Wang Xingwei, Comrade Xiao He N. 3, 2008, Oil on canvas, 200 x 150 cm.

Wang Xingwei's One-Man Chameleon Act on Canvas

Wang Xingwei, The Legend of the White Snake, 2006, Oil on canvas, 180 x 250 cm.

Wang Xingwei, untitled (Large Rowboat), 2006, Oil on canvas, 200 x 260 cm.

Wang Xingwei, untitled (Hostess & Sailor), 2005, Oil on canvas, 169,5 x 176,5 cm.

Wang Xingwei, untitled (penguin trolleys), 2008, Oil on canvas, 200 x 200 cm.

Wang Xingwei, untitled (Heart-Shaped Dance), 2006, Oil on canvas, 200 x 200 cm.

Wang Xingwei, untitled (spittoon), 2008, Oil on canvas, 168 x 138 cm.

Wang Xingwei, untitled (Man Hugging a Tree), 2006, Oil on canvas, 163 x 136 cm.

Wang Xingwei, untitled (small recycling the old computer), 2007, Oil on canvas, 200 x 150 cm.

Wang Xingwei, untitled (Hugging a Mushroom), 2006, Oil on canvas, 310 x 230 cm.

Wang Xingwei, untitled (air hostess), 2005, Oil on canvas, 263 x 135,5 cm.


Galerie Urs Meile
Number 104
caochangdi cun
cui gezhuang xiang
Chaoyang district
+86 10 643 333 93
Wang Xingwei. one-man show
November 8-December 7, 2008

Large Rowboat is not a Group Show


In Chinese traditional literature, often poems were named after the first of a stream of emotional images evoked by the first line of the text. Similarly, a specific work by Shanghai-based painter Wang Xingwei lends the title to the show Wang Xingwei – Large Rowboat at Galerie Urs Meile (Beijing, February 3-March 31, 2007; Lucerne, May 12-June 30, 2007). Although not the earliest of the exhibited paintings, Large Rowboat (2006) is the first of Wang's most recent works that marks a technical and conceptual turning point in the artist's production.

At a first sight Wang Xingwei could be taken for anyone: he could be Ingres, Kandinsky, Duchamp, de Lempicka, just to name some names; he could as well be a surrealist, a photorealist, an illustrator, or even an art forger. Wang Xingwei exploits cultural references and combines them with an ability to exploit diverse pictorial techniques to which he resorts ad hoc when shrewdly sifting through the history of art. As painter Xie Nanxing says of him:

"Wang Xingwei reminds me of those master workers in the old factories from times gone by, who were able to create something new by assembling pieces coming from different old machines, just depending on the function they wanted the newly made tool to have."

Wang Xingwei plays hide-and-seek with the viewer, concealing himself behind a large company of characters that he revives from various historical and cultural references: art history, classical novels, placards, or from his own mind, as in the case of the weird gang of penguins and pandas reappearing from time to time in the artist's paintings (see, for instance, Death of Panda, 2004, a work inspired to Giotto's fresco painting The Lamentation, 1305-06 A.D.). Wang provokes, flabbergasts and intrigues viewers with his irresistible and colourful symbolic gimmicks, with the uniforms and other paraphernalia through which the same man and woman suddenly change their identities, becoming surreal golfers, sailors, hostesses, disquieting nurses and who knows what else in the future.

Other times, as in a number of Wang's latest works, starting with Large Rowboat, the two represented subjects are not only stripped of any professional attire, but also deprived of detailed facial features. Quickly sketched, cartoon-like geometric silhouettes outline the unsophisticated figures of a man and a woman, seemingly a couple. "I want to slowly depart from art history," Wang Xingwei explains. "In the past the observer needed to have a [certain] cultural background [to understand my works], while what I am dealing with now has a more direct connection with anyone's personal experience. [In my latest paintings] I built formal models to create shapes. I want to simplify the form, and I find sketching a very comfortable way of expression."

Among the 14 paintings featured in the exhibition, Legend of the White Snake (2006) is an example of Wang Xingwei's recent work that is both technically and conceptually closer to those earlier paintings by the artist that are linked to art history and literature. Borrowing style and composition from The Two Friends (Perspective) (1923) by Tamara de Lempicka, Wang Xingwei reinterprets, emphasizes and openly displays the sexual hints that are the hallmark of the famous Art Deco works of the Hungarian-born, American painter.

