Good Expressions Have Abstract Meanings – A Conversation with Zhang Wei & Wang Luyan (I)

Installation View of ZHANG WEI's show in Berlin.
Zhang Wei and Wang Luyan at Zhang’s studio
Zhang Wei, Apartment Building, 1973
Zhang Wei, Blow-up: People’s Daily, 1976.
Zhang Wei, ‘AC2’, 1984, Boers-Li Gallery.
Wang Luyan, Tactile Art,  1988.
Zhang Wei, AB9, 1983, oil on linen, 174 x 110 cm
Zhang Wei, Z-C16, 1988, oil on canvas, 192 x 192 cm
Wang Luyan, W Army Watch, 2003, acrylic on canvas, 180 x 180 cm
Wang Luyan, W bike, 1996, 104 x 53.5 x 164 cm. (40.9 x 21.1 x 64.6 in.)
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Between them, Zhang Wei (born 1952) and Wang Luyan (born 1956) have witnessed and co-written the story of Chinese contemporary art, which begins in 1976, with the death of Mao and the wider opportunities opening up after the end of the Cultural Revolution. Like many of their later friends and colleagues, the two were in their early 20s, self-taught, and setting out to discover art out of an inner urge. Zhang Wei went to the Beijing parks to paint and met similarly-minded young men and women with whom he would form the core of the No Name Group, then mainly an association of plein air painters in a roughly impressionist style. Wang Luyan became an early member of the more political Stars Group. When both groups staged their influential first exhibitions in 1979, Zhang Wei was already on his way to abstraction, while Wang Luyan went on to develop his own kind of conceptual art founded on paradox in the late 1980s. The one emigrated to New York in search of greater artistic freedom, the other stayed in Beijing, where he played an active role as an artist, collector, and curator.

INTERVIEW: Jia Wei
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artists & Boers-Li Gallery

Zhang Wei and Wang Luyan at Zhang’s studio

 

ZHANG WEI: I got interested in painting when I first started learning. I gradually formed a way of understanding life for myself. The basis of this understanding took shape from what I loved to do and thus persisted in doing.

I will tell you a little story about how I started when I was young. My mother took out a magazine subscription for me. This magazine was called “Little Friend,” and it was a kids magazine in a square format that was sent to my home weekly. The last page was only pat- terns of black contour lines. Sometimes the design was very intricate with lots of content: there were mountains, water, cars, clouds, etc. Each child who received this magazine was asked to color the patterns on the last page and send it back to them. Then they made a selection and gave out prizes to the winning children, encouraging them to continue their efforts. Every week I couldn’t wait for the arrival of the magazine. I filled in the colors and let my mother send it back. I colored outside the lines every time, but I thought the colors I painted were all beautiful. My mother sent it back every week, but I never won any prizes. Still, from this point on, I was truly fascinated by colors.

Later, when I had to stay at home to recover from a foot injury sustained while working in a production team in the country during the Cultural Revolution, my mother invited an art teacher from the school to give me lessons. For a long time, this teacher taught me how to sketch. I was doing these black and white pencil sketches at home, and I really did not care for them. But there was nothing I could do, nor anywhere I could go, since I needed to get well first. When I finally could walk again, I took paper and watercolors to paint in the park. At this time I met some young people who were all going there to paint. I began to be particularly interested in landscape painting, because that gave me a valid reason to leave behind the sketching lessons of my teacher.

 

Zhang Wei, Apartment Building, 1973
Zhang Wei, Blow-up: People’s Daily, 1976.

 

JIA WEI: Wasn’t that dangerous, meeting other painters in the park?

ZHANG WEI: No, in the early ’70s it was not. They didn’t control us, we were just groups of two or three people painting.

At that time, painting was an excuse for us, a way of seeking self-affirmation. It seemed that everyone was very keen on painting. Of course, the works were quite unsatisfactory, but that was unimportant. When I look back, I see that our collective behavior of painting out- doors was just a surface ritual. The true purpose was the subconscious affirmation of self-worth, a self-actualization of the meaning of being part of society, a way to gain an authentic sense of existence. Because the decade of the Cultural Revolution was a brutal period that completely obliterated individuality, painting was an escape to avoid the politics of society, this horror of reality, which was a particularly stressful time for the progeny of so-called capitalists. As long as I painted, I could psychologically cast off this kind of influence they had over me. And, through painting, I also met a lot of young artists who shared the same ideas, led identical lives, and endured similar experiences. I was able to find a small social group of my own.

