Back to the Road of Object –Zhang Wei’s View of Youth and Practice in Oil Painting

By Yang Xiaoyan 楊小彥

For a long time, Zhang Wei 張偉 has been sticking to his view of Youth, which could be found in his oil painting practice. In my opinion, his view of youth was formed at the time when he pursued his education, and came with the artistic trend, which reshaped dreams of youth and happened in the 1990s. This trend, which was called “new generation”, was a common inner aesthetic goal to artists born in the 60s. Nowadays, this trend has become a history, and artists who were famous for involving in the trend are well-known all around the world. But it seems that a careful research and study of this trend has not really started. At least, in terms of artistic situation, art criticism has focused too much attention on central areas, like Beijing, neglecting the situations in other similar areas.

As far as the creation, there truly exist a great contrast between the so-called “new generation” trend and the previous Chinese oil painting field, marked with “grandeur narrative”. This trend was a successful revolt to get rid of ideology, as well as a successful try out of traditional motifs in the new age. Non-ideology and anti-grandeur motif are two obvious features in Zhang Wei’s works. Firstly, Zhang Wei abandons all the ways to express “great meaning”, and doesn’t stick to the stereotype of “typical details”.

Secondly, he gives up the alleged “conscious of adult”, seldom or doesn’t care about social great changes at all, and no longer portrays “impulses of the times” in oil paintings. He only chooses scenes and people that are firmly connected with his own life. On the Other Side, created in the early 90s, is one of the examples. The hue of this picture is pure, and the composition is concise. With a frame of geometric form, nearly in black and white, a girl is walking sideways to the ambiguous shadow (outside the picture). Whether the artist, I wonder, wished to use this paradoxical way to express a kind of ambivalent mood between hesitation and passion to the vitality of life in the peak period of adolescence. If compared with the early works Horizon, On the other Side is a great leap for Zhang Wei, no matter in terms of technique or the extraction of motif. This shows that the painter has got a great change, from suffering typical sickness of youth into considering problems in youth.

Later, the reflections were substituted by even more flushed emotions. A series of works created after 2000 years has showed that the artist preferred to show a more enthusiastic and open attitude towards external characteristics of youth, rather than go into sorrow or even frustration. The picture, In Good Mood , describes three active and wild teenagers with bright colors, smooth strokes, and rigorous form. In The Age of Youth , sorrow is superficial, rather a kind of loneliness of happiness. Attraction and Rainbow reveal a sexy scene of vigorous version. In the Sun, The Beautiful Years , Our Future is not Dream, Aim High, Go Ahead, and You Will Win and Frozen Warmth, which was painted in 2006 with a series of young female figures as objects, express ease in their expressions of no regret but superficial calm. This series of works are conducted with imagination and a kind of expression like sketch, which acts like Zhang Wei’s constant personal explanations about happiness and confusion, trying to give youth itself a visible form, a kind of lasting form which belongs to oil painting.

Over the past ten years of his creation of oil painting, I believe that, Zhang Wei himself has been in a situation of unspeakable struggle. His real struggle, I guess, is between the concept of youth including two-edged natures and his creation while he truly takes youth as the only motif to create. On the one hand, youth is a symbol of enthusiasm and effective carrier of vitality in life. On the other hand, youth is simple and impulsive, lacking mature twists and turns, easy to become a simplified symbol. Both carrier and symbol show us the difficulty of taking youth as object. From the modernism of the 20th century on, youth is certainly one of the important objects. Munch’s Puberty depicts a mature but un-plump naked girl, expressing anxiety and fear in adolescence. His another works called The Scream, highlights craziness and desperation in adolescent with a distorted environment and human figure. So, Munch’s expression of youth is a kind of dangerous yearning to danger rather than sentiment.

Conversely, in Matisse’s works, girl teenagers utterly have no signs of thinking, completely in the flattened world, showing their original figures. Particularly, this characteristic is expressed among a series of oil paintings taking dancing girl as the theme. Besides, Alex Katz, an American contemporary painter, with the use of a hard edge, advertised style, successfully shapes the situation of a newly born generation influenced by consumption in material times. In his painting, everything is of no need except beautiful colors and smooth figures.

The examples, I have listed above, are to present Zhang Wei’s uniqueness. His uniqueness is rooted in his own confusion. As he runs deeper into creation, especially with the rise of contemporarism and the success “new generation” got today, Zhang Wei is growing more and more confused. He is in Guangzhou, which makes him unable to compare with the situation in Beijing. The more popular the new generation is, the more fixed the concept of contemporary art becomes; yet the more away he is from this trend. Sticking to the motif of youth, he was disappointed to realize that he became marginalized day by day, as if he had never been into the trend. And then, one day, Zhang Wei suddenly found out the truth, that youth was not a motif totally, but a truly concrete object. He goes back to this object, using the most original, simplest and most direct ways—sketch, to seek the meaning of youth rather than creation.

This is the motive why Zhang Wei created a series of student portraits.

After ten more years’ practice, I think Zhang Wei has found himself back. He begins his work from objects. It’s the youth of objects, externalized and simplified natures from the teenagers themselves that become his initiated motive to create. Then, when he treated youth as a motif and went into the concept, he discovered that he could not find a real breakthrough. His creation was suspended in the middle stage, as if there existed the strength of youth. But the power was over decorated and spread on the works, which turned out to be thinking aloud with no strength. Now, when he arranges students one by one, all the boys and girls are sitting or standing in front of him, and from their faces, he reads a kind of anti-universal and original youth and abruptly gains a real unparalleled feeling.

The series of students portraits painted from 2006 till now are significant proofs that Zhang Wei goes back to face the object; Also, they are important trademarks of his breakthrough, making him a figure in oil painting field.

Originally, learning oil painting begins from sketch. However, sketch has been given too many meanings within a long period. And the meaning of sketch was lost, particularly when sketch became the way to weigh “creation”, and the word against “conservation”. The directness exists in sketch, and the first feeling while facing the object was destroyed and disintegrated by a series of packed, over disciplined doctrine of oil painting.

Strictly speaking, under this kind of doctrine, sketch in oil painting has been far away from its essence. Facing the objects, painters numbly repaint again and again with the learned ways; what’s more, they call it “aesthetics” or “style”. The disappearance of directness in sketch, in fact, is equal to the loss of object and feeling. At present, through sketch rather than creation, Zhang Wei re-finds concrete, thus real object, and the feeling on the spot, which turns the concept of youth back to real existence and object, makes the youth a visible fact, and brings them back to the spectators. This time, youth is no longer abstraction or concept; it is youth itself only, which exists on every face, vigorous, specific, vivid and funny. Also, with this direct method, Zhang Wei goes back to himself, converting the long restrained impulse of youth into concrete shapes and colors, and either wild and calm paintings.

December 1st , 2008 In Hong Kong

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