Legend of the White Snake is inspired by the classical Chinese novel of the same name, a tale dating back to the Tang Dynasty (618 A.D.) that became a complete book during the Ming Dynasty (1318-1645 A.D.). The novel recounts the undying love story of Xu Xian and Lady White (Bai Suzhen), a snake spirit who turned its appearance into a beautiful woman. By conferring onto the snake a highly erotic/destructive symbolism, Wang Xingwei's painting reminds one of the lasciviously fatal relationship between Ximen Qing and his concubine Golden Lotus (Pan Jinlian) narrated in the Ming Dynasty novel Jin Ping Mei (see Wang Xingwei's Death of Ximen, 2002). While in Wang Xingwei's Death of Ximen (2002), the male protagonist of the Chinese erotic classic is portrayed alone, dead in bed, still suffering from the lethal erection caused by an overdose of drugs provided by Golden Lotus, in Legend of the White Snake, Xu Xian lies enraptured in a huge cobra's coils, which wrap around his body and penis.

Untitled (Nurse Hugging A Tree), 2006, is a painting dominated by the penetrating and enigmatic eyes of a nurse staring at the white birch trunk she is hugging. If this work takes up again the same elements of 2005's untitled (Nurse and Trees) — the nurse, the white birch trunks and an autumnal forest in the background — now it is through the nurse's embrace (an extreme attempt to connect to something organic) that a more directly physical relation between the portrayed subjects is shown. In the painting, the human and vegetable universes seem to reach a hybrid state of interchangeability. Untitled (Nurse Hugging A Tree) also differs from the veiled, sensual allusions intrinsic to Chinese traditional ink-and-wash painting, which are far less direct in their sexual references. Instead, Wang has emphasized an array of contradictory but suggestive signals: the gnarled and tapering hands of the nurse, which somehow recall the thin and knotty trunk; the colours of the leaves and the facial traits of the woman, suggesting full maturity / the beginning of life's decline; the affected composure of the lady in her social/professional role, betrayed by her ambiguous gaze at the bole; the yellow ground, reminiscent of a sense of aridity and at the same time sexual desire ("yellow" — in Chinese huangse — also means "pornographic").

In Untitled (Nurse Hugging A Tree), different shades of the subject's complex psychology, such as loneliness, aggressiveness, sense of duty, frustration, and sexual drive all emerge in a solitary moment. Analogously, in the more caricature-like untitled (Man Hugging a Tree) and untitled (Man Hugging a Mushroom), both realized in 2006, the tree and the mushroom are not only substitutions of the object of desire, but also symbolize a self-complacent, enhanced and distorted phallic vision that arouses hilarity. Like single panel comics whose colours suggest an underexposed and an overexposed picture respectively, in the two aforementioned paintings the dark or overly bright human figures are identifiable only as male, the details obscured by the artist's use of light.

Following a tradition that makes Shanghai the cradle of Chinese comics since the 1920s, the source material for Wang Xingwei's Large Rowboat (200 x 260 cm, 2006), Medium Rowboat (120 x 160 cm, 2006) and Small Rowboat (100 x 120 cm, 2006) comes from an illustration the artist found in a local newspaper and adapted. Wang's newest works went through a process of radical formal and chromatic simplification and abstraction that makes them quite different from his almost photorealistic paintings of the mid-1990s. On this point the artist comments, "You can never go back to the innocence of children's drawings. Even form and colour cannot be forgetful of the logic and techniques in which you were trained."