In the winter of 1974 we had an exhibition for the first time. By chance, it was a few days before the New Year. As a group, we felt that we should celebrate. Using this as an excuse, everyone’s paintings were gathered for display at my house, like a party, to celebrate New Year. But in fact its real meaning was far greater than a New Year’s party. It united this group of people and lent them spiritual support. Everyone in the group gained more mutual understanding. On that day, the paintings were all hung together at my home. We were also sharing with one another our views of art and paintings. We were emotionally closer, more united. Under the pressure of such a powerful political society, this small group became especially valuable. After solidifying the strength of this group, we kept in very close contact until 1979.

 

JIA WEI: And painting itself became more important for you.

ZHANG WEI: From the early ’70s to the early ’80s, my paintings slowly changed from sketching to abstraction until they were completely abstract. It took about seven or eight years during which the works gradually evolved. For instance I remember how I went to Xiangshan (Fragrant Hills Park in Beijing) to paint. “Do you really want to paint these mountains?” my companion asked. “The mountains here are nothing special, and yet painting them realistically is very difficult.”

Actually, a mountain is an emotion. As a northerner who understands mountains, I will naturally have these feelings in my paintings. When the mountain appears on paper, it may only be a few strokes, and the stones on the mountain may just be small dots. The stones and the contours of the mountain form a relationship between the dots and the lines. Once the colors are painted, the dots, lines, and flat areas of the composition are equal to the basic combinations of abstraction. The Chinese understand these dots. Chinese ink painters usually put a few ink spots on their paintings. Those are called “moss drops.” They are formed intentionally but lend a random look to the work. They are in fact a conscious arrangement to evoke a visual spirituality. I am still using this approach of moss drops in my work today. Seemingly random, they are in fact a deliberate layout.

 

Zhang Wei, ‘AC2’, 1984, Boers-Li Gallery.

 

JIA WEI: Wang Luyan, you also started out as a figurative painter?

WANG LUYAN: The reason why I didn’t paint abstract was because I saw Yang Jiechang’s ink paintings in an exhibition. He used to pour a thick layer of ink on several layers of rice paper and a piece of linen in a pond- sized sink. Then he waited for them to dry. The work was completely dry after a month or two, and it was full of cracks like arid land. After I had seen that, I decided not to paint abstract paintings because his conceptual abstraction seemed in direct opposition to my work. I knew there were limitations and found this form meaningless.

 

JIA WEI: Then you stopped painting altogether from 1985 to 1993 to make sculpture and conceptual work?

WANG LUYAN: In the beginning, when I met with Zhang Wei’s circle of friends, I gained a great deal from that experience. Then I came into contact with a group of people that would come to be seen as the 85 New Wave Art Movement. I began to have exhibitions together with artists such as Zhang Peili and Huang Yongping. There were many exchanges between us. Especially after meeting with Robert Rauschenberg in 1985, there were some changes in the situation for me. I began to have new ideas. I learnt the conceptual values and new artistic practices of contemporary Chinese art. I realized that the mission of Chinese modern art of the ’70s was being replaced by new forces. It didn’t mean the elimination of the No Name or Stars Groups, just that another kind of artistic thinking and practice had already emerged from a new time period. I felt that the Beijing contemporary art scene had basically remained with the values of the ’70s. It was already an issue for me.

So in 1988, I started to create works that completely eliminated the meaning of recognition, and I also formed the New Measurement Group in order to put into practice a more extreme kind of work. Unlike with the Stars Group, the pertinence of my work no longer reacted to the official Chinese academic value standards of the time.

 

Wang Luyan, Tactile Art,  1988.

 

JIA WEI: What had been the politics of the Stars Group? Was there a difference between the Stars and the No Name Group?

WANG LUYAN: Political democracy and freedom of expression.

As far as I know, in simple terms, the art of the Stars Group is the art of content, and the art of No Name is a language art. In the ’70s, Chinese art still aimed at the mainstream values of the Chinese government, the systemic values of the academy, art in the service of politics, and art as a political tool. In contrast to the art of the West, the development of modern and contemporary art in China lacks a long process. From the art of the Cultural Revolution to the Stars, China jumped directly into contemporary art. In this era of just a decade or so, Chinese artists had nearly repeated and imitated the forms of all the art genres in the history of modern Western art. Another aspect of the ’80s was that Chinese contemporary artists began to read a lot of Western philosophers, and they delved into the study of a number of Western literary and artistic theories, such as structuralism, linguistics; and semiotics.

