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Sanlian Lifeweek Magazine 《三联生活周刊》

February 25 2013 二零一三年二月二十五日周刊

Sanlian Lifeweek Magazine February 25 2013

Drawing Fine Brush Painting while Listening to Rock Music

Zhu Wei sometimes pays tribute to his beloved Royal Court Painting School of the Song Dynasty like a game, and its fun only belongs to him and few “insiders”.

By Zeng Yan

I perceived some “new” things in Zhu Wei’s new exhibition held in MOCA Museum in Singapore: these figures are aging. Up to 2012, the figures in his painting from the Upcoming Spring series staring from 2003 and Spring series since 2005 are portrayed with more wrinkles. Zhu Wei remained being himself, demonstrating his skills in details and competing with himself.

It seems that Zhu Wei didn’t attend to his proper duties for three or four years after 2007: skating or practicing calligraphy in the day while watching movies or CDs at night; dwelling in the rock music circle for decades, shooting movies for Cui Jian’s music band, writing columns for art magazines about movies, Guo Degang, Olympics, Cabbage—that is, everything but serious art, however, he can’t change his “cynical” nature, anxiety as well as sarcasm seem to be born with, while sometimes he can just hit the vital part. For example, he once wrote about ink painting: “I swear not to painting ink painting any more every time I go to Liulichang. You just feel overwhelmed seeing all those painting scrolls, coverings of fans, thousands of galloping horses and over ten thousand purple grapes blending Chinese and Western styles. You need someone to spray you with icy water or eat an ice cream immediately.” “As contemporary art was not born in our homeland, the artists, critics, art dealers can only act like what railroad guerrillas did when they were fighting the Japanese soldiers--everybody hold a rake, as long as there is train driving near, regardless of the consequences, they use their rake to pull the stuff out of the train, no matter how much they can rake off.” He wrote on the utility of contemporary art. “Over the past dozens of years, whether you were vanguard or not, "85" or '"89", the people who are serious about art and with some sense of cultural responsibility are more or less feel depressed. No matter what they may say, their dreams have been shattered. For example, if we visit other people's home, and make a pizza with the flour and eggs we brought and their kitchen appliance. They would praise you if it tastes good. But if you want to make a Jianbing (the Chinese pancake), they would show their dismay immediately. ” He also kept alert and sensitive to the western artist who once recognized his talent.

Actually, Zhu Wei is one who still gets applaud with a Jianbing. He successfully marched into the western business track with traditional Chinese Gong-bi technique, materials and contemporary subjects. He witnessed the contemporary Chinese art over the past three decades and benefited from it. Born in the 1960s, Zhu Wei was one of the first group of artists being recognized by western business gallery and auction market. In the early 1990s, most contemporary artists gathered at Yuanmingyuan Park, while Zhu Wei chose to live at Wanquanzhang not far from there, preferring to be alone, where he lived for seven years in a rent house of 60 square meters. His early renowned works such as Beijing Story, Captain and Sweet Life were all finished there. In his own words, their generation went through a “west journey dream”: “I’ll leave the oil painting painters alone, good ink painting painters whose works thrived in the west are Xu Bing and Gu Wenda in the 1950s, Wei Dong and me in the 1960s, but there is none in the 1970s and 1980s.” Zhu Wei was already leading a prosperous life when I got to know him in 2005, listening to rock music as well as painting Gong-bi in the suburb of Beijing. Cui Jian once wrote a song especially for his solo exhibition named Villages Surrounding Cities. Zhu Wei, like always, keeps a proper distance from the contemporary art community so as to see things objectively.

Born into a military family in Beijing, Zhu Wei entered army at 16, and was admitted to the Art College of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army to study ink painting after serving there for three years. Someone asked him why choose ink painting, and Zhu Wei said it was because Xuan paper was cheap and pigment durable. Art college curriculum, in particular military college curriculum, was rather stiff in the late 1980s. Zhu Wei still remembers one basic skill training during school from which he benefited a lot: to fold a piece of paper into a hollow paper scroll with which to practice drawing lines and circles with elbows hanging in the air. That practice always goes for hour. Scrolls are harder to control compared with brushes. Painters must spend more efforts to portray smooth lines. It’s those tedious training that paid off in his later painting life.

Zhu Wei has been creating with the traditional boneless fine brush painting techniques to make contemporary works since the early 1990s. “Using Gong-bi, you need to first outline the objects, then color them layer after layer and finally naturally blend the lines and the color.” That’s why his paintings boast vanguard images and concepts, and at the same time extreme patience, including the material preparation. Zhu Wei’s paintings are mostly in a dark base color, and he has his special requirements for each of his painting: order a kind of firm and elastic paper made from mulberry, first, put stone bricks with lines or wood boards as bases, paint the first base color, and natural grids will be formed when the pigments condense; use rough blankets to add a layer of more delicate color when the paper dries to acquire the delicate emotions needed for each painting; needless to say, there is also careful depiction and coloring; finally, “wash the picture under a water tap before finishing the eyes and hair, rubbing some parts. This step requires extreme patience, experience as well as some courage, because many times the pictures had been ruined by this step. Still, it’s worthwhile for its fascinating effects--surface like ancient relics, special wrinkles and depth--though with risks.” Zhu Wei once told me how desperately slow his painting process can be: big pictures were almost two meters in length and three meters in width. After a day’s work, he only found himself finishing a space like a napkin. He even swore not to enter his studio any more, turning to drinking and rock music for salvation.

