SCOPE, April 21 2016
Visiting | Zhu Wei's Chinese Painting
By Li Li
"As for art, the best thing has ever happened is to break with the authority and go your own way." Richter summarized it nicely that the rebellion spirit itself is a kind of keeping alert, regardless of the world or of the heart.
Up to now, there have been forty-one museums around the world have collected Zhu Wei's artworks, while the range of private collections is much wider. As critic Li Xiaoshan wrote in his article: "Wherever one might find Zhu Wei's ink pieces, it is obvious, from motif to expressiveness, the artist has exploited to the full the expressive powers of the medium." One might say that in his hands ink painting is no longer an art medium but a deft mother-tongue, a tool which he wields to perfection. We have seen too many shoddy works and works which showcase petty acts; there are indeed many painters around us who win fame and fortune by gimmicky feats; such a trend tends to threaten, to erode, all the artists inside the circle. Zhu Wei doesn’t mind if he is considered an insider or not - he counters the erosion almost by a kind of self-exile. His ink paintings are much sought after by a considerable number of collectors, but Li thinks "few among them truly comprehend the meaning of his works."
In Zhu Wei's newest Taipei exhibition and the 2016 International Ink Art Biennale of Shenzhen, we can find the evolution in his latest Ink and Wash Research Lectures series - it is the same red curtain, the same single subject, the same subtle grain texture on the antiquated rice paper, however, Andy Warhol's yellow banana is highlighted on the red curtain background, which brings forth the typical charm of Zhu's 'using the past to serve the present'. Zhu Wei started using the traditional techniques and culture to describe the current experiences since his Landscape derivative from Bada’s brush style in 1988. He thinks that tradition and contemporary is not a pair of contradictions, but should be joint forces. The tradition can more or less rebuild cultural confidence by deriving nourishment from the contemporary. When we watch Zhu Wei's new work again, there is a deja vu from the "yellow banana" which reminds me the debut cover of the Velvet Underground & Nico. In this debut the Velvet Underground expresses their opinions on the phenomena in city life: with his dry and husky voice as broken as broken glasses, the Keyboardist John Cale sang out incisively and vividly the confusion and rebellious attitude of American youth in the 1960s, pointing out the incongruity between politics, culture, and freedom in the reality. Zhu Wei put such "yellow banana" on the red curtain, which also points at the commerce and the society.
The traditional ink painting bases on lines. Its technique, image and color and so on are all in line with the imposing manner and artistic conception of the lines. In Zhu Wei's point of view, lines are not only elastic, but also have their own characteristics. The introduction of western perspective illustration to Chinese traditional line drawing technique is a setback. He once mentioned in an interview, "for thousands of years, ink-and-wash paintings have developed smoothly without serious suffering. However, it came across two big calamities during these dozens of years: one was the May Fourth Movement happened in late Qing Dynasty and early Republic China, and the other was the traditional Chinese painting revolution. During the May Fourth Movement, ink-and-wash paintings were rather controversial, or we can even say they were negated. Indeed, then what people wanted to negate were existing culture, including ink-and-wash paintings, arranged marriages, imperial examinations and Shaman Celebrations. As to the so-called ‘traditional Chinese painting revolution’, bluntly, it was nothing but westernizing ink-and-wash paintings by integrating them with sketches and perspective principles, having made them rather ridiculous and nondescript." As for color, Zhu Wei tries not to use the western pigments, meanwhile, he stresses the importance of ink in ink paintings. "Ink must be enough in an ink painting," he said, "otherwise, it will be a watercolor painting." Fan Kuan of the Song Dynasty, Shi Tao and Badashanren of the late Ming and early Qing have always been Zhu Wei's mental reference. In Zhu's 19 series, including The Story of Beijing, Sweet Life, Supreme Treatise On Moral Retribution, Diary of the Sleepwalker, Utopia, Vernal Equinox, Hills Beyond A River, Red Flags, and The Ink and Wash Research Lectures series, not only the "practised and convinced brushstrokes without any soft style" like the strength of character of the Song Dynasty is presented, but also a strong effect of alienation is created through highlighting the traditional pattern on a symbolic background. This kind of alienation is not simply a symbolism, but a prophecy of ideology that has been made with ink language.
