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【2006】How to "Recapture" the Experience of Painting?——Wang Minan



In short, the tradition of Chinese oil painting in the 20th century consisted of two divisions. One was the tradition of Western painting (this tradition included the Western realist tradition since the Renaissance and the modernist tradition after the 19th century. The other was the Soviet tradition following the 50s, which was the socialist modernist tradition. In the early 20th century, the tradition of Western painting dominated the practice of Chinese oil painting. During this period, students who had studied abroad returned home from Japan and Europe and spread a variety of experiences related to Western oil painting around China, while dialogues and clashes among realism and various modernist movements unfolded. The heterogeneous nature of the oil painting form was stimulated and circulated. However, beneath this vivid and sophisticated experience concerning oil painting, the cultural anxiety typical of that age was also spread within the circle of painters: would this painting style and model derived from the West fit with the Chinese context? Could it "negotiate" with Chinese painting? Would it lead to the launch of what Homi K. Bhabha referred to as "the third space"? Wang Yuezhi, Lin Fengmian, Xu Beihong and the others were tortured by anxiety over this language. They strived to "invent" a new "modern" painting language from two traditions. They all tried to open up a "third space" for painting. We can regard this experiment with the language of painting as the initial modernist approach in Chinese painting. The will power to invent new painting languages was suppressed by historical conditions in the 40s. Meanwhile, like literature, there was a tendency in painting to free itself from being intensely stylized, in order to generate a pure political "intervention" with history. With such a backdrop, there emerged a powerful "Yan'an fine arts model". The masses and civilians were both the target audience as well as the model "called for" in this Yan'an model. Painting began to linger in the view of the people. In the 50s, this Yan'an genre was involved in positional-warfare and extremely turbulent "negations" vis-a-vis the Russian socialist modernist system, and subsequently, by the time it reached its maturity, invented a painting tradition for the Cultural Revolution. This highly stylized and politicized realist painting constituted another substantially developed and systemized modernist painting category of the 20th century in China. In the latter 20th century, it expelled the Western modernist tradition at a single blow, while constraining the early modernist painting experiments of Lin Fengmian and the others to unite Chinese and Western traditions.

 

This was the context of the fine arts in the 1980s. In fact, in the later period of the Cultural Revolution, dissatisfaction with the hegemonic dominance of the Cultural Revolution painting style began to emerge (Feng Guodong had painted a human body in green very early on). In the 80s, this frustration was becoming ever more radical. Soon, a group of young artists were determined to break free of its shackles. Concerning the language and conception of painting, there was an explosive transition towards the Western tradition, a rich and diverse tradition that was full of impurity.

 

Wang Yin's training as an art apprentice happened to end during this period (the middle and late 80s). At this point, two painting experiences, the Western modernist genre and the Cultural Revolutionary system, were in the heat of intense opposition. As with most people of the same period, his painting experience from boyhood undoubtedly grew out of the Soviet painting tradition. He knows this tradition by heart - not only the Soviet painting tradition, but also Russian and Soviet literature and method of thought. Additionally, the time he spent in university coincided with the arrival of Western humanist trends and fine arts theories that "shook" society. This allowed him to be fully exposed to the avant-garde trends of thought from the West, especially those in fine arts and theatre - he even specifically studied Antonin Artaud, a largely unknown figure in China even today. At that time in Beijing, the new trend in art was to replace the Soviet and Cultural Revolution painting experiences with Western avant-garde experience and in this way challenge the tradition of art academies and the powerful official ideology in painting. Western "new" modernist and post-modernist trends in art were becoming widespread within Beijing's cultural arena. As if under the power of opium, all kinds of young people interested in literature and art, were attracted to the capital. As a result, the "enlightened" art circle of the 80s fanatically absorbed their nutrition from the West. It was in such an atmosphere that Wang Yin embarked on his art career. However, somewhat strangely, he was not completely swallowed by the new art trends that he was familiar with. On the contrary, he studied them meticulously, drew on the best part of them, while persistently keeping a distance from them. Of course by no means did this mean that he was tamed by the Soviet and Cultural Revolutionary painting experiences. Wang Yin's approach was to look for a vital possibility for painting. For him to rekindle his own passion in painting, he must look for an alternative path. But it was not the "new" Western path that most people pursued. Contrarily, Wang Yin's search drove him to dig into the "old" ways. This alternative and solitary path taken by Wang Yin constituted the fundamental concept and methodology of his art practice.

