On the afternoon of March 15 I had the opportunity to go into the downtown area of Wenzhou and visit a small art museum I had only just recently been told about. The Epoch Art Museum ( 年代美术馆 ) is a wonderful space near Bai Luzhou Park close to the Times Square shopping district. I didn’t know anything about the exhibit before I went (which is nice, sometimes). What I found was a variety of form and style, all loosely based on the theme of “painting language” or 绘话.*
The exhibition was too big and too broad for me to describe every artist’s work. So in this review I’ll be covering several of the artists featured, but not all of them. Likewise, this review will be comprised of some of my general first impressions, and not an in-depth analysis. At a future point I would very much like to re-visit the work of some of these artists for more well-researched analytical essays.
Li Di (李迪)
One of the first paintings I noticed when walking into the main hall of the exhibition space was Li Di’s large, colorful abstraction. Flat, undulating planes of color rolled in broken lines across the canvas in variegated patterns. It was only after a few moments of closer viewing that I noticed the planes were layered over an expressive under-painting of gestural brushstrokes. Once seeing that I strained to see through the rolled layers to the painting beneath. Just enough peeks through the gaps to suggest something wanting to be seen. The movement of the lines on the surface is complicated by the tension between the shown and that which struggles to be revealed. Li Di had other works of smaller size in the museum. Some of these showed lighter or darker color palettes. One in particular had a heavy impasto speckled on in a vigorous swirling motion.
Duan Jianwei (段建伟) See some of his art on artnet.
Duan’s pieces stood out in the downstairs hall for their soft-focus, sculpture-like treatment of their voluminous people. Both geometric and organic, Duan’s subjects seem to be occupying a space as spectators or as people waiting silently, for something. The backgrounds shimmer gently with soft diffuse brushstrokes. The horizon lines are not quite perfectly straight, bringing familiarity and a human presence to the seemingly emotionally distant subjects. With much of the artwork on display being bright, colorful and gestural, Duan’s pieces were like quiet refuge. His people softly acknowledging us as we pass by.
Qi Zhilong (祁志龙) See more of his work on artnet.
In the upstairs gallery, separated across the room on opposing walls were the three images in Qi Zhilong’s series on Christ. Like a Renaissance deposition scene, Qi’s Christ figure descends from an upright pose to prone. The most striking feature of the large compositions are the repetitive circular shapes that cover each canvas. Looking past the shapes is like looking into a microscope at a cell wall, to see the thin, pinkish wash of the loosely rendered body beneath. The micro and the macro, the internal physical at the juncture of the spiritual… The triptych suggests, to me at least, something about the embodiment of faith and belief and how both the physical and spiritual are transient and tenuous.
If I’m going to admit to having a favorite artist at this show, it would be Yin Zhaoyang. I stood in front of one of his large, textured, brightly colored mountain paintings (Kànshān, 2015) with a big smile on my face. The paint was thick and luscious, the painter practically sculpting the landscape with the pigment giving the sense of the texture, movement and vitality of the earth represented. I, personally, love seeing an artist who clearly loves oil paint as much as I do. Expressive brushwork at its finest.
Shen Jingdong (沈敬东) See more of Shen’s work on his website.
The striking toy-like artificiality of Shen’s people made the room dedicated to his paintings demand attention. Family, children, soldiers, nurses, animals…they stare out at us from their flat canvases with expressions that are both inhuman but warm and inviting. The innocence of the plastic toy is understood to be embodied with a subtext on society. Many of his figures smile unthreateningly in bright, shining color, but then, one notices a few others with bandages and wounds. More than just depictions of mass produced and sometimes abused toys, Shen provides us with a sometimes uncanny view of mass produced (and abused) identity. There’s a great deal more that can be said about Shen’s work and I encourage readers to look up his images. I may dedicate an Aesthetic Distance article to his Magnum Opis series in the future.
Liao Mingming (廖明明)
Liao’s works were the first I encountered when entering the building. Vertical, monochromatic compositions of soft landscapes in a modern interpretation of classic Chinese brushwork. Mountains, mist, and water calmly spoke of both tradition and modernity. One piece, The Other Side, 2015, a black and grey work depicts a tiny boat on an ocean or river with dark mountains on the horizon, the boat bobs up and down on a dimly lighted path. Is the path moving towards us, or into the distance? Is the small human construction in the vast natural world approaching us? Are we, with our modern sensibilities and urban drama the “other side” alluded to? Or is it the nostalgic, peaceful embrace of un-named, distant dark mountains, of unknown shapes in the moonlight that draws the wayfarer into calm, far-off waters? In my opinion a mark of an excellent painting is the ability for it to churn up a vast multitude of questions with just a few simple forms. Liao Mingming’s work excel in this regard. It’s easy to spend time contemplating and asking questions of these pieces.