There was another development. In the ’70s, the concept of exhibitions and curators did not exist. During the ’80s, that was slowly changing, some exhibitions emerged, and artists were offered the opportunity to show their work abroad, all of which brought different modes of artistic creation, of thinking, and of presentation.

ZHANG WEI: In the first half of the ’80s, we had some secret exhibitions at my home, inviting foreign friends to see the works, to buy and collect them. It was my own small circle. Zhao Gang and Wang Luyan were from the Stars Group, Gu Dexin took part in later, Feng Guodong and Li Qiang joined for a while as well. At that time, my home was bigger than that of others. There was nobody living with us, no parents, no siblings, only Li Shan and me. Besides, we were more free-spirited, more open and receptive.

Then there were occasions where we arranged a place for exhibitions. These were usually shut down by the police. In 1985 we had a group show, an exhibition of ten people, and we paid rent to exhibit at the Chaoyang Theater. After the police shut it down, I went to ask for the return of our paintings. At that time, the person in charge of the theater was the director of the Cultural Affairs Bureau of Chaoyang District. I was the organizer and had made all the arrangements. When I asked for our paintings back, this man said to me: “I advise you all not to make trouble and don’t engage in this kind of activities again. Don’t think about hosting exhibitions of such abstract paintings that are clearly different. If you people have the opportunity, you all should leave. Don’t hang around here, there is no future for any of you.” I said: “You make it plain!” “People like you,” he continued, “the government knows your whereabouts, even if you’re not followed every day. When the government considers it important, they know whom you talk to on the phone and the places you’ve been to.” So the pressure of living in China was very high. I was in a panic.

I really felt the pressure when I was being spied on. I was in contact with lots of foreigners, and many of my friends were considered dangerous by the government. I was under surveillance by the police station located in my precinct. After the show at the Chaoyang Theater had been closed, I took a trip to Tibet in 1986 and left for the United States afterwards.

 

Zhang Wei, AB9, 1983, oil on linen, 174 x 110 cm

 

JIA WEI: When you arrived in New York in 1986, what did you find?

ZHANG WEI: I arrived on the morning of November the 7th. I actually visited New York because of our exhibition “Avant-garde Chinese Art” at the City Gallery. Zhao Gang drove to the airport to pick me up, and we went to SoHo in Lower Manhattan to have breakfast at a coffee shop at the corner of Spring and Greene Street. Sunlight sprinkled the tablecloth through the window; half leaning back, he sat deep in the shadow and said to me: “There are lots of galleries here . . . if you can do a solo show in one of these galleries, there will be many opportunities and unexpected developments in the future!” Then our exhibition attracted attention and my works indeed became noticed by gallerists. Soon after, I did a solo show at Carolyn Hill Gallery in SoHo and she sold a few of my paintings.

Even though now and then some paintings were sold, the pressure of survival weighed particularly heavy on my mind. Everywhere I went, I was looking for work. I worked for a construction company. I learnt doing portraits of people on the sidewalks on Times Square. I was a host at a restaurant, delivered newspapers, and drove a taxi. Later I worked as a courier in a company and even looked after children for a few days.

JIA WEI: It was a not an easy time.

ZHANG WEI: It was really difficult because I was not good at learning the language, so I often felt lonely. The main thing was that I was not familiar with a city like New York, which was very different from Beijing. Every day was a struggle for survival and I had no time for any- thing else. After a while, I began to miss Beijing and my family and friends there in particular. So increasingly I immersed myself and my art in the pursuit of a Chinese mood and aesthetic. Though I often went to art museums and galleries in New York, interacted with local artists on occasion and went to see off-Broadway shows with them, I felt like I didn’t belong there. I thought I’d never integrate into this world.

In my paintings at that time I put almost all my longings for China into the creation of abstract works, especially in the summer of 1989. I painted some pictures in black, gray, and red because that kind of mood had been plaguing my mind after the events at Tiananmen Square. These works aren’t just an illustration of my thoughts on a particular event; I tried to become more simple and direct in forming compositions.

At that time, I was very concerned about the lives, thoughts, and feelings of the people in China. I remember finding a Chinese TV documentary series named “He Shang” (River Elegy) that was shot in mainland China in 1988. My friends and I were very moved after watching it! The student movement kindled our enthusiasm, and every day we were involved. I was filmed for the news reports of several TV stations and inter- viewed by the New York Times. I was extremely interested in the current events in China and the changes in people’s inner life. I was also very proud of my artist friends in Beijing, such as Luyan, Feng Guodong, and others, for the explorations and achievements in their art! That was a radical period of Luyan’s conceptual endeavors.