 

What kind of path was it? Actually, we can discover from Wang Yin's early "Fiction Monthly" series that his gaze is not on the West, but on the Chinese scholarly tradition since the May 4th Movement. Influenced by the discussion of the new cultural movement among intellectuals of that time, Wang Yin re-studied the works of a group of early Chinese painters such as those of Xu Beihong, Yan Wenliang, and Wang Shikuo etc. He examined these painters and their works in the context of the entire Chinese modernist view and considered them as an important part of the modernist process of Chinese culture. Thus the genealogical study of these representative figures of the "origin" of Chinese modern oil painting was, to a certain extent, part of the discussion of the genealogy of the modernity of Chinese culture. Wang Yin was fascinated with the modernist evolution of culture. Regarding the modernity of painting, he departed from the present, conversely traced down to its "origin" step by step. From an individual's point of view, the genealogical issues involved would probably be: Where has my painting experience come from? How have I developed my own style? Why do I paint in this way? From a general point of view, where has the experience of Chinese painting (oil painting) come from? Why has such a style existed in contemporary Chinese painting (oil painting)? How is the modernity of Chinese painting embedded in the internal modernist evolution of the whole Chinese culture? This is a typical Foucault style genealogical way of working. Obviously this genealogical project was widely different from the state of art throughout the 80s. In the 80s, there was basically no conscious and retrospective self-reflection on painting. There was simply plenty of instinctive disgust of the Cultural Revolution experience as well as instinctive expressions of ideology. At that period (even till now), more often than not, painting was indefatigably the declaration of the present times, the momentary revelation of the artist's emotions, concepts and will. Painting was always charged with intense and critical personal passion and viewpoints. However, as we can see, Wang Yin's paintings are extremely calm and rational, and even, if we look closely enough, turn a blind eye to the present. His attention is always focused on the history of painting, instead of present social history. These paintings that refuse to intervene with the present, are equally filled with criticism, except that this criticism is not a critique of ideology, but an analysis of painting itself and the history of painting. His fascination with the history of painting, in a certain sense, doesn't mean that he intends to avoid the present. It's simply another approach to discuss the present. To study the past isn't about being obsessed with the past, or relishing and being trapped in the past. Contrarily, to look into the past is an attempt to explain the present: how has this present stumbled forward one step at a time from this past?

 

In this sense, Wang Yin doesn't observe the external world with painting. Instead, he studies painting with painting. He makes use of painting to contemplate, question and critique painting itself. To be more accurate, he comments on the present by discussing the history of painting and accounts for the modernist progression of painting through painting, and eventually provides genealogical and investigative observations on the modern development of culture through painting.

How has Wang Yin actually executed such genealogical research? Wang Yin made rewarding analysis of the system of modern Chinese oil painting. Actually, the experience of Chinese modern oil painting has been troubled by a sense of anxiety: how on earth can this painting language that has stemmed from the West find the most appropriate way of expression in China? Can it find such a perfect expression? How is oil painting imbedded in the Chinese context? How can artists rely on this Western language to generate self-narration and self-expression? What is unique about the transplanted experience of Chinese oil painting in comparison to its Western counterpart? Just as the modernity of Chinese culture is never released from the confrontational state between Chinese and Western cultures, the modernity of Chinese oil painting is equally stuck in the same opposition between Chinese and Western cultures. A large number of artists have made tentative experiments on this aspect. They have all been pursuing an appropriate style and way of expression for oil painting. We can see that an attempt and intention to merge and bridge the two painting languages of China and the West doggedly and persistently rose in the 20th century. The purpose of such fusion is to reduce the sense of anxiety resulting from the discomfort between a Western language and the Chinese context, in order to invent a new painting language. However, Wang Yin's practice hasn't followed this path to pursue or create a new language of oil painting. Wang Yin doesn't desire to open up new possibilities for the modernity of oil painting. On the contrary, he reflects backward on the way to explore new paths, the attempt to invent languages of oil painting, the written history of modern Chinese oil painting, the key "events" in the modernistic process of painting, as well as the historical context that contained these events. This reflection is filled with playful joy rather than being dominated by a strong sense of responsibility. Such an attempt and objective to conceive a new language for oil painting and such a desire to trace a line back to the modernity of Chinese oil painting constitute the critical subject of Wang Yin's works.