Kang Lei (康蕾)
Kang made an impressive statement in the downstairs main hall with a stunning four-panel piece with floral and cacti patterns in warm colors called Paradise, 2016. As I stood back from the wall-sized painting I could see the subtle flows of color and line. Different shapes emerge and fade as you approach or retreat from the surface. This has a wonderful effect of like a conversation with the piece, interesting segments draw me in closer, where new things are discovered (a fleck of unnoticed color, a particularly well executed gesture) then as my eye moves on along the canvas, the size of it pushes me back again to take in the totality of the piece.
Upstairs Kang had a few, smaller pieces, more subtle in color and form. One piece that stood out to me was an installation of nine-parts of her Use of the Touch series from 2015. Square, framed black and white drawings of hands touching and other body parts are arranged in a grid. The bodies presented are fragmented, out of context. The close-ups make clear identification of the narrative impossible. There is, in this installation, a feeling of intimacy and tenderness, and yet the fractured view puts us at a distance, voyeur-like we catch glimpses, flashes of caresses, suggestions of the illicit. The tooth of the paper is quite prevalent and in some cases it appears the surface of the paper is scarred as though something was drawn on a paper on top of this one. The rubbed charcoal or graphite of the drawing unveils the damaged surface with the scene of touching and intimacy. This struck me as a particularly interesting visual metaphor. The traces of previous encounters mark the surface of the present. The lines of these encounters either enhance or take away from the immediacy of the now, past and present are always, in our mind’s eye, bounded together into one image. Perhaps that is never quite as true as it is in our most intimate relationships.
Jiang Huan (蒋焕) You can see more of this artist’s work on Artslant. **
Jiang Huan’s paintings displayed a beautiful photo-realism that draws the viewer into a quiet, intimate conversation with the subject.
One piece on display that I found particularly striking was a painting from 2009 called Nanna’s Sanday (sic). The painting was gorgeous, with subtle handling of rich color and perfect flesh-tones. The intensity of the subject’s gaze was wonderfully balanced by the expansive grey negative space over her. The grey background wasn’t oppressive or looming, it was flat and totally opaque, pushing the subject forward into a more intimate conversation with the viewer.
Duo Ba (多巴)
The upstairs hall also introduced me to the canvases of Duo Ba. Minimal, expressionistic and immediately reminiscent to me of artists like Shahzia Sikander in their composition. Duo paints freely, with a light hand on unprimed canvas. The undefined shapes are spaced across the surface in a rough dance with each other. Implied movement of faint whispers of lines suggests a narrative to which I don’t know the plot. The canvas itself is wrinkled and creased, these lines intersect with the small, energetic colors of the paint indicating perhaps movement taken, or half hidden barriers.
The exhibition was organized around the theme of “painting/language.” Much of that theme was lost on me as I was not able to read the accompanying text or wall panels. With apologies to the curators, I am unable to comment on how the works addressed the nuances of their vision until I’m able to understand the curatorial statements. But I will say a few things about language and art, and my experience at Epoch.
I moved to Wenzhou last summer. I didn’t speak or read any Mandarin (I still don’t, at least not very much, but I am trying to learn.) For the first few months my life consisted of awkwardly attempted communication, feeling lost, and wandering the local area just trying to get my bearings (physically and mentally). A few days before going to Epoch I was on a long walk downtown and even though I had never been on that particular street before I realized that I felt comfortable, I had my bearings, I knew where to go. So far it’s as close as I’ve been to feeling at home on this side of this big, blue marble.
When I walked through the doors at Epoch and saw the big, abstract paintings on the walls, I felt like I was on familiar ground. I couldn’t read the title cards, but that was okay. I could talk to the paintings, and they spoke to me. The details, the immediacy of color and form, that’s a language that I speak fluently, and the works in this museum and I had an amazing conversation. So even though I was unable to ask questions at the front desk, or properly order my coffee at the cafe next door, I feel like I was able to get answers from the experience. No doubt I’m missing something, but I’m getting something, too.
That’s the power behind this exhibition (and perhaps all well-executed art installations), the ability to communicate across silent voids. Painting is language, after all.
*Author’s Note: I will be using Mandarin characters in this review for specificity. The Pinyin used for artists’ names is taken from the Epoch Art Museum’s gallery brochures and are not my transliteration. I cannot read Mandarin (although I’m trying to learn) so if you feel I am using an incorrect character, please contact me with the correction.
**There are some other great images on this blog site that apparently shows Jiang Huan’s work. None of these images have titles or dates, though.