Once more dealing with human relationships — and, above all, relationships between the opposite sexes — the topic tackled in the works of this period bring back to mind, by comparison, some of the first canvasses by the artist such as: All Happy Families Are Similar – 1 (1994), All Happy Families Are Similar – 2 (1994), My Beautiful Life (1993-95), Dawn (1994). By that time, some very private scenes of a couple's life — episodes of family violence, for example--had already appeared in Wang Xingwei's paintings.
Deep Deep Water (2002) is another of Wang Xingwei's works that, because of the style and the subjects — now a man and a schoolgirl in a rowboat — gets closer to the artist's current creations. Offering social commentary on today's society, Wang Xingwei's subjects suffer from a latent inability to fully experience a love relationship. Behind the polished public façade built on the rules of standardized education, the figures are shrouded in emotional isolation. With their thoughtful expressions, for example, the subjects of the three painting connected to the rowboat do not share the pleasure of sitting next to each other: in a kind of excess of diligence, the man absurdly pushes the boat while standing behind it, his effort to rhythmically row with his partner turns out to be completely unsuitable and bizarre. In Duck-Shaped Boat (2006) the two subjects (presumably lovers) sit in two different small boats and seem to enjoy themselves individually. While the man pilots a cartoon-like Mandarin duck-shaped boat (in China, a pair of mandarin ducks, which mate for life, are the symbol of eternal love and marriage), the woman takes the wheel of a fashionable pink car-shaped boat, and drifts another direction. To Wang Xingwei, some contemporary couple's relationships can be likened to the impossible difficulty of playing golf in the desert, as suggested in untitled (Woman Pulling A Man) (2006). In this painting, a woman pulls her partner (a fully equipped male golfer sitting in a wheelbarrow) around a desert landscape, as if she was a rickshaw runner.

When first seeing a monographic catalogue or a one-man show by Wang Xingwei, one could mistake the paintings for a collection of works by diverse artists. This is because, besides shifting from one style to the other, Wang keeps simultaneously developing different trends and variations around independent scenes which are disjointed from any time and cause/effect, a priori rational and narrative succession. Even if Wang's paintings could be grouped in generic series following certain styles or topics, whether belonging to the same period or dating back to dissimilar creative moments, the artist leaves the task of ordering and connecting the works to the viewer's own discretion. Under Wang Xingwei's direction, the subjects are caught in ridiculous and/or helpless circumstances, purposely staged in order to break the acknowledged rules of logical thinking. Beyond the initial laugh or astonishment, the viewer starts creating new associations through which the real nature of Wang Xingwei's works reveals itself. Like burlesque snapshots, Wang's paintings show and question conflicting aspects peculiar to the tragicomic experience of life, an unfathomable condition that has repeated itself from time immemorial.

— January 13, 2007

I quote, therefore I am –
Wang Xingwei's
chameleonic painting


Wang Xingwei (*1969) is one of the most peculiar painters I have ever met. His production, although limited in number (a hundred paintings in the last ten years), shows, on the whole, an astonishing variety. A rather enigmatic person, his reflexive silences are often interrupted by spontaneous and generous laughter. Day after day, and with great lucidity, he has built up the recognition which nowadays people accord to him both at home and abroad. He absolutely refuses, however, to allow that recognition to limit his free will or the critical and corrosive vein to his paintings that is always new and constantly exercised afresh. And which allows him to apply, without any limit whatsoever, his free will and a critic and corrosive vein to his painting's always new exercise.

Born and raised in the Chinese region of Dongbei (North-East, also called Manchuria), he has faced, from the beginning, the academic local tradition of oil painting, which is aimed at obtaining an accomplished technical skill and at building up a personal style, a recognizable cipher that distinguishes every artist. To this approach, Wang Xingwei opposes a practical critique which has become more and more articulate and assured.

At the beginning of his creative phase, in the first half of the 1990s, even though he knew that painting was considered a "by-passed" artistic form in the West, Wang chose to dedicate himself to it. However, his strategy has been to take an oblique approach towards technique and subject, a kind of pictorial meta-language that he has continued to perfect and develop into a highly sophisticated parallel.

From the first paintings we notice the artist uses the history of western and local art, especially after Duchamp, as a main fountainhead, and that he conjugates it with autobiographical allusions and political and social questions. It is as if he was rewriting personal and collective history, evoking times and places, placing famous people alongside himself and his family members, widening the infinite chances painting has to modify reality. In oils like Dusting away the romantic male history (1995) or Poor old Hamilton (1996), the artist reproduces and juxtaposes fragments of artworks by different artists of different times — from Ingres, to Duchamp, to Hamilton — with ironic nonchalance that is breathtaking. In them, the technique adapts itself to the theme and the style of the original work, stressing that its semantic relevance cannot be separated from the subject.

