Zhu Wei is the world’s most renowned contemporary Chinese ink painter and the art form’s most important explorer. He is also among the very first group of distinguished contemporary Chinese artists recognized by the international art audience in the nineties of the 20th century.
Zhu Wei made his first appearance in an international exhibition in 1993, and has put on more than 200 exhibitions worldwide ever since. More than twenty different editions of special anthologies of his works and reviews have been published. His ink and wash works have been collected by more than 30 domestic and foreign museums.
Zhu Wei is the first artist adopting meticulous (Gong-bi) ink painting language into Chinese contemporary art scene. When many Chinese new artists were working on “political pop” and “ironic realism” oil paintings, Zhu was exploring the possibility to reflect contemporary Chinese political and social life with traditional meticulous ink and wash, and had completed representative series. His motifs differentiate his art from those traditional meticulous ink paintings, however, the techniques Zhu employed, such as coloring, outlining, blending and other, still remain the fundamental characteristics of traditional. The dramatic contrast between traditional art language and contemporary political social motifs makes his art irresistibly appealing.
Amongst the vast outstanding group of contemporary Chinese artists, Zhu Wei is one of the very few who chooses to use traditional ink painting technique to depict the social sceneries in modern days’ China. His paintings make up for an area that has often been overlooked in contemporary Chinese art, art that have local painting elements. His effort in research improves the chances of contemporary art to be relevant in China and makes it a substantial phenomenon. It allows the world to see paintings with authentic Eastern origins, to read its contemporary values, thoughts and above all, its power.
The Story of Beijing
The creation of The Story of Beijing has connections with the liberating movement of thought that emerged in China during the 80’s; in which the army and intellectuals had different roles to play. The artist in 1989, as a member of the army, was at his daring and energetic prime. The highly disciplined experience from that time left its mark on Zhu, who consequently began to hold strong reflections on freedom. The quality of how the intellectual craves for free thoughts is reflected in those of Zhu’s generation. The Story of Beijing can be considered as Zhu’s search for the acknowledgement of his self-consciousness. A subtle personality has made Zhu’s artistic expression humorous, rather than radically visual in its approach. Moreover, the fact that Zhu has amassed years of training in classical cultures also enriches the inner symbolic power of his work.
Around the late-eighties, Chinese ink painting witnessed a modern renaissance. Initially, the incentive for this shift came from a group of traditionally trained ink painters who were experiencing the rapid changes happening in China at the time. They had come to realize that their feelings and surroundings had become drastically different from those of their predecessors. Traditions and values from the past no longer applied harmoniously to the contemporary world. Thus, Chinese painting required diverse developments to respond to the radical changes that were occurring within society. In 1988, Zhu Wei was a student. Today, he still owns many of his paintings from that period. Although most of those works were copies of other paintings, they already began to show the style Zhu Wei would employ in his future important works, such as “The Story of Beijing”.
Zhu Wei began the Comrade Captain in 1992 after leaving army. The experience of more than 10 years in the army left an indelible memory, which became a source of inspiration. Comrade Captain marks the beginning of how Zhu attempts to express contemporary reality through classical Chinese ink techniques. The image, “Comrade Captain” that Zhu has created is a subversive version of the subject matter. Since then, the artist has leaped a step forward in his career and he continues to explore the use of brush, paper, colours and forms. At a time when the use of ink and brush was still a complex and a heated debate for the Chinese, Zhu had already embarked on his journey of investigation.
In 1994, Zhu followed different creative paths simultaneously. No doubt, Sweet Life is the most representational of the lot, and took Zhu the longest to carry out. Zhu Wei has created a new image for Chinese leader with his unique style which mirrors Zhu’s personal artistic language. What distinguishes Zhu from the “Political Pop” movement during the 90’s is that he has no intention to simply appropriate and replace the meaning of symbols. He insists on observing reality through the perspective of the ordinary Chinese and reacts frankly through classical Chinese painting techniques, instead of expressing himself through a conceptual view or a novelty-seeking attitude. By approaching actual life as material, the artist describes the grand social events and the deified giant image with a humane sympathy.
Diary of Sleepwalker
“If one does not have dreams, that is because he is dead already.” In the Diary of Sleepwalker from 1998, Zhu presents our attachment and dependence on dreams and hopes. In dreams, men relax themselves by lifting the oppression of reality, and unleashing the true mind. Zhu’s wide literary interests, especially with the classics, has prepared Zhu to tolerate all possibilities.
From 1995-1996, Zhu Wei produced “oceanic” paintings to relate to Tiananmen Square. Instead of using poetry, Zhu takes Cui Jian’s lyricsSolution as the text to accompany his work: “Heaps of problems lay before me, but now there is only me.I pretend to be serious with you, but you see through me.You extend your arms with seeming indifference, accepting all my sham and trouble.”Here, Zhu takes what he thinks to be disconnected to the contemporary reality: the classical painting technique combined with pop culture--something that is tightly tied to contemporary society. As Cui’s bold lyrics-- written in the Han Dynasty bamboo slip style of calligraphy-- fill the picture with a symbolic military coloured (green and blue) background, the work can thus be seen as another one of Zhu’s personal mirror images.