Only very slowly did I become fond of the city, the people, their art and culture, and their way of life. When I truly understood them, I began to love every- thing about them. Because my home was in the East Village, I started painting a lot of street scenes from this neighborhood. The East Village was very different from now; it was a very rare place with a great deal of character. I love those paintings because they embody my love for the Village life, and the influence of the people had on me. That’s the time when I began to feel like a carefree resident living in the East Village of Manhattan, New York.

 

Zhang Wei, Z-C16, 1988, oil on canvas, 192 x 192 cm

 

JIA WEI: So how did your prospects as an artist develop?

ZHANG WEI: My partnership with Carolyn Hill Gallery lasted from 1987 to 1991. When I told Carolyn that I wanted to move to Z Gallery, she didn’t object. She said that she always thought that I was a promising painter, she just hoped that I would know how to arrange my life and run my own business in the future. With Z Gallery my partnership ended for in 1993 for some personal reasons. Then I really became a workman trying to make a living in New York, and I started to sell my paintings on the streets of Manhattan. Like many street artists, I was often harassed and expelled by the police.

Based on the principle of the First Amendment of the US Constitution, we deserved to be protected by law. So we took all of them to court: the police commissioner and the mayor of New York in addition to the NYC police department. We persisted in fighting the government for eight years before finally winning at the Supreme Court. Now, anyone can sell paintings on the sidewalks of New York because of the ruling of our case. As a painter, painting is important, but I am even more willing to suffer for the right to free speech. I still feel that these eight years of dedication were worthwhile! I learnt a lot of very valuable things from my fellow New Yorkers.

In the late ’90s my mom moved to New York and lived with me and my partner Elaine for more than eight years. She loved the city very much and insisted on liv- ing in the US even though she was already in her eighties. But we were a bit worried as we couldn’t imagine what to do if she would become really sick one day. So finally I convinced her to return to Beijing with me since all my sisters and brothers were living there and we could take care of her together. In 2005 we moved back.

 

JIA WEI: Luyan, how did you experience these times staying in China?

WANG LUYAN: As we said before, in our beginnings there had only been underground exhibitions. Public exhibitions were very rare. From the ’80s to the ’90s, Chinese contemporary artists had a few opportunities to show their work in China, but mainly they had overseas exhibitions.

In the ’90s, there were various art movements which still followed our traditional values. However, the main trends in Chinese art leant toward the post-colonial theories of the West. In this view, the significance of modern and contemporary art in China rested mainly on its sociological background. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, China had become the largest socialist country. Under such circumstances, the significance of embodying the values of an artistic genre is greater than the value of an individual artistic language. The presentation of such art in the ’90s relied on the power of the West, for instance, academic journals, galleries, publications, collections, etc. These were not domestic endeavors, there were no native curatorial efforts on modern and contemporary art, and local exhibitions were few and far between. Important publications and exhibitions were all abroad. So the development of the ’90s followed the trends of Western values.

After 2000, values were becoming increasingly pluralistic. The market had eliminated the authority of Chinese curators in the ’90s and the artists’ individual voices began to surface gradually. The kind of art that was usually interpreted from a linguistic perspective began to slowly establish itself in the process of communication. But this would require a maturing process.

 

Wang Luyan, W Army Watch, 2003, acrylic on canvas, 180 x 180 cm

 

JIA WEI: How did your own work develop during these years?

WANG LUYAN: I created the first of my paradoxical sketches of a crane construction in 1988 (p. 53) during the period when we founded the New Measurement Group, followed by the paradoxical sketch W Bicycle (1995; p. 55), a bicycle which goes backwards even when you ride it forwards. W Bicycle as a sculpture was completed 199 (p. 55), the year the New Measurement Group was dissolved. In my artistic practice and re- search I gradually progressed over the years to a concern with paradox phenomena where I placed myself in the dilemma of a paradox, the absolute nature of paradox. In all my works I have used paradoxical visual forms to continuously extend the ideas of questioning and negation. At present, I have extended paradoxical thinking and creation to the paradoxical relationship between people, revealing the non-correspondence behind the corresponding representation of this relationship.

