Zhang Wei, Z-AC2117, 2021, Öl auf Leinen, 150 x 200 cm, courtesy Galerie Krinzinger and the artist
The Colors of Emotions and The Emotions of Colors On Zhang Wei’s New Paintings from 2016 to 2022
By Carol Yinghua Lu
In Zhang Wei’s second solo presentation in Galerie Krinzinger, he is showcasing a selection of 24 works, made between 2016 and 2022. Among them, three were painted in 2022, all unmistakable pointing towards Russia’s invasion into Ukraine. Taking the colors from the national flag of Ukraine, Zhang Wei covered a large expanse of each canvas in blue. In the Ukrainian flag, blue denotes the skies over the vast land. On both of Zhang Wei’s canvases, the blue colors occupied nearly two thirds of the canvas on the upper side, meticulously and evenly painted in most part and hard-edged. In one of them, titled “Z-AC2022”, he painted a smear of yellow from the Ukrainian flag on the lower edge of the blue paint. Much of the blue area is solid while the yellow paint is solid on the upper half and sketchy on its lower part. In the second Ukraine-specific work “Z-AC2203”, the yellow color appears being splashed onto the lower edge of the blue sky, much in disarray.
Such an approach brought to mind an experiment he carried out in the early 1980s. As he was exploring ways to steer away from figurative representation of the landscape paintings he was making in the 1970s, Zhang Wei once climbed on a ladder and from the point of about 4 meters high, he dropped a basin of paint onto the canvas so that the paint was splashed all over, not just on his canvas but inside of his room. The uncontrollable effect of this action was actually a desirable outcome and the pursuit of such an effect continues in his subsequent works. He looks for and enacts processes that lead to uncontainable manifestations. For instance, he has in recent years, tried painting with his motorbike. He’s poured a bucket of paint onto his canvas and ridden motorbikes over it, leaving tyre marks on it. Sometimes, he runs toy cars across his canvas through a remote control. All efforts aspire for playfulness and dynamism in his works.
The third piece that reconfigures the Ukrainian flag is “Z-AC2204”, a rice paper book album painted in oil, interweaving blue strokes of blue with yellow ones, one intersecting another in a riotous and vigorous way. A familiar format in traditional Chinese paintings, the book album opens into a long stretch of horizontal scroll that gives generous space for the unfolding of Zhang Wei’s playing with blue and yellow. While compact and quiet in a folded form, the album is an elaborate and dynamic symphony when it is opened up to reveal its many surprises and energy on the pages. Zhang Wei has also painted onto folded paper fans. Like the paper album, the curves of these folded surfaces dissect as well as intersect Zhang Wei’s strokes and enhance the dramatic sense of change in their flows.
Zhang Wei is forthright about his empathy with Ukraine and its people under war. Since its outbreak, the war on Ukraine has caused enormous rifts among members of both Chinese public and its artistic and intellectual communities. Some were even hesitant to call it invasion, aligning with the Chinese government’s pro-Russia position and rhetoric. Being an unwavering liberal, Zhang Wei has felt compelled to articulate his position on the matter through his paintings. This series of new works lends a valuable perspective into understanding Zhang Wei’s practice beyond that of purely formalistic exploration. The critical distance from any form of authority and hegemony underlines Zhang Wei’s artistic career, as well as his philosophy of life. As early as in 1976 (or 1977), Zhang Wei took to heart a translated book, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by American writer Richard Bach. In it, Bach wrote about a seagull flying high and free despite odds and mockery. This story showed Zhang Wei how to live and handle art in a free and personal way. Zhang Wei identified strongly with the courageous seagull in perpetual quest for freedom and unperturbed by any obstacle that comes along the way. This book was among the major influences on his way of living and working as an artist, before he took the chance of participating in a show in New York to leave Beijing and live in the States in the following two decades from 1986 to 2005. There, he resisted the idea of following his gallerist’s advice to plan his artistic career, and rather stood by the human spirit which he deemed far more important than becoming a successful artist.
This liberal and humanistic outlook towards life and art is a consistent and inherent aspect that upholds the tension and relevance of Zhang Wei’s artistic practice towards the varied social and political contexts that he’s lived through. He’s always engaged in some dialogue with issues at hand. In the early 1970s, the choice of making plein en air paintings and impressionistic landscapes distanced him from the dogma of socialist realist art of the time. In the beginning of the 1980s, his further dive into abstraction afforded him a space for self-expression and artistic freedom. In the wake of the Intellectual Liberation (sixiang jiefang) Campaign after the end of the Cultural Revolution, there was less control and more room for free thinking in the Chinese society. It was then that older artists took the opportunity to champion stylistic diversity and formal exploration as an outlet for artistic autonomy. Younger artists in and out of art academies at the time pursued faithful figurative depictions of non-heroic characters, events and aspects of everyday reality such as rural life, in defiance of idealized rendering of subject matters in socialist realism. Zhang Wei and some of his like-minded artist friends such as Wang Luyan and Zhu Jinshi looked for freedom in painting in abstracted forms.
