Wang Guangle

Beijing Commune

Wang Guangle makes artworks in various typologies. His “Terrazzo” series, 2002– , re-creates in oil or acrylic paint a distinctive Chinese floor material. Terrazzo 200807, 2008, has an allover pattern; Terrazzo 200808, 2008, and Terrazzo 090105, 2009, surround simple geometric forms (a square at the center, for example) with monochromatic color fields. And he produces two types of acrylic-on-canvas work called “Coffin Paints,” 2004–: large, dark, vertically oriented gray canvases and somewhat smaller, heavily painted panels in a variety of colors and patterns. In Coffin Paint 090119, 2009, the lighter gray surrounding the dark center functions as a frame. Within some of his heavily painted panels, Wang uses layers of pigment to build up heavy surfaces; Coffin Paint 090206, 2009, is one example: A red and white background pattern resembling a woodcut appears beneath a heavy bright red central line. Finally, Coffin Paint 081013, 2008, and Coffin Paint 090309, 2009, contain multicolored bands of horizontal stripes of irregular width. In the smaller pictures, Wang’s heavy paint runs from the picture surface around to the edge of the thick frame. In this elegant, relatively small one-room gallery, his show is too densely hung.

Trained at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, this thirty-three-year-old artist has hardly exhibited in the West. In different contexts, the same works of art could have quite distinctly diverse meanings. If Wang’s “Terrazzo” paintings were to be shown in a Chelsea gallery, I would think them a shrewd commentary on Sylvia Mangold’s representations of floors. And his smaller “Coffin Paints” could allude to Jo Baer’s edge-focused abstractions. Coffin Paint 081031, 2008, is uncannily similar to some brightly colored Mary Heilmanns. The larger Coffin Paint 090104, 2009, a near monochrome whose shallow, illusionistic depths reveal a softly shaped rectangle, could be by a wayward follower of Victor Vasarely. Thinking like a New York critic, I imagined that Wang’s title should be “Coffin Paintings,” referring to the much-discussed death of painting. But Wang’s allusion is quite different. Just as his “Terrazzos” are not abstractions but images of floor coverings, so the “Coffin Paints” have a very specific cultural reference: It is customary for some Chinese, as they reach late middle age, to purchase their coffin and repaint it every year, thus hoping to achieve longevity. Wang imagines that his pigment asks to live.

According to the label on the entrance wall, Wang “sets up a world of sheer ‘spirit’ and ‘feeling’ for the transferring of the ‘object.’” In doing this, he “makes us feel lost between the importance of painting and man himself.” The “Six Elements” of Hsieh Ho, the fifth-century articulation of classical Chinese brush painting, claims that painting requires “Spirit Resonance,” “Bone Method,” “Correspondence to the Object, “Suitability to Type,” “Division and Planning,” and “Transmission by Copying.” Wang’s “Coffin Paints,” which look like Western abstractions, are in fact both abstract and representational, resembling in this both a great deal of old-master Chinese art and postmodern painting such as Peter Halley’s “cells.” It is important not to fetishize either of these connotations, however. After all, Thomas Nozkowski also says that his works come from things he sees, but doesn’t say what those things are. However we interpret Wang’s pictures, in any sophisticated visual culture they would stand out. Amid the cheap surrealism and banal political commentary all too prevalent in the city’s 798 art district, they were revelatory.

David Carrier