The remark of German sinologist Michael Kahn-Ackermann shows how the thought and value system of Chinese painting was recognized and popularized in the cultural system of the world - "the essence of Chinese painting is freehand brushwork. The freehand brushwork is a way to express one's inner experiences of the self, the nature, the society and the reality. Accumulating such experiences is a difficult process, which is called self-cultivation in Chinese traditional art. Without such self-cultivation, one cannot be free enough in his/her works." Zhu Wei has been practicing his sense and feel of the traditional techniques and materials. He never left the earth of freedom. His experiences of the self, the nature, the society and the reality is derived from an era of transition, including the changing politics, economics, cultures, and ideology. This era is not just a concept existing in the wave of '85 art movement or the post '89, but more in the hearts squeezed by all kinds of ideologies and reality. Presented in the way of "using the past to serve the present", Zhu Wei paints the drapery lines and orchid lines in his Utopia series just as "Cao Buxing’s depicting of clothes look like just coming out from water, and Wu Daozi's drawing of clothe belt look like swaying in the wind"; in his Hills Beyond A River, we can feel the alienation atmosphere inherited from Ni Zan's classical landscapes; in his Ink and Wash Research Lecture series, people depicted in bust are seemingly adrift, disconnected from their environment - with their blocky features (their big lips, jowly cheeks, lustreless eyes and blocky figures), the painter displays a group of tired dull and neutral characters. These characters are more inward, no longer "narrative", representing the wisdom of "blandness" in Chinese traditional aesthetics, and revealing the deeper political and economical consequences behind it. As Roland Barthes has stated, where there is paradigm, there is conflict, and the neutral is everything that outplays paradigm. In his minimalist and repeated composition, Zhu Wei absents his figures in a neutral way, while keeps the maximum potential energy in his art.
After five years of sediment, Zhu Wei began his Ink and Wash Research Lectures series from 2012. However, Zhu Wei has never had to do with literati painting. Actually in the modern China, especially after the 10 years of Cultural Revolution, there is no traditional literati any more, thus the literati painting has became a false proposition. Starting from his The Story of Beijing No.3 in 1993, Zhu Wei has told stories straightforwardly. Symbols of referentiality was used in his paintings as an narrative language, while ideology or identity has never been avoided, both of which are probably the biggest difference between Zhu Wei's painting and the literati painting. It was also an iconic motif expressed by the artists of the generation after 60s. Indeed, we can see Zhu Wei's sharp style in The Story of Beijing ,China Diary, and New Pictures of the Strikingly Bizarre. "Whatever Zhu Wei may feel, his paintings are successful because they are so very much of their time. They evoke both the new tide of life in China and the mysterious aura of the “olds”, that classical side that was known to the outside world before China closed her doors. Yet these paintings hinge on those glimpses of the world within China that China herself afforded the world in the years of closure. This fascinates us. Of course, we could simply say that Zhu Wei is technically an extraordinary artist of singular vision who would produce such images even if no one was looking as he was before he was first discovered," wrote by art critic Karen Smith in her cover story published in ART NEWS ASIAN in October 1996.
Now Zhu Wei begins to explore the Chinese painting materials by painting ink and color on the Southern Weekend newspaper. He used to quote Gerhard Richter as saying that "since Duchamp, everything is ready-made, even the hand-painted stuffs is ready-made." No matter Southern Weekend or ink and color, or a combination of both, are not a new concept but an exploration to broaden the boundaries of ink. As critic Lu Hong said: "I am deeply concerned about Zhu Wei's recent paintings. In these new paintings he no longer paints on Xuan paper or silk, but on newspapers that are very common to everyone. Since what he paints are red curtains and related symbols, the expression of concept is therefore more profound. Anyone who's familiar with art history knows that the master Picasso and Klee had done similar art experiment. Contrarily speaking, what they performed were purely formal explorations, while Zhu Wei is to emphasize how the manipulated modern media control the minds of people. It couldn't be more wrong if you think Zhu Wei is just dealing with forms or materials." Any established art forms do not have so called boundaries. People are continuously trying new techniques and expressions to expand the boundaries all the time. You can take these works as the past and present lifes of the Southern Weekend before and after its transformation of orientation as an echo of cultural change. In the meantime, the newspaper itself, which is both soft and tough as Xuan paper, has the nature of propagation, politics or culture. The viewers can see through the dense ink color and read the snippets of news release and fragments of culture reviews. In fact, the more important is the painter's intention to rectify the trend of ink painting's becoming decorative, refined, typological, and commercialized before its modernization.