In the 1970s, when Zhang Wei was making landscape paintings with members of the No Name Group, a loose group of Beijing-based artists who continuously and voluntarily painted impressionistic landscapes and still lifes instead of political propaganda throughout the Cultural Revolution, he had recognized that he didn’t care too much about details like what could be seen in realistic paintings. It was Zhao Wenliang, a core member of the group, who taught him to finish a work with some well-placed strokes, and just to leave space unpainted and open in a painting. In one of their many excursions of painting outdoor together, Zhang Wei was struggling with depicting the trees in his painting. Zhao Wenliang walked over and finished it in seconds. Zhao’s ability to summarize a subject matter into succinct and lively artistic expressions captured Zhang Wei’s fascination before he encountered the canon of abstract art as defined in Western art history. Only in 1981, when a show of American paintings opened in the National Museum in Beijing, Zhang Wei laid his eyes on some original paintings of major American abstract painters. When visiting the show, he was most amazed by Helen Frankenthaler’s big strokes in one color, Morris Louis’ paintings that looked washed with drippings, Franz Kline’s calligraphy-like black paintings, as well as Pollock’s stretched paintings. The last left a compelling impression. It looked as if it was done without thinking and full of non- stop actions, which is how Zhang Wei likes to work too, pressing on without interruption until he’s exhausted all his energy.
Such exposure aside, Zhang Wei actually attributed his awakening and approaches to abstraction to Chinese ink- wash painters such as Qi Baishi and Xu Wei, both celebrated for their artistic expressiveness. “My idea about freedom of painting was at the beginning based on Qi Baishi, on Xu Wei even. Xu Wei lived in the Ming Dynasty. When he painted running donkeys, it’s crazy! He painted the legs and the hooves disconnected! It’s empty in between to show movement!”1 Such a realization that those so-called traditional figurative artists knew to leave something out was a memorable lesson for him. Such ingenious artistic precedents with their mastery of depiction through creating blankness convinced Zhang Wei that a painting doesn’t need to be “finished”.
Just as blankness on a canvas is expressive in emotion and meaning, so is color. Color is not a cover of something, or a stylistic device, but substance in itself. It contains expression as well as significance. Zhang Wei even equates color to people he likes and to himself: “I think color alone already carries a lot of things, especially your personality. In truth, it is about the choice of colors – which ones mean something to you, with which you are related to. It’s like a mirror: when I choose a color, it’s like I am choosing things in daily life. I talk to people, I am dealing with people; it’s like meeting someone, intuitively. I like the person, and if I’d like to see the person again I keep using the same color in another painting. To me color is just myself.”2
When learning to paint landscape outdoor with senior members of the No Name Group such as Zhao Wenliang and Yang Yushu, Zhang Wei liked to put all kinds of colors on his painting boards. “Even on rainy, grey days, I put a lot of different colors together.”3 Unlike the grey and brown tones that populated Soviet-influenced school of oil paintings from the 1950s, members of the No Name Group talked about the use of colors, especially the application of subtle and light tones, such as the inclusion of very light blue to lighten up a painting, which would otherwise appear dark and dull. Through these exercises and discussions, Zhang Wei found a way to liberate the beauty of colors from their fixed associations with political connotations. “So red was not just Chairman Mao’s color anymore, a red flag or the Red Book.” With all the colors on his board, he found the expression of a colorful world and life through them. Colors became freed, so did the artist, from dogmatic disciplines of painting as confined by ideological boundaries.
Zhang Wei’s fixation on color is also rooted in one of his early work experiences. From 1978, he worked as a stage designer for Kunqu, a 500-year old school of Chinese opera originated from Suzhou in Jiangsu Province in East China. There, he saw how the actors painted their faces in all kinds of colors, an abstract form that personified specific roles in the stories, with their distinctive temperaments, characters and positions. With the application of color onto each actor’s face, the same face could carry very different personalities and meanings. He thus thought to himself, the way colors are painted carries meaning. “And if you exchange the face with a canvas, then it becomes an abstract painting!”4
As such, making a painting for Zhang Wei is primarily about choosing a color first. “The first thing that comes out from my mind is color and I go with that; that color comes with a light touch on the canvas. With that color comes the shape at the same time. And then I naturally think about another color. And so the process goes on automatically without thinking.” Color determines the shapes he makes on a canvas, and leads to the choices of tools, approaches he would take to realize a work. Color is thus not just a formal tool, but the starting point of everything and the expression of meanings and emotions. The group of 24 works in this exhibition conjures up a rich spectrum of not only the vibrant colors in Zhang Wei’s paintings, but of his strokes and brushworks, relevant to the application of different colors. Sometimes, he uses broad strokes, sometimes, it’s slapping colors directly onto canvases. In any case, colors are both the embodiments of his emotions, as well as his positions in life.
In addition, this assembly of works bears witness to a period of time spanning before and after the outbreak of COVID pandemic across the world. There is no question that the world has become a profoundly different place ever since. Yet the possibility that the works of Zhang Wei can travel beyond the national border and have a place to be seen by an audience far and beyond speaks volume about the possibility of art to transcend differences manufactured by national politics, set free to fly high, just as Jonathan the Seagull.
Zhang Wei was born in 1952 in Bejing, in 1986 he moved to New York and since 2005 he is living and working in Beijing again. His most important exhibitions include: Salon Salon: Fine Art Practices from 1972 to 1982 in Profile – Focus China. Works from Collection Wemhöner, Mönchehaus Museum Goslar, Germany, 2021, MA Beijing Perspective, Inside-Out Art Museum, Beijing, 2017, Secret Signs: Calligraphy in Chinese Contemporary Art, DeichtorHallen, Hamburg, Germany, 2014, Right is Wrong / Four Decades of Chinese Art from the M+ Sigg Collection, Bildmuseet Umeå University, Umeå, Sweden, 2014, Blooming in the Shadows: Unofficial Chinese Art, 1974-1985, China Institute Gallery, New York, USA, 2011.
1 Zhang Wei-Waling Boers, Interview. Zhang Wei: The Abstract Paintings. Beijing: Boers-Li Gallery, 2013. P150. 2 Ibid. P152.
3 Ibid. P153.
4 Ibid. P151.