Freedom and Anxiety in a Lonely Corner — Wei Jia’s Panting and Person

My aversion toprintmaking started during college; I believe its origins can be traced back toLu Xun’s famous words: “Woodblock printing serves a revolution extensively, itsexecution might be hasty, but it can be done in a matter of moments.” Theomnipresent Lu Xun promoted the New Woodblock Movement in the name ofrevolution, but the result of woodblock printing often seems as if someone hadsmeared soot messily across yellowing paper, straining to produce a few facesand objects. This is a woodcut? This is printing? I reckoned that woodblockprinting — despite its sturdy reputation — fails to capture the heart of theyouth; I later realized that my misunderstanding ran even deeper. Thecautionary purpose of woodblock printing — “to facilitate education and aid thedevelopment of morals” —  has beenexploited, its plurality calls to mind Goebbels famous remark that “a lie tolda thousand times becomes the truth.” For a young student of art, emotions andimpressions are more than enough to stir up contentious thoughts; one caneasily be led to believe that in order to become a pioneer, one must destroy,deny, and challenge pre-established notions. Under the great banner ofconceptual art, installation art, performing art, and video art avidly vie withone another. How can painting stay in place?    


At the time, Inever imagined that printmaking and painting would take up so much of my timeand energy; nor was I aware that a man named Wei Jia had also just recentlyexperienced a distaste for this form of art. In that moment, this man, sweatingprofusely, attempts to polish a heavy stone, his inky fingertips smearing hisforehead black. Yet, the prints he creates are pristine and beautiful. Lateron, this man trades stone for canvas and switches printing ink forpropylene-based paint. The scope of his artwork expands and becomes more fluid,but the image remains pristine and beautiful.


It was by chancethat Wei came to learn woodblock printing. After earning the highest marks as agraduate of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute Affiliated Secondary School, Weivisited China Central Academy of Fine Arts. There he saw that his peers werealready learning oil painting. In his earlier schooling, students had adisadvantageous starting point as they never attempted to learn what theteachers did not teach. A senior student at the academy advised Wei to apply tothe school through the woodblock printing test, as it was a less competitiveway to gain admittance. Once he was accepted, the student told Wei, he couldlearn whatever his heart desired. Following his acceptance, Wei realized thatthe system and tradition of the printmaking department at China Central Academyof Fine Arts was far too well-established and rigorous to allow him to learnfreely; apart from a few optional courses, he barely explored what the rest ofthe school had to offer. Thus, a student with a passion for oil painting spentthree uncertain years studying printing, stuck in a crevice between infinitepossibilities.  


During the secondsemester of his junior year, Wei arrived in Anhui Province. He observed theeveryday life of locals, watching them as they lived in gloomy buildings androamed the historic streets. The ancient Anhui style buildings remained passiveas people shuffled through them, bearing silent witness to time’s unwillingnessto halt for anyone. Amidst the joy, clamor, and excitement, Wei experienced ajolt of subtle displacement; he felt as if the people whom he was observingwere shuttling through past and present unwittingly, their every movementharmonious and free. Wei was deeply yet subtly impacted by an enlighteningnotion: could one break free from the realistic imitation of image, color, andchiaroscuro and, instead, recreate one’s perception? Once this impediment wascircumvented, one would no longer be limited to the classification, material, or medium of art. The process ofprintmaking is rational and irreversible. Yet, the resulting print vividlyconveys authentic feelings and emotions — this is what makes printmaking uniqueand an excellent way to master one’s indomitable passion for art. Oneskillfully expresses a plethora of subtle and chaotic emotions in a precisemanner so that they may be perceived by others during a different time and in aforeign place. Not only is this the charm of art, it is one of the greatestcreations we have to offer to the universe; presently, we call it literatureand art. So powerful was the result of Wei’s sudden epiphany that not only washe able to rid himself of his previous misunderstanding of printmaking, he evenfound the value of art and his life’s purpose. Wei’s first batch of lithographswere coarse; the graininess of the prints seem to echo the hardships peopleendured in that era. Perhaps it was unintentional that his art should reflectthe times, or perhaps his repressed emotions exploded into his art. Wei soondeveloped a style similar to animation, mostly portraying youngsters who seemedto be in a displaced or chaotic space. The prints possess imagery as well ascontent, but are neither narrating nor telling a story; all they convey is ayouth’s melancholy and unease. Wei could be easily mistaken for one who looksfor sadness without cause. However, those who have had personal contact withhim will know that Wei is not being ingenuine. Instead, he is braving hisemotions at the risk of mockery. Some artists say they have no idea what theywould do or how they would live if they had not chosen to be artists — Ibelieve Wei sympathizes with this sentiment. After graduating from college, Weistarted working at Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. At the same time every morning,Wei showed up at the campus studio. “You’re too rational!” his colleagues wouldoften say, teasing him in a guileless and friendly manner characteristic ofSichuanese people. For an artist, a regular pattern in life often signifiesinflexibility and a lack of imagination. Yet a regular and structured procedureis precisely what printmaking relies on. When he is in the studio, Wei does notspend all his time on his artwork; he believes that four solid hours spent onart a day is sufficient. For much of the time, Wei is simply spending time inthe studio. Wei sees this as entering a mentality and atmosphere that he isfamiliar with while others see it as a waste of time. Wei makes no effort ofconcealing the fact that he spends a great deal of time and energy in his studiofeeling anxious. I see this as the source of his art; experiencing and enduringanxiety is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of his work.     