Great Water is a similar to the China Diary in that the landscape becomes a metaphor of reality. The dense waves at the back are always pushing forward, just as Zhu has always seen ancient masters as old friends and he wishes to make a breakthrough to their convention. Hence, he has made an effort to absorb the essence of the tradition, including the mo gu gong bi hua (the boneless brush fine line painting), Chinese ancient aesthetic theory, Chinese bronze, seals and calligraphy and paper craftsmanship.Viewers can therefore see the rigorous composition like seal carvings; the sober model of smoothness from porcelain features; the natural textures coming from the repeated treatment, which all capture the spirit of tradition.
China Diary is a channel for Zhu Wei to unleash his affection towards Chinese antiquity and the classics. In this work, Zhu has not presented much of the human subject, but his admiration and preference for the essence of traditional culture. And he has developed a dialogue beyond time and space with Chinese masters such as Han Huang, Zhao Jie and Li Song in his paintings. To a certain extent, Zhu’s understanding of classical paintings is more profound and pure when compared to the so-called authorities that only comply with the orthodox. The artist persists that whatever happens today can be traced back to tradition. This rationale has become his foundation of referring to the classics. Indeed, Zhu’s notion has captured the initial linkage between history and the contemporary.
After 2000, Zhu produced several representational themed works. The renowned Utopia depicting the scene where big-headed masculine men are attending an official conference, is one of them. Having attended countless conferences like this, the artist is sympathetic to the poor participants for he knows the struggle of keeping one’s concentration. The large red flag and a flowered stage are also inevitable props in a formal assembly. Also, plants taken from a classical album provide the picture with a modern palace setting.
The Vernal Equinox was Zhu Wei’s major creative project during 2005-2008. In this works, the composition of the painting draws reference from the image of the classical Chinese famille-rose porcelains. Filling the picture with interspersed little human figures, Zhu adds his own touch to these works with his trademark classical ink wash style. In the areas around the hair and the eyes of the human figures, he carefully rubs and washes on the xuan paper, causing colours to fade with a sense of delicacy and naturalness.
The Vernal Equinox in 2005 marks a new beginning for Zhu. By adopting a more down to earth expression and a comical context, his direct response to ideology becomes less explicit. What is more apparent now is his concern for humanity and one’s living conditions. At the same time, the artist’s studies of traditional Chinese culture, such as Chinese literature, poetry and lyrics also lend the Vernal Equinox a taste of Chinese antiquity.
The ink painting series China, China consists of one big and one small-scale work by Zhu Wei. Although the series only contains two pieces, it has been the one of the most crucial works in Zhu’s career during the late 90’s. Concerning the control of the pictorial surface, Zhu spent years perfecting his unique technique: paper is painted in yellow on top of a rough plank or carpet, resulting in interesting patterns in the concave areas when the ink dried. Zhu also draws his inspiration from the journalistic picture that captures the laugh of Chairman Deng Xiaoping while receiving a group of diplomats. It is especially witty of Zhu to use Deng, the “conductor” of the future for modern China as a symbol for China. However, Zhu does not demean or mock the meaning of the subject matter; he reinforces it with the extensive use of red and yellow and thus brings about a profound effect.
From 2008 onward, Zhu Wei made new attempt in his painting style; besides his continuation of figurative style, he represented abstract elements in his meditation in creation and gave birth to the new works of “Curtain”. It is the artist’s deliberation of contemporary visual language that is closely related with this works; the creativity of fine brush painting in representing realistic objects with clear image is obvious, although before this, Zhu Wei gained his reputation in his utilization of image resources and outstanding modeling capability of personal characteristics; however, the linguistic feature of fine brush painting is whether one can control pictures with abstract significance and this is the new issue faced by Zhu Wei in his creation of “Curtain”. In the works, Zhu Wei reduced the rendering characteristics of fine brush languages to the lowest and freed the eyesight of viewers on pictures from the restrict of the objects and he emphasized the purity of ink and wash language, opened a new way of representation in dissolving narrative factors.
Ink and Wash Research Lectures series
For Zhu Wei, ink and wash tradition is a process of leaving tradition and then reflect tradition again. The so called leaving does not mean a rebellion against the form and value of ink and wash, but rather, the breakthrough of existing framework and rigid rules established by powerful ink and wash tradition, such as the strict limits of traditional painting subjects which will limit the creative modeling characteristics, by Zhu Wei as an artist living in contemporary society. Yet when the artist keeps a distance from the tradition and then looks back to the rules of traditional ink and wash as well as the elegance and quintessence of traditional painting, a brand new perspective towards tradition will be brought to Zhu Wei. The so called being an apprentice with the ancient means that, thought the painting language of this artist after he experienced a 20 years ink and wash creation is still critical, allegorical and humorous, yet he shows his unprecedented calm and sincere attitudes towards his ink and wash language, which can be seen in the title “Ink and Wash Research Lectures series”. The variation of this kind of creation motive is vital for Zhu Wei to make clear his creation direction.