Wang Xingwei, Traitors, 2015, oil on canvas, 78 5/8 × 94 1/2".

Wang Xingwei, Traitors, 2015, oil on canvas, 78 5/8 × 94 1/2".

Wang Xingwei

Wang Xingwei, Traitors, 2015, oil on canvas, 78 5/8 × 94 1/2".

Wang Xingwei’s latest solo exhibition was clearly inspired by Platform China’s new home, in which the space is divided into a front and a back room. The show’s conceptual framework also formed a kind of dualistic structure, posturing the theme of dialectic moral values. “Model worker” Li Xianting—the art critic and curator known to emulate the traditional Confucian intellectual, calling himself “the squire”—was invited to inscribe the title. In traditional Chinese society, respected authorities would often play the role of arbitrator. The fanfare of the show’s title, “Honor and Disgrace,” made it hard not to see irony and humor in its content. In recent years, “Eight Honors and Eight Shames” was one of the official slogans for moral education enthusiastically employed by Chinese authorities. Here, however, Wang shrewdly applied this moralism as an aesthetic form. For instance, written next to each oil painting was doggerel verse containing themes either extolling or disparaging something; this moralist content, springing from folk traditions furthermore upheld by the famous discussions of art’s role in socialist politics delivered at the Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art in 1942, was transcribed in slick calligraphy and mounted on ancient Chinese scrolls.

The gallery’s two spaces were divided according to the opposing ideas in the show’s name. In the front room’s “Honor” section, the figures portrayed included the iconic folk hero to the poor Ji Gong (also known as the “crazy monk”); Canadian physician Norman Bethune, who brought medicine to the front lines of the Second Sino-Japanese War and rural China, and was eulogized by Mao Zedong; the female Eighth Route Army soldiers; masses of happy people; and revolutionary landmarks (for example, the Neva River in Saint Petersburg, where Russia’s October Revolution began). These affirmative images, which derive from traditions of folk or socialist culture, match the elevated aesthetic values of beauty, fluidity, and solemnity. But just as a play’s antagonist is often portrayed with more charisma than its protagonist, the clumsy and dodgy images in the show’s back area—designated for “disgrace”—which referenced farcical anti-Japanese television programming from recent years, seemed to stand out. The works depicted Japanese soldiers (who are literally called “devils” in Chinese) and Chinese traitors performing ridiculous shenanigans in a village, while the haystacks and houses in the background seemed to display the faces and expressions of armed anti-Japanese villagers.

Works in this “disgrace” section demonstrated a unified style and method that more accurately represents Wang’s recent output. The artist blends modernist styles such as children’s painting, caricature, Cubism, and Futurism with a reckless and apparently untutored drawing style. Behind this mishmash, however, is a carefully controlled technique. Take, for example, Traitors, 2015. The vividly colored postures of a fat and a thin “traitor” in the foreground are meticulously drafted. In particular, the stance of the slender man, and the center-parted hair falling onto his face, is the result of extensive research and practice.

This doubling of method and result, foreground and background, extended beyond a simple comparison of the exhibition’s two distinct physical spaces. Removing the superficial disguise of the show’s moral theme, the real, hidden subject of the exhibition was a confrontation of the relationship between morality and style. The exhibition’s inscription—the preface—cited a correspondence between eighth-century Zenist Han Shan’s poem of admonishment and Yuan-dynasty scholar Zhao Mengfu’s poem of painting theory. Those texts paralleled Wang’s undemonstrative establishment of his artistic style, as well as his political and moral principles, within the an overarching illusion of chaos. Ji Gong’s image, as depicted by Wang, resembled the artist himself.

Bao Dong

Translated from Chinese by Chelsea Liu.