Wei rarely speaksabout major political events and the so-called art world. While he onceremarked that the September 11 attacks shook him to his core, and although heis one of the initial beneficiaries of the art market, Wei has never paid muchattention to the tumultuous and changing era of our macroscopic world, nor doeshe concern himself with the changes of the microscopic art world. His art doesnot reflect the times. The September 11 attacks influenced Wei in a verypersonal way; when the world’s superpower was attacked, when an internationallandmark ceased to exist, insecurity and uncertainty befell everyone. Wei doesnot concern himself with politically correct notions such as religion,conviction, and anti-terrorism; his anger cannot be aroused by the celebrationof the ignorant. Commercial success and the early financial freedom itengendered did not make Wei feel proportionately excited or at ease. He did notmake a conscious effort to befriend a wide array of people, nor was he carefulabout keeping good records of his prints, sketches, or files from differenttime periods, all essential preparations for holding a retrospective exhibitionand becoming a master. On the contrary, Wei finds his artwork to be overpriced,and he says so without fear of being called affectatious. He also suspects thatart scholars and those who profit from the art market treat him with suchkindness largely due to the fact that his work goes for a hefty sum of money.The art market rapidly developed, different fields of art took turns everycouple of years as the trendy leader, and the Sichuan Fine Arts Institutionreleased a hive of painter bees who ended up in the dazzling garden that isBeijing’s art market. Wei, who was one of the first to benefit from thismarket, has stayed in the southwest corner of the country where he feels mostcontent. In his unremarkable studio, located in the old part of campus behindsome bushes, Wei made the transition from preparing lithographs to paintingwith propylene paint on canvas. At the center of his paintings, innocent andwell-kempt youths stand still. Upon observation, the people in his paintingsshed their two-dimensional identities and become three-dimensional; theirblissful joy becomes contemplation, and their comfortable manner seemscontrived. Wei gradually departed from his colorful and animated cartoon style,developing a style that is halfway between the coarseness of his earlylithographs and the purely aesthetic — this is where Wei maintained the mostappropriate distance between his emotion and his art. The youth portrayed inhis painting seems to glow from within; blood and fluids drip from the tip ofthe arrow that shot him. Similar to the painting of Saint Sebastian, theyouthful face and aestheticized image makes the violence less brutal.    


Wei’s sanguine yetgrief-laden style of painting, which gained wide popularity, was quicklyreplaced by a sense of bewilderment, vagrancy, chaos, and obstinance. His glumpaintings are direct recreations of his emotions and harbor a sense ofincompletion. This corresponds with the sentiment he was experiencing at thattime in his life: open yet extremely self-contained. Till this day, Wei stillindulges in the to-and-fro of being lost and found, and oftentimes embarks oncarefree adventures into mentalities that even he fails to explain.