Beside my own work, I started creating a collection of over 100 significant works by contemporary Chinese artists of the ’80s together with a very enthusiastic American collector friend. We have in our collection really wonderful early abstract pieces by Zhang Wei beside smaller paintings from his time with the No Name Group. In recent years we showed our collection in a hall beside my studio, which can be visited by appointment. We got a lot of visitors from inside China and all over the world, museum groups and art circles. This summer we re-installed the works in a new exhibition hall, especially created for them. The collection on view gives an important overview of the contemporary art developments after the end of the Cultural Revolution and inspires some interesting academic exchanges.

 

Wang Luyan, W bike, 1996, 104 x 53.5 x 164 cm. (40.9 x 21.1 x 64.6 in.)

 

 

(First published in 2019 in English and German in “Zhang Wei / Wang Luyan – A Conversation by Jia Wei, with an Introduction by Hans Werner Holzwarth”. Translation from Chinese by Elaine Woo. ISBN 978-3-947127-10-8. Copyright by the authors and Holzwarth Publications GmbH, www.holzwarth-publications.com)

 

 

Also check out our coverage on Chinese Abstraction:

Good Expressions Have Abstract Meanings – Introduction by Hans Werner Holzwarth
Good Expressions Have Abstract Meanings – A Conversation with Zhang Wei & Wang Luyan (II) (To be published soon)
Huang Rui and David Elliott in Conversation
Huang Rui: Ways of Abstraction
Jian-Jun Zhang and Karen Smith in Conversation

 

 

About the artists

 

Zhang Wei is regarded as one of the first abstract painters in China. Beginning his career in the 1970s as part of the unofficial artist collective Wuming, Zhang followed the groups intent to express an individual artistic approach apart from the established art forms at that time. Encounters with western Abstract Expressionism and its protagonists such as Jackson Pollock and Robert Rauschenberg in the early 80’s, offered Zhang a different view on his own artistic practice and encouraged his aim for personal freedom of expression by dedicating himself to a non-representational form. His paintings pick up particularly the immediate and intuitive approaches of action painting. Nevertheless, alongside references to western modern painting, Zhang’s works also allude to traditional Chinese ink and calligraphy techniques. Similarly, his practice reminds of the Asian tradition of “qi”, that describes painting as a process of releasing energy when ink and paper touch through the brush.

 

Wang Luyan is a Chinese conceptual artist. Trained as a mechanical engineer, the artist is known for his highly critical artworks of China’s newly competitive, materialistic society. Born in 1956, Luyan was actively engaged in China’s avant-garde art movement since the late 1970s, and deeply involved with the New Measurement Group, a three-member initiative of Conceptual artists that existed from 1988 to 1995. The founding of the group was spurred on by the fascination these artists had for Western philosophies – an interest they shared with many others throughout China – after experiencing decades of intellectual suppression under Mao. Introducing the rules of analytic geometry into their practice, the New Measurement Group explored the possibilities of communicating experiences and perceptions through quantities and measurements as opposed to erratic individuality. When the group eventually disbanded, its members destroyed all the documents and materials relating to their practice in a fire, preferring to maintain its legacy conceptually. His works have been presented in collective and solo exhibitions in China and internationally.

 

 


 

Jia Wei is the managing partner of Boers Li Gallery. She is graduated from University of Georgia Business School, Jia Wei started her career as representative for the British Funded Red Mansion Foundation, by which she helps to build a collection and supports Chinese art in various ways. Between 2009 and 2015, Wei served as the Head of Poly Auctions Group in Beijing as an expert in Chinese artsg, played a significant role in Beijing Poly Auction’s success, being China’s biggest and one of the top three auction houses world-wide.  After seven years at Poly, she moved on to join Boers Li Gallery as managing partner.  Throughout her career, Wei’s main objective is to expand the market for new developments in art and at the same time make Chinese art accessible for a fast growing group of new collectors.

Since its foundation in 2005, Boers-Li Gallery has exhibited and supported the various generations of Chinese contemporary art, exploring its history and pioneering young artists in all media. The gallery represents artists from the first avant-garde movements emerging after the Cultural Revolution, including the 1970s underground period of the Stars and No Name Groups, from the Beijing Abstract Art Movement in the early 1980s, the 85 New Wave Movement, the New Media Movement in the 1990s, to the most recent generation of the Post Internet era. Today, with venues in both Beijing and New York, Boers Li Gallery is equipped to establish and emancipate the history of Chinese contemporary art and different Chinese traditions that continue to influence, and to start a dialog between the cutting-edge of the Chinese avant-garde and selected Western positions that pursue ideas for a globalized world.

 

 

 
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