You can hardly be an easy relaxing watcher before his paintings, since you are left with a fragile and vague feeling, failing to measure the distance between the paintings and yourself. It seems that you have to manage to gradually adjust your mental focus as if your understanding would be confirmed or overturned by his art works. It turns out that it will bring you more doubts than mere judgments about works.
In a modern culture that sees constant “farewell” as ideology, the revisit of earlier Chinese predecessors’ oil paintings makes the thread of Wang’s works clear but complicated. In his works, we see that his issues involve the power relation between Chinese folk painting and academic painting, the spiritual connection between Soviet painting and Soviet culture, Soviet painting and the cultural context of our fathers’ generation, the mutual viewing of the frontier theme and modern awareness, and the political association of liberation in Yan’An Art. The various factors in the painting system entangle and impede one another to be the history of Chinese contemporary art. But in his work, he never acts as a speaker, and there is no implication or amplification in the pictures. Instead, he exposes or presents them by creating connections. Thus, revisiting the earlier Chinese predecessors‘ oil paintings is meaningful for him in the sense that he is rooted in where he grows rather than reinterpreting history.
Wang humbly said that his paintings are closer to the so called “self-developed oil paintings”. He is neither much concerned with a personal style, nor does he follow the masters in art history. In his earlier works, he applied diverse materials and techniques, and interestingly, the application of these new techniques aimed at the past instead of the future as it was anticipated. Perhaps, it’s easier to comprehend his subsequent work if we interpret the phase as a conceptual preparatory one, and it’s exactly by these external means that he approaches the birthplace of his painting, and obtains a historical awareness of the transformation of art in the preparatory phase.
Around 2005, he painted Mango on a plastic plate, which seems too fresh a scene for a painting. Luckily, his intention was gradually exposed with the lapse of time when the gouache on the plate started to peel and layers of chips, bit by bit, accumulated on the bottom of the frame. The mango, together with the tablecloth under it, these objects and materials simultaneously effloresce over time and these changes are gradually altering the appearance of the picture, which might be utterly effaced one day. What is peeled and effaced is merely the temporary visual object, but how can we handle the deposit accumulated on the bottom of the frame? I fully understand that Wang’s effort based upon his revisit to Chinese art history has neither established a memorial nor saved the historical memory. Wang tries to rejuvenate the agitated and ambivalent vitality of an artist, to be liberated from the standardization of the institutionalized systems, by means of his exposure of the connections between the shaping of history and his reflective narratives. The connection is regarded as a cultural “identity card”, which the new system is surely able to invalidate, but as the continuity of a living being, the proof of chaos, instinct and emotion which are accumulated over time cannot be invalidated, and will even be extended in another aspect under new circumstances. How to face it as a life structure is more than the revisit of the predecessors, but more significantly the response to the current situation.
When Wang puts up a question regarding the connection as the current situation, it means that he has set a limit for himself. He is clear about that. The limit does not mean the restriction to him, but rather the background for creation. At times the limit has been regarded as an obstacle to freedom that should be eliminated, but destroying the limit could lead us into darkness. Only when we are aware of the limit can we prevent ourselves from being controlled.
Frequently, the same theme is depicted in Wang’s work, as for instance in Father , On the Train , as well as A Barefoot Painter in 2013. It is a common way in contemporary art that artists repeat similar representations with subtly different details, making the copying pictures reflect their changing focus on the same object, trying to produce the paralleling interpretations of a symbolic object of integrality. What is new about Wang’s effort is that, his repeating yet differentiating depictions of the same theme refuse a definite intentionality, instead lead to an open and uncertain mutuality of them, as if the two pictures were communicating, questioning and gazing face to face, sometimes reconfirming and sometimes skeptically inquiring each other. We could not resist sharing his thoughtful hesitation and entanglement of being thrown into reality, as well as his deliberate aesthetic concern, which intentionally reduces the arrogant impression by its impressive anti-style, anti-image and anti-narrative. And the differentiation in his dialoguing pictures exposes the divergent yet reciprocal meanings of an image.
All of this relates to his search for a comprehensive sense of reality, and also to his pursuit of autonomy at work. He respects vitality, trying to internalize vitality, to encounter vitality as life goes on, so as not to be misled by popular or fashionable orientations.
In Wang’s works, his own image appears sometimes as a plaster model, a lonely walker in the landscape with green women, a passenger on the train… What does it mean when he exposes himself in a way so different from the self-portrait? The silent and never disturbing presence of the painter himself in the picture suggests a most likely answer: he is not a lyricist, nor a performer, but one of the objects there to be analyzed in the context.
Verfremdung of Brecht is a methodology that means a lot to Wang, and helps him to estrange himself from the familiar things. In Phaenomenologie des Geistes, Hegel explained that the most familiar things are not truly understood because of them being familiar. It is true. We are often self-deceived in assuming that we possess good understanding of the familiar things and never try to recognize them as they are. Taking advantage of Verfremdung, Wang creates an estranging effect in his self-portraits by making a context with a sense of distance, so that it could reveal the truth concealed in his familiar looks. It is a way for paintings to remake significance of the gone and lost moments.
Keeping away from the faddish but snobbish expressions and the authoritative narratives could be sometimes a way to enrich our experience, but it could also mislead our experience with self-imposed optimistic illusions. Wang is surly alert of this sort of challenge. So he would rather get rid of the illusions by detecting the origins and traces of new knowledge or old problems coming to him.
After 2008, Wang has been deliberately introducing the most common occasions or creatures of everyday life into his paintings, such as a shoemaker or a garbage man. And his new work in 2013 depicts an old man in the courtyard, a woman in the shade, a little girl, Lele, his wife Chen Jun and an old man, everything around the painter in his ordinary experiences. His cultural reflection seems to have been fading out, but actually developed and deepened in view of his representation, which allows him to reflect the deepest cultural structure embedded in our ignored experiences. He tries to depict our most honest daily life with the reflection on the painting tradition where he has been and where he has to restart. Wang once mentioned the admiring effort made by Wang Shikuo, who tried to represent Chinese experience by means of Western painting he had learnt, and finally developed his distinct ways to represent vividly the flesh and blood, culture and context of Chinese people at his times. I think that is one of the very concerns in Wang’s revisit to his predecessors – the way to reestablish the autonomy of a painting language.
It could be said, the unstableness and uncertainty of his work comes from the tension, seriousness and pressure of the decisive moment he imposes to himself, when he has to resist any snobbish temptation while experiencing this critical moment of either innovating or being corrupted. Meanwhile, we could find his struggle paradoxically concealed in an always unusually quiet and peaceful space composed of very few things and of no dramatic appeal. His paradoxical space is intentionally made as dull as a pause, which fortunately makes it lack of transparence in meanings thus not so easy to flatter people with pleasant sensation, due to his conception more than his emotion. Although his work is so distinctive, it is made according to his understanding of the themes rather than his personal characteristics.
How could we be self-approved? Wang takes a seemingly conservative yet productive way: After careful examination of traditional ways, he lets them fill into and flow through his works. As Walter Benjamin suggests, it is so good to help establish the identity of one’s work, which further intensifies the contradictions between history and reality. But it also keeps identity open, never letting it be confined by easy judgment nor arrogant narrative, thus eventually producing the images that could never be replaced or interpreted by popular expressions or authoritative narratives.