Meng Huang


The Chinese painter Meng Huang is on an exploratory path. In his recent “Flyover” series, 2008–, he approaches the human form in five stages, almost as if crossing a mountain, first painting the whole figure from below, then moving in to show the hunched body from a closer vantage point, next attaining a bird’s-eye view, descending again through the details, and finally looking at the same face of a human again, but from a changed perspective.

Meng’s new series “Helmut: Five Faces of Man,” 2010, part of the broader “Flyover” series, was made while the artist was in residence at the castle of Wusterhausen /Dosse in Germany. Meng is married to a German and lives partly in Berlin, but he does not speak the language. The series of five numbered portraits was his attempt to understand something about the country and one of its citizens without words. Initially he wanted to paint a priest, but since none were available locally, he settled for Helmut, a fellow painter. In the first painting we see Helmut in full-length profile: a bearded, middle-aged man, with a pronounced nose and a long ponytail. He wears a heavy jacket and black boots. Here, as in the other works in the series, Meng works in black and white. But since he chooses many different blacks and whites from different manufacturers and countries, they cover a spectrum of tones from brown to gray. This gives the figure of the standing Helmut a dark luminosity.

In the second painting, only Helmut’s back is visible, covered in a smooth leather jacket. Though sitting, he looks agile, as if ready to jump up any minute. Number three is the most unusual of the images as, looking down directly from above, we see Helmut’s receding hairline, curved like a wave with two crests. In the fourth picture, Helmut is sitting. He has his head in his hands—not like a thinker but like a desperate man. His face is hidden. The most intense vision of Helmut is the fifth one, in which he towers like a mountain. The palette in this work is mostly white, with some areas painted to look like angel wings or small clouds covering a summit. It is as if the process of painting Helmut in these different ways has brought Meng to a new understanding of his subject.

Meng’s approach is paradigmatic for WiE Kultur, a new arts space in Berlin run by Chaos Y. Chen, who formerly worked as chief curator of the Millennium Art Museum in Beijing. While I was visiting, Meng was having tea with painter Stannes Schwarz and dissident writer Liao Yiwu, who had made it to Berlin’s literary festival after being denied permission to leave China fourteen times and spending several years in prison. Yiwu climbed a librarian’s ladder to examine one of Schwarz’s portraits of primarily nineteenth-century polar explorers. This series echoed Meng’s own way of approaching the unknown: Where Schwarz focused on the men who went out into the planet’s most geographically remote regions, for Meng the unknown is his fellow painter Helmut. The biggest discoveries are still to be made—with the people around us.

Daniel Boese