhu Wei in the café, I thought to myself, “The artist is just like his paintings”. Zhu Wei, an artist who has been labeled an “old punk”, paints aspiring works such as The Story of Beijing and China, China. Without his deep-rooted and ever-lasting passion, it would be tricky to handle these works with his degree of precision. These are not works that could be done by any “well-tempered”, “stand by the rules” artist either.  After our conversation deepens and our topics expand, Zhu Wei, behind his thick Beijing accent, is refreshing with his unique wit and humor, making this interview an opportunity for me to elucidate the mystification.  

Back in the 1990s, Zhu Wei was one of the earliest artists that emerged in the then burgeoning art market. Since 1993, he has been working with Plum Blossoms Gallery, a gallery that has branches and network in Europe, America and Hong Kong. Their tight-knitted cooperation lasted until 2005. In those 12 years, Zhu Wei’s ink paintings attracted a lot of attention, from overseas collectors to major art institutes, demonstrating his works have genuine international significance. Art critic Li Xiaoshan once commented, “ Zhu Wei’s visual documentation contains many significant footages.” Westerners have a saying “One’s character determines their destiny”. Frankly, many people do not know how to handle their destiny. Zhu Wei never shows off his outstanding achievements. In his own words, he is “merely a hard-working peasant who lowers his head and works steadfastly.” On the business side, Zhu Wei’s attributes lie in his close observance to business conduct and his self-imposed restrictions. In academic terms, Zhu Wei’s works transmit messages that richen thoughts, in his unique artistic style. His works, in a way, are reflections of his personal experience and his low-profile, easy-going personality.  

For his whole life, Zhu Wei has maintained a peculiar connection with Beijing’s institutionalized culture. Both of his parents were in the military. His childhood memories begin with the military institution. His parents spent a lot of time on their work during the revolution period, leaving Zhu Wei without much of a family life to enjoy. Eventually, he was sent to his grandparents’ residence at Beijing Shougang Steel Company. When Zhu Wei recalls this chapter of his life, behind his tone of disinterest revealed a sense of sorrow. As a “wild” kid growing up, Zhu listens to rock music and reads book about Existentialism. Thus, what drove him into picking up and learning conventional Chinese ink painting? This transformation puzzles a lot of people. From my personal observation, Zhu Wei seems to be more fitted for the passionate Expressionist style. However, after having heard him explain his understanding of antiquity to me, I immediately sense his fascination for visual codes in Chinese ink painting. He employs his skills to depict the surroundings and would never inherit directly from his predecessors without given thoughts. He firmly believes that we can find an early model for everything that happens in modern world. This has become his philosophical foundation for citing the antiquity, and this has certainly become his bridge that connects the present and the past.       

For a very long period of time, Zhu Wei’s works from the 1990s have been classified under the category of Chinese “Political Pop Art”. Political implications in his works are easily circulated and duplicable and these have become a big reason for his notoriety.  However, if one takes a closer look at his personal experience since his twenties, one would discover the assertion of including his works from the 1990s into the “Pop” camp is not appropriate. Right from the beginning, Zhu Wei did not purposefully plant any visual codes in his works. Instead, he was studying through his peasant’s eyes. The works were his direct reaction to capturing the reality with traditional Chinese painting techniques, not from any conceptual angle or with any aim to arouse notions of absurdity or to have them connect with the current social affairs. Most of his works arise from his interaction with the environment. He uses a very “humanistic” approach to inspect a broad context of social occurrences and the ubiquitous images of the social leaders.  

The social elites carry the responsibility of driving the society forward; this focus is highly evident in Zhu’s paintings. The artist recognizes the massive power that lies within Chinese block letters in both traditional and modern China, but Zhu Wei never rigidly adheres to traditional ink painting’s formulas and confinements. On the contrary, he is courageous in exploring a path that nobody has ever attempted.  Zhu Wei, in his forties, maintains his poise and his keen observation of society. He is also very interested in an extensive range of cultural events. These interests allow his works to be sly, cryptic and the meanings profound. The humor in his works eases his elucidation; his humanistic approach eases the bluntness. Zhu Wei’s paintings document a rapidly changing social standard, as well as weaknesses in human nature. They are humorous and sarcastic at the same time… The viewers will find it difficult to establish an overall opinion that summarizes his works. Thus, it demonstrates that he has created images that expand to boundless possibilities.      

In regarding the current status of Chinese ink painting, the dispute is endless. The proposition has become such an irresolvable agony that every member of the Chinese art circle felt the stress but nobody could do anything to change it. The discussion is set, and Zhu Wei has been expressing the unspeakable sorrow as a contemporary Chinese ink painter without reservation. In his first eight years as a painter, he refused to exhibit his works alongside works created in any other media, such as oil paintings, and he barely participated in any group exhibition. He recalls bitterly, “ At the beginning, I felt inferior as an ink painter, for the reason that, in theory, ink painting lacks the rich expression and clarity of oil painting. To tell the truth, I feel even more inferior now, because contemporary ink painting does not have any influence. Nobody cares about contemporary ink painting.”  Truthfully, this has long been a standing issue in the art circle, after years of debate, there is still no fruitful conclusion to solve the problem. The ink painters are still being judged by the time and effort they spent on academic research and their seniority. Needless to say, Zhu Wei is puzzled by such verdict. Art critics always doubt a thirty, forty years old ink painters’ qualification. To be more precise, these painters are not even under consideration in their discussion. Many people believe that only the media and subject matters from the West qualifies as contemporary art, their prejudices for ink painting hinder the modernization of ink painting and forbid them from attaining the recognitions they are due.       

Discussing the difficult circumstances is inevitably dispiriting. When putting contemporary ink painting into practice, one destined to face the awkward dilemma. Zhu Wei is devoted to use ink painting to express his real feelings. An art critic said this about Zhu Wei: “Zhu Wei is a serious painter, as well as a thinker full of wit and foresight. He is also a hard-worker who likes to put his thoughts into practice. How much shall ink painting inherit qualities from the antiquity? And how much of it shall be blazing off new trails? In the question of how ink painting shall be modernized, I think Zhu Wei is a successful cultivator.”  As Zhu Wei teasingly commented, “Maybe after 30 years, maybe even longer, the era for ink painting will eventually emerge.” From my point of view, it is not a self-consolation joke. Until today, there are more and more people starting to see clearer the true values of Zhu Wei.  





《东方艺术·大家》 2007年12月上半月刊 总第147期