On the other side The oriental way (1995) and Blind refer to episodes of the recent history of the People's Republic, where the social function attributed to painting by the regime, with its heavy load of rigid and univocal symbolism, has negated the freedom of creativity that art requires, provoking thus situations very similar to those of the "degenerat art" in Nazi Germany.

Nowadays the artist considers the paintings of that period too explicit, filled with quotations which, although refined, are quite easy to recognise for a careful and cultivated reader. In those works the painter is now aware of having followed, although in a personal way, the same method of the "mass-code" applied by socialist realism: even though the meaning he wants to convey is here decided individually by himself. While the juxtapositions are daring and fresh, the viewer is carefully guided to a reading which is univocal. So doing, the artwork is deprived of that aura of "undefined," "secret," "unsaid" which should be its primary characteristic.

And it is exactly that connotation of "unsaid" that stimulates Wang, tickles him and pushes him to continue his research, moving on in the culturally stratified field of art history, and mixing it with actuality and autobiography. The references used are now chosen from a much wider source, and therefore less immediately recognizable.

As time goes on, the artist builds up a system of quotations which refer to his own works. We discover then that an installation dating to the year 2002, made of the neon writing Et in Arcadia ego, which has been hung on the façade of a museum in Suzhou, has been preceded by an oil painted in 1996. On a background with a landscape in the Poussin style, there is a male figure who discovers on a ruin the words IN ARCADIA. The same male — tall and slender — appears in many other paintings, and loosely resembles the painter himself. In this case the Latin quotation, which may appear quite familiar to a European, is totally cryptic for a Chinese viewer, and the artist admits that even for himself it retains a purely literary connotation, as it lacks the familiarity he feels for other subjects, nearer in time and space.

One of the most disconcerting characteristics of Wang Xingwei's pictorial production is the total lack of an aesthetic norm. When asked about it, he vaguely answered that he "likes best paintings with strong colours." On the other side his use of colour is very far from the traditional concept of harmony: the chromatic juxtapositions are often daring, or they are previously decided following laws fixed by the artist. In this way he strengthens once more his total freedom to subvert as he feels like it, and to question radically both technique and content. He requests the viewer to apply a continuous and immediate visual gymnastic. Moreover, the canons he chooses are sometimes modified within the same painting. In this way he avoids appearing obvious or univocal.

From 2003 onwards the artist enjoys himself with a rather unusual support; he uses prefabricated undulated panels. The waves of the background modify or reinforce the subjects, distorting the perspective and forcing the artist to keep this in mind and to correct it. His Football ground (2003), made of a homogeneous green background on which he has traced the borderlines of the playing areas, is by itself an example of non-painting in its technical simplicity, but the three-dimensional support suggests movement even in such a still geometry.

Wang Xingwei's way of proceeding is becoming more and more complex and articulate like in some mathematic system of variations on a theme: even within a pictorial series, for instance, the relations between the different paintings are not so clear, rather they work with different references (the use of a special colour, i.e. green, or the existence of analogies amongst the subjects, like the penguin and the panda) which link two or more paintings.Even though he has never painted anything abstract, and he perceives abstraction as something strange to him, the artist in reality is probably closer to it than others. His interpretation of figuration is now so far from its narrative function, while on the other side it never really acknowledged the aesthetic one.

We can say that subjects and techniques, colours and images, are deprived of their original meaning and re-dressed with different functions, which are not fixed by the artist, but left, like in a never-ending rebus, for individual interpretation. The viewer can enjoy figuring out all the layers of intellectual complexity and obscure quotations, or feel content with an uncommon or audaciously tautological visual feeling.

— Shanghai, September, 2004
(thanks to Maurizio Giuffredi, Catherine Marshall)

Wang Xingwei, untitled (Woman Pulling a Man), 2006, Oil on canvas, 159.5 x 121.5 cm.

Wang Xingwei, untitled (golf player and watermelons), 2005, Oil on canvas, 137 x 210 cm.


Wang Xingwei, Comrade Xiao He N. 2, 2008, Oil on canvas, 200 x 154 cm.