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【2016】Towards a Chinese Oil Painting and Back Again—Philip Tinari



“Oil painting.” Despite its European provenance, it is a designation and a category that exists in a specific relation to China, where it sits among a set of categories created in the fervor and furor of the early twentieth century. In China, Oil painting is the natural-born sibling of “National Painting,” an attempt to tweak an august ink painting tradition for a belated modernity. As a concept, it stands indexically for the import of a whole range of ideas and practices, foremost among them “Science” and “Democracy,” which was at the core of the May Fourth Movement’s program of reform. And for Wang Yin, the stuff of oil painting—its materiality, its implicit tonality, its basic reliance on certain perspectival and compositional devices—is itself a document of China’s emergent modernity.

 

In his last two decades of output, Wang Yin has engaged with styles that have slipped in and out of vogue throughout the century during which the medium has been widely practiced by Chinese artists. Like many painters of his generation, the first part of his career was spent acquiring, and then refuting, the realistic techniques of the Soviet canon as distilled from Italian and French precedents and later transmitted to the Chinese acolytes who formed the generation of his teachers. Later, after the epochal transitions of 1989, he became interested in what came before this Soviet orthodoxy, digging into the imagistic worlds of painters like Yan Wenliang (1893-1988), Ni Yide (1901-1970), Wu Dayu (1903-1988), Pan Yuliang (1895-1977), and others of the “1920s Generation” who trained abroad and subsequently brought the gospel of modern painting back to the upheavals of the motherland. He was interested not in the sophistication of these mostly well-heeled Republican era figures who represent some of the most cosmopolitan presences in modern Chinese art history, but for what appeared to him, seven decades later, as the naivete of their early experiments with an unfamiliar medium. A few years later, he began collaborating with untrained peasants in a performative attempt to realize the ideals of “art for the people” as postulated by Mao Zedong at Yan’an. In recent years he has come to fuse these different registers into a single stylistic program, where the jouissance of the brushstroke and a distinctively muted palette are used to render scenes from everyday urban life, often carrying some dimension of metaphorical import, in a seemingly timeless, placeless register. Certain subjects—trains, minority nationalities, mangoes, solitary figures, suburban landscapes, allusions to earlier moments in modern Chinese (art) history—recur, but never in programmatic service to a particular serial or narrative agenda. Rather, they constellate, each one a document of and testament to his painterly vision. 

 

Three things are important to remember about Wang Yin. First, he grew up in an "oil painting household," headed by a father who was locally famous for his skill and generosity in continuing the twentieth century project of transmitting painting technique to China. The idea of a Chinese oil painting, or for that matter the more basic question of the importance and urgency of art, was therefore not one that he arrived at as a soul-searching adolescent, but one that formed the backdrop of his childhood daily life. Thus implanted, these questions are then both transcended and internalized, becoming less subject matter than baseline intellectual premises that have grounded his subsequent investigations. That this household was physically situated in Qingdao—a city shaped by a colonial encounter with Germany that was as brief (1897-1914) as it was thorough, dotting the city with European architecture and infrastructure and creating a hybrid culture—goes even further toward explaining Wang Yin’s heartfelt confrontation with his chosen medium.

 

The second is that he studied not in the “pure” confines of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, but in the blurrier, inherently transdisciplinary milieu of the Central Academy of Drama, where he still received the same (Soviet-inspired) technical training, but in concert with a wider humanities formation and always with an eye to how it might be used to enhance contexts and settings beyond the canvas. He wrote a thesis on Jerzy Grotowski (1933-1999), whose 1968 manifesto “Towards a Poor Theatre,” translated into Chinese in the 1980s, was foundational for much of the avant-garde theatre and performance art of the ’85 New Wave1. From Grotowski, whose big idea was that since theater could never compete with film in terms of spectacle, it should rely on the co-creation of poignant moments of encounter between actor and audience. “The actor’s act—discarding half measures, revealing, opening up, emerging from himself as opposed to closing up—is an invitation to the spectator,”2 Grotowski wrote in a text originally intended as an induction manual for new entrants to his troupe. While the history of painting since the dawn of photography has likewise largely been a story of retaining aura and sidestepping spectacle, Wang Yin seems to have drawn from his research subject a particular appreciation for the power of direct encounter between the conveyor of aesthetic power (be that an actor or a painting) and the viewer. This theatrical mindset extends to his thinking about the viewer's experience of the exhibition; he has placed great thought into structuring the present exhibition as a tripartite journey, divided along the classical anthropological phases of separation, initiation, and return. 

 

Finally, as Wang Yin has matured, he has become not simply a visual artist but a critically engaged intellectual, constantly seeking to better understand the predicament of his country and the global geopolitical and cultural dynamics in which it now finds itself enmeshed. Other thinkers have likewise found in him a test case for their ideas about the place of art in relation to all of this—take the philosopher Zhao Tingyang, whose essay which appears elsewhere in this volume was originally published on the topic of contemporaneity, without directly naming Wang Yin’s work as its subject. His voracious reading and continuous discussion find their way into his works, which become meditations on political and cultural narratives even as they remain commentaries on the act of painting. It is this ambiguity of the painting as a text—which functions on one level as a pleasing, competent composition, but on another as a metacommentary on modern and contemporary history—which makes Wang’s position unique among his contemporaries.

 

It is an honor and a privilege for the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art to be able to present such a major selection of heretofore unseen pieces by Wang Yin in such a uniquely compelling framework. I would first like to thank Wang Yin for giving us this great privilege and for his constant input and impressive patience as this show has come together. My co-curator Colin Chinnery, himself an alumnus of the original UCCA team and the most prolific writer in English on Wang Yin’s work, deserves most of the credit for the structure and concept behind this exhibition. Tian Jun, a longtime friend of UCCA and a member of our Patrons Council, worked with us in a new way to come up with a unique proposal for translating three of our galleries into a space suitable for the display of this work. Lotus Zhang provided invaluable support as assistant curator, and Yang Zi as managing editor of this publication. As usual, the work of our CEO May Xue, Deputy Director You Yang, Chief Operating Officer Ada Zhang, and the rest of the UCCA team brought this exhibition to life. We are most grateful to our publication sponsors , New Century Art Foundation :our exhibition sponsor,Tian Jun: and to our Founders, Guy and Mimi Ullens, for their generosity. 

 

1 Hans van Dijk with Andreas Schmid, “The Fine Arts after the Cultural Revolution: Stylistic Development and Cultural Debate,” in Jochen Noth ed. “China Avant-Garde: Counter-Currents in Art and Culture,” Haus der Kulturen der Welt and Oxford University Press, 1993, p. 23.

Jerzy Grotowski, “Statement of Principles,” in Towards a Poor Theatre, ed. Eugenio Barba, 1968, Rutledge edition 2002, page 255.