 

In Wang Yin's works, there are the recurring appearances of the classic elements in early Chinese oil paintings and flashes of "marks" from certain classic oil paintings. These "marks" were the shaping elements in the modernist evolution of Chinese oil paintings. Wang Yin tirelessly looks back upon, mimics, copies and involves them or in another word, diligently inscribes new marks upon these marks. In this sense, in Wang Yin's works, he tries to stamp imprints upon the modernistic experience of painting in the 20th century. These imprints are of a great variety. It's likely to be a work of a representative painter (for example, a Xu Beihong's painting), or a classic subject matter in the history of painting (for example, a mango of the Cultural Revolution), or a leading painting technique (the Soviet style of painting that governed the 60s and 70s), or a painting concept characterized by a certain specific historical condition (Yan'an painters' appropriation of techniques and subjects from folk paintings), or the gaze of the powerful principal body at the "other" in painting (some adventurous and experimental painters adopted the life and culture of ethnic groups from Tibet as their subject matters), or the educational machine and system based on exemplary painting (painting from plaster statues in fine arts education) etc. All of these are important imprints in the modern experience of Chinese painting. These are the painting "occurrences"; these "occurrences" are woven into the genealogy of the modernity of Chinese oil painting in the 20th century. They were once radical and dominant, but are now reduced to mere silence by new painting experiences. Through his paintings, Wang Yin polishes and renews these imprints that were once annihilated, allowing the fading history to restore its own historical glow and allowing its fate to be examined by history today. This is the real purpose of Wang Yin's practice.

 

Then again, how does one reintroduce these marks and "occurrences" of painting? Wang Yin's method of reiteration reveals a certain Dadaist quality: concise, highly penetrable, and straight to the point. What is more important is that this approach is not heavy. It is, however, filled with a comical and playful outlook. His style of working shows the "repetition of discrepancy", that is to say, he repeats those painting events but his replication is done with alteration, rather than just absolute reproduction. It is repetition with addition, reduction or change of details. It is repetition that adds heterogeneous elements into the original painting events. It is in this sense that those classic imprints of paintings and incidents "flash" in his works. Wang Yin has a multitude of ways to recapture these painting occasions and imprints. Sometimes he directly sprays onto images; sometimes he appropriates works by folk art painters and rewrites them; sometimes he directly borrows the technique from Soviet paintings to playfully imitate the very same technique; sometimes he involves a work that gazes at the "other" by gazing at the "other"; sometimes he restores an original painting with different painting materials; sometimes he alters parts of the original (by adding, reducing or making slight changes) to "extend" the original. Through these methods, Wang Yin unearth those painting experiences and imprints from the drawer of memory and forces people to confront with the modern progression of Chinese painting in the 20th century.

 

So how does painting deal with modernity today? Can we re-discover our own painting language in this modernity? Can we uncover our unique means of expression at a time when the awareness of regional and cultural characteristics is ever diminishing? These are the questions that Wang Yin has put forward in relation to the modernity of Chinese painting. However, these serious issues - as it is revealed by history again and again - do not have answers. Wang Yin's works are not meant to answer or solve these issues. Naturally, he doesn't want to invent a new painting language either. To be more precise, there lies a painting language here with him. It's just that this painting language is a play on the existing painting language. Meanwhile, he's not willing to provide any statement on the modernist evolution of Chinese painting in the 20th century. He's not willing to pass judgment. He only makes reference, exposes and illustrates, simply experiences and feels the modernity of painting. He takes sheer delight in experiencing and feeling through painting. Art thus returns to its basic joy: the pleasure experienced by art in the game of self-reference.