在朱伟最新的台北个展和 2016 深圳水墨双年展中，我们能够看见他最新《水墨研究课徒》系列的演进——同样的红色帷幕，同样的单一主体，在被做旧的熟宣纸上透出隐约的纹路质感，而安迪·沃霍尔的黄香蕉则从红色帷幕背景中凸显出来，让人看到朱伟标志性的“古为今用”的意趣。从 1988 年的《仿八大山水》开始，朱伟就沿袭传统的手法和文化思维，描绘对当下的感受，他觉得传统和当代并非对立，而应该是一股合力，传统没准能通过当下的养分重建某种文化信心。再一看朱伟的新作，好像能从“黄香蕉中”跳出《地下丝绒与妮可》（The Velvet Underground & Nico）专辑封面的即视感，在这张处女作中，地下丝绒乐队表达了对城市生活中一些现象的看法：键盘手约翰·凯尔以他那乾涩、沙哑得犹如破碎的玻璃一样的嗓音将 1960年代美国青年对于现实的迷茫、反叛的态度表达得淋漓尽致，内容指向的是现实中政治、文化与自由的不协调。朱伟将这样的“黄香蕉”放在红色帷幕的背景中，既指向商业也指向社会。
从德国汉学家米歇尔·康·阿克曼（Michael Kahn-Ackermann）的表述中，就能看出中国画的思维和价值体系在世界文化系统中是如何被认同和普及的——“水墨画的本质是写意。写意是一种内在经验表达方式，对自我、对自然、对社会、对现实的经验。积累这种经验是非常艰苦的过程，中国传统艺术当中叫修养，没有这种修养，就没法把这个‘意’写下来。”朱伟的绘画一直践行着传统的手感和对于材料的意识，他一直没有离开这个“意”的土壤。同时他对于自我、自然、社会与现实的经验也来自于政治、经济、文化、意识形态巨变的大时代，这个时代不仅仅是’85 或后 89 概念，更多的是在各种意识形态和现实挤压之下的人心。这人心以“古为今用”的方式呈现，就成了“曹衣出水，吴带当风”的《乌托邦》系列中衣纹线描、兰叶描的笔意；《隔江山色》中从倪瓒式的经典山水智慧中隐约散发的疏离感；《水墨研究课徒》系列中茫然若失的人物半身像，其以块状（宽厚的嘴唇、更深的法令纹、无焦点的眼神、方圆的体态）的人物构图，显现了疲惫、迟钝和中性的群像。同时这些人物更加向内、不再“叙事”，表现出中国传统美学中“淡然”的智慧和更深的社会政治因果。罗兰巴特说有范式就有冲突，而中性正好是击溃范式的利器。在极简和重复构图中，朱伟用中性的表现方式，将人物的状态抽离，保持了表达的最大势能。
经过五年的沉淀，从2012年起，朱伟开始了延续至今的《水墨研究课徒》系列，然而朱伟从来就与文人画无关。实际情况是，近现代中国，特别是文革十年浩劫之后，已无传统意义上的文人，文人画成为一个伪命题。从 1993 年的《北京故事三号》开始，朱伟就单刀直入地讲故事，将带有指涉性的符号作为画面叙事的语言，从未回避意识形态的问题或身份，这可能是他的作品与文人画最大的区别，也是 1960年代艺术家表达的标志性母题。确实我们也能从《北京故事》、《中国日记》、《新二刻拍案惊奇》系列中，看到朱伟式尖锐的水墨人物画风。“不管朱伟怎么感觉，他的绘画之所以成功盖因他的作品反映的就是这个时代。它们既使人联想到中国的生活新潮流，又联想到中国‘古老’的神秘气氛，那中国闭关锁国之前为外界所知的古典一面。同时这些作品也更给人一个机会一瞥对外界关闭时的中国。这使我们极为着迷，他创造出了这些水墨画图像。”评论家凯伦·史密斯在香港1996年10月出版的《ASIAN ART NEWS》封面文章中写道。