Wei’s painting aredull, ambiguous, and emotional; yet they are different from the similarly darkcompositions of Francis Bacon’s paintings. Bacon is even more neurotic, but hisneuroticism actually serves a clear purpose — to portray the despondence andpain human beings experienced after WWII. Wei does not regard the world in thecool and detached manner of Eileen Chang. He is, in fact, far from recognizingand mercilessly criticizing humanity, nor does he profess to have any accurateinsight into the past or present. All Wei seeks to achieve is to clearlyexpress his emotions — his freedom exists within his self-doubt. When Wei sawYin Chao Yang’s first solo exhibition, held at the Beijing Lithograph Museum,he was deeply moved by the braveness and pureness of the youth’s obstinance.Wei holds painter Lucian Freud in great esteem. Yet Freud’s paintings, whichexhibit his consummate skill, do not captivate him. Wei is most fond of Freud’spassion and mentality before the 1990s — before his skill reached maturity —because he regards rawness to be the rarest and most valuable quality in art.There is no doubt that Wei strives to produce new work that he findssatisfactory; yet he often doubts his ability to do so. “My greatest woe andsatisfaction both come from painting.” People find it difficult to believe thatthis handsome and composed man who has experienced a long streak of successendures such torment in his studio; the source of which originates from hisunremitting pursuit of “creating work that he finds satisfactory.” MostBuddhists may regard Wei’s plight as the result of adamance and an inability toescape from the Three Poisons — confusion, greed, and ill will. However, for anartist, this emotional state provides the exact nutrients which nurtures hisart. When one sets their emotions free, they run wild and the act becomes morethan just a temperate catharsis. One must keep one’s eye on the prize, abide bybasic rules, and exercise caution when utilizing emotions as the means topropel oneself further. Cezanne’s fervor did not run amok as Van Gogh’s did.With trembling hands, Cezanne painted distant mountains, random objects, andpeople who sat in silence, repeatedly coating these subjects with layers ofpaint. His seemingly unchanging compositions contain boiling lava. As timepasses, we are astounded by the force of this idiosyncratic artist’s sullencomposition, and we praise his composed control that effaces impulsive urges.Wei is fully aware that masters of Eastern and Western art place great emphasison direct perceptions. His concern for maintaining emotional authenticity faroutweighs his pursuit of realistic portrayal and consummate skill. Wei does notfear that his outpouring of emotions might give others reason to deem him asself-indulgent and narcissistic. Ultimately, real emotion surpasses artisticcorrectness. For an artist, a wide avenue paved by someone else does notcompare to his or her own muddy little trail.


Fish in a dry pondmoisten one another with spit and keep each other warm with moisture. Our worldis headed for a spiritual drought. After the brilliant fireworks ignited byart, all will return to darkness and silence. With whatever power that remainsin us, we harken the occasional sound of breath, as if we were still alive —perhaps it is better to be forgotten in this world. 



December of 2016, Beijing



As 2016 comes to aclose, Shanghai Art Week, which caught the world’s attention, also drew itscurtains. Exhaustion robbed me of excitement; everything seemed both distantand immediate. Beijing’s weather had been fickle, as usual. One day, I receiveda WeChat message saying, “Next spring Michael Ku Gallery will hold my soloexhibition and it is my wish that you might write for it,” followed by “Iwonder how you have been lately, and if you would feel inclined to do so.” Weiknew that a family member of mine had fallen ill. 


In the past twoyears, my view of art has taken a drastic turn. For many years, I was moved byfactors such as imagination, rhythm, form, movement, and tension; theseelements are commonly found in the works of younger artists, including WeiJia’s. The young Wei Jia did not flaunt his skills or boast his youth; hispaintings were aesthetically pleasing but also thoughtful and conveyed a senseof concern. I find the solemn vigor of his current art to be more profound thanthe fireworks his younger self lit. Wei has departed from his previous youthfulidentity, but he has not reached maturity; he is still on his path. Wei’sunique journey and nonconformity spiked my interest to write about him, eventhough writing is a tormenting task. Oftentimes, art is regarded as aprofession and a job, and artists are treated as technicians, prophets, andcritics. People have forgotten how to be perceptive, and how to experience lifeand the cosmos through art. Perhaps we are too absorbed in being innovative andeloquent and this has separated us from a life that is rooted in the land. Weare oblivious to the suffering of others and sometimes lured by fashion,trends, and power. Being in the thick of things, I am no exception; all I cando is strive to stay true — to describe Wei Jia as I know him and convey myfeelings and observations concerning his art. 




Li Feng (b. 1979)

Li obtained hisbachelor’s and master’s degree from the Art History Department of China CentralAcademy for Fine Arts. Li is a seasoned museum director, having worked as thedirector of the Minsheng Art Museum and having founded one of the first publicart museums funded by a financial institution. Presently, Li is the artdirector of the Minsheng Art Institute. Li was part of the curation andpromotion of many exhibitions including “Thirty Years of Contemporary Art1979-1999,” “Twenty Years of Contemporary Images 1988-2011,” and “To LegislateNo Law: Yangjiang Group Exhibition.” He has also founded awards, including theMinsheng Art History Thesis Award. Additionally, Li writes about contemporaryart.