Wei Jia, Wilderness Lovers, 2020, acrylic on canvas, 23 5⁄8 × 19 3⁄4".

Wei Jia, Wilderness Lovers, 2020, acrylic on canvas, 23 5⁄8 × 19 3⁄4".

Wei Jia

There’s a peculiar form of poetry to be found in Wei Jia’s paintings, a blending of motion and narrative: the physicality of presence, of becoming in space, melded to ancient myth. The myth, of course, never dies, its immortality bleating into a burdensome present, whence some new layers of meaning might become encrusted upon the surface. Look at 2020.2.10, 2020, with its Madonna holding the limp body of her crucified son in her arms—a standard Western art-historical motif, though here brought into being by Wei’s masterful abstract-figurative brushwork, which wrenches form out of the sepia darkness with a palette evocatively reduced to gradations of white and pink, conjuring at once flesh, cloth, and blood. The painting’s title, a date very early on in the Covid-19 pandemic, when the threat of death seemed omnipresent and uncertainty and disinformation had come to replace fact and truth, shows it to be a litany for this world with all its loss, its confused miasma of violence and stupidity inflicted on the powerless. It’s a world without any savior, or in which we’ve all become, if not saviors, then the sacrificed, with no virgin mother to uphold us.

Wilderness Lovers, 2020, continues in this classical vein, with two figures emboldening themselves onward through an Edenic landscape. Maybe they’ve already bitten into the apple, or perhaps they’re on their way to find it. Here, as elsewhere, Wei lays his paint on thickly, with impasto smudges occasionally emerging. The upper half of the left-side lover’s body has been all but annihilated through the impassioned violence of Wei’s brushstrokes. In the background beside them, blood leaks out of a fresh wound. Perhaps what surrounds them is nothing less than a wall of flesh from which they’ve managed to pull out their own limber beings—they are escapees from the carnage of becoming.

The sense of journeying forth is ever present in these recent paintings. Strenuous Journey 1, 2021, whose imagery might sound rather banal or repetitive—again, two figures moving through some vague mountainous landscape—attains its symphonic apotheosis in color. Wei paints with acrylics, but how he attains effects that should only be possible using oil, I still don’t know. Thick layers of underpainting often remain visible on the lowest reaches of his canvases. Here, we can see some implications of darkest burgundy, which are repeated in the calligraphy forming the background of dancing rock and foliage. Splotches of pink leak down around the figures’ moving feet as they make their way into a mustard-colored river darkened by the bruised half-light of dusk.

In these pandemic paintings, Wei’s expressive abilities are finely welded to his literary inclinations. Even those who were not personally affected by illness can viscerally experience the effects of that crossing forth from darkness into light and back again, which is the experience of convalescence—of encountering death and evading its grasp. While many of us have now had our brushes with the maladies of the present, few artists convey these sensations with such acuity.