Wang Xingwei, Shenyang Night, 2018, oil on canvas, 9' 10 1⁄8“ × 16' 3”.

Wang Xingwei, Shenyang Night, 2018, oil on canvas, 9' 10 1⁄8“ × 16' 3”.

Wang Xingwei

As pseudoscientific and dubious as the practice of physiognomy may be, it delivers judgments that are based on a fixed set of criteria. In the Chinese context, physical attributes such as the shape of one’s head are believed to reveal aspects of one’s fate. In “The Code of Physiognomy,” an exhibition at Galerie Urs Meile’s space in Beijing’s 798 district, Wang Xingwei reflected on the theme of predetermination through the prism of various scenarios and personalities within the artist’s immediate environment: his family, his friends, or a group of defamed political figures whose respective destinies are left implicit in the artist’s pastiche of allegorical cues. For instance, the four-part painting Noon Break, 2017–19, theatrically stages what could be a tableau from a popular anti–Japanese war TV series. The idle, almost comical poses of the Japanese soldiers render their presence effectively irrelevant, while in front of a haystack two men slump back-to-back under the sun. While their clothes and positioning call to mind satirical depictions of so-called “race traitors,” the characters personally resemble Wang and the artist Ai Weiwei, who had a public falling out over the former’s participation in a group exhibition at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. Other works, like Unfaithful Lover, 2017, exemplify Wang’s exceptional ability to generate irony and paradox through visual tropes and motifs, just as codified facial features might clue in a physiognomist to one’s character.

“The Code of Physiognomy” was accompanied by a second exhibition titled “Shenyang Night,” which took place at Galerie Urs Meile’s former location in Beijing’s Caochangdi Art District. The two paintings displayed here are set in the town of Shenyang in northeast China in the early 1990s, a pivotal time and place for the artist and his friends. Shenyang Night, 2018, bears a compositional similitude to Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, 1830, as it lays out the divergent prospects of four figures. A bare-chested man resembling the artist holds an elongated red flag at his waist. He looks resolute, despite his position under a high-voltage box. At the other end of the flag stand two men, one fat and one skinny, under a road sign barring a U-turns (which doubled as the logo for the 1989 “China/Avant-Garde Exhibition” at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing, a seminal show that some consider the beginning of contemporary art in the country). The pair turn their naked backs on the viewer, to face an underpass that leads to a monumental socialist edifice in the style of the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square. This positioning may suggest either the reluctance of these two figures to be affiliated with this scene, or simply their lack of connection to it. Meanwhile, at the center of the painting, a friend of the artist, Feng Xiaoguang, sits on the ground, propped against a roadblock. His right hand rests on his bulging crotch while he looks in despair at a white flag that has been abandoned in the road in the foreground, hinting at defeat.

In The Death of Wu Tao No. 3, 2019, as suggested by the work’s title, Wang returns to the subject of the passing of a close friend. The once-promising artist Wu Tao is depicted as having died in a most unnatural pose, crouching on his knees in a small bed, his face buried under a blanket in the warm light of dusk. Above his body hang two of his paintings, a Picassoesque portrait of a face in tears and a blurry cityscape, which serve to commemorate the unfortunate young man.

Throughout his career, Wang has amassed a rich repertoire of tropes and motifs that allude to folk stories, classical painting traditions, and lived experience that bears witness to the present. Yet the artist manages to deploy these references in a manner that thwarts judgment. Instead of sublimating emotional and ethical dilemmas into the expressive or the abstract, Wang prefers realism and allegory, which, like physiognomy, mobilize visual cues to expand the scope of interpretation beyond what is immediately visible.