Zhu Wei sometimes pays tribute to his beloved Royal Court Painting School of the Song Dynasty like a game, and its fun only belongs to him and few “insiders”: Water by Ma Yuan was exaggerated in his Flood series from 2000 to 2001; a flower basket from Flower Basket by Li Song appeared at some corner of his Utopia series. Reasonable and careful transition along with models like red flag, podium and bronze ware turned into imaginations only insiders would understand. So, it’s not surprising to see he put “Big White Eye” of fish and bird by Badashanren (Zhu Da) on his figures.

Viewers always feel the mix of two things: wild images and careful composition. Painters without deep traditional culture qualities and techniques are hard to demonstrate those Gong-bi skills. “Zhu Wei is one of the few artists who try to interpret the status quo of contemporary Chinese society with traditional ink painting” and “one of the most important explorers and representatives in contemporary Chinese ink painting field”, according to the international art community. Three galleries dominated Hong Kong in the early 1990s—Plum Blossoms Gallery, Hanart Gallery and Schoeni Art Gallery, which paid the earliest attention to contemporary Chinese art. According to Zhu Wei, Wei Dong, Wu Guanzhong and him signed contracts with Plum Blossoms Gallery; Fang Lijun, Wang Guangyi and Zhang Xiaogang with Hanart Gallery; Yang Shaobin and Yue Minjun with Schoeni Art Gallery, Liu Dan, Li Huayi and him received the earliest attention by the western auction market after Sotheby entered Hong Kong with prices slightly higher than contemporary Chinese oil paintings. “The attention received and price gap between ink painting and oil painting only widened after contemporary Chinese art returned to local forms in the 21st century, especially when contemporary art was to be auctioned.” This is how Zhu Wei felt about the changes of the whole situation. “Nevertheless, he didn’t bury himself in that despair, but rather began to criticize and satirize both western and local arts, through comparing his personal experiences with the contemporary art development.”

At a courtyard of the IBM mansion in New York, stands a huge series of cooper sculptures made by Zhu Wei—two figures wearing Chinese tunic suits standing stiffly with their hands closely beside their body, trying to move forward though out of balance. These copper statues were supposed to be covered with a layer of dust, which was particularly made by the artist to make them look like unearthed relics of the pottery figurine from the Han Dynasty. While the Americans wiped them clean. So, the westerners may not truly understand him though having recognized his works a long time ago.

Zhu Wei’s works diverged from the past since 2003 with his distance kept from the art community and self-mocking. His early works, from Beijing Story to Eggs under the Red Flag, and highly recognized over 60 Utopia series works, all embody political senses or westerners exaggerated the “political codes” from his childhood memory and military uniform, and thus was judged as a member of “Political Pop” or “Cynical” family with the only difference of using ink painting instead of oil painting, which makes him perplexed and upset. Maybe that led him to remain some distance from the contemporary art circle. However, starting from the Upcoming Spring in 2003 and especially the Spring series after 2005, he seems to be liberalized, found broader space from traditional narration and ink painting interests—vague Chinese tunic suits, colors and figures with more freedom.

We can also vaguely perceive traditional pictures like Hundred Children Picture and Hundred Butterflies Picture in his paintings, for example, repeated appearance of one image to foster a visual feeling of continuation. Those figures were presented in an order designed by the artist, making people feel like floating with their roly-poly postures, similar to the dizziness when spring comes after winter. Zhu Wei once said, part of the class texts of this series come from pictures on pink china, that’s why we can feel a slight distance from those pictures, while Gong-bi peonies beside the figures and green leaves are like little branches of china images, adding more connotation to the pictures.

“Contemporary ink painting is being rejected by both the contemporary era and ink painting.” Zhu Wei once said. Many people have noticed that Zhu Wei doesn’t like freehand brushwork painting, literator painting, and rejects graffiti-like freehand, and he also can’t help revealing how much he loves the traditional Gong-bi techniques. For the controversy issues in contemporary ink painting, Zhu Wei basically stayed out it. There are only two articles from his column were on serious discussions of ink painting: Stories of Ink Painting and Ink Painting in My Eyes. “Ink painting is somewhat like the well-known Ping pang. Who dares to teach the Chinese to play Ping pang? It takes little space and whoever is willing to play can have some fun. ”