Ophelia Chan | Wang Zhongjie: The Lifelike Art of an Un-artist

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By Ophelia Chan

Wang Zhongjie was a painter whom I knew nothing about when I was first shown his recent body of work – canvases covered in muddy palettes with inclining rectangular lines to the edge of the frame. I felt completely lost then. The only initial thought was that, well this man must’ve been around a while – people don’t just go on painting like this. A few months later I finally got to see his earlier works in his hometown in Henan province, over two-hundred paintings done over the span of a decade, most of them have never been shown before. It was a sight I did not expect – it was overwhelming, it was then that became clear to me that he had come a long way to get to the point where he is at now, both in his art and in his thinking.

When I finally sat down to write this essay, what Allan Kaprow wrote about artlike art and lifelike art immediately came into my mind – he wrote that these two types of art fundamentally represent two contrasting philosophies. While artlike art holds that art is autonomous, separate from life and everything else, lifelike art holds that art is the opposite, that it is connected to life and everything else. In Western art historical tradition, the former is regarded as “serious”, part of the mainstream and supported by high culture’s institutions and the latter has never fit into traditional art institutions. While the separateness and distinctiveness of artlike art is much like individualism that is valued highly in Western culture, the connectedness of lifelike art is like the emphasis of the importance of family and community in Eastern cultures. In The Real Experiment, Kaprow wrote:

The usual questions of subject matter and style become relevant once you accept certain cultural givens, like the specialist notion of “art,” the subnotions of “poetry” and “music,” and the notions of “exhibit,” “audience,” “creativity,” and “aesthetic value.” These are normally taken for granted. But Western culture appears to be changing so markedly that these givens are at best uncertain. What if they weren’t “givens”? What if I had a vague idea about “art” but didn’t know the conventions that told me when I was in its presence or was making it?

– Essays on the blurring of art and life (p.201)

Kaprow is referring to the Avant-garde in the eighties here, and what he then proceeds onto defining the term lifelike art, becomes increasingly conceptual and applied in a more performative notion. I am only borrowing the term in its essence in order to explain and help understanding the artist’s motives (even if there isn’t a conscious one, when there’s an action, there’s a motive).

Wang was never educated in any art institute, but this is unimportant, nor is the fact that he has not been influenced by any styles of art true, as one with an passion of art would naturally be in contact with art and be affected by it. We could probably tell which masters he admires from looking at his works, but I do not believe that there is any sense of mimicry, as that would imply a sense of deceitfulness. He is a purist, although not in a sense where Amedee Ozenfant and Le Corbusier had propagandised Purist art to be between 1918 and 1925, what Wang does holds true to what the movement intended to do at the very beginning – ” to conceive clearly, execute loyally, exactly without deceits” (The Purist Manifesto). To him, painting is a thinking process, every decision that Wang makes while completing a piece of work is in favour of nothing but his own growth. It is never to prove any theory, to make any statement or in order to progress onto anything else on purpose.

Wang’s painting and his thinking are as one and his art is inseparable from his life. He is obsessed with his search for answers, answers to something as mentioned in the curator’s foreword, possibly too huge of a question in life but it is also such determination that drives him to create, and it is this determination that unifies his large body of work, thus in Wang’s paintings it is never about narrative nor form, but resonance on a deeper level, something more immediate and drastic. This is the reason why as spectators, we must look at Wang’s body of work free from conceptions of “art” but with an instinctive eye and a gut feeling.

Wang is an introvert. He might not stand out as a skillful painter, nor come across as an exceptionally intelligent man (he is a man of few words), but when you talk to him you would be immediately drawn to his unpretentiousness, you would want to listen to him, and when you look at his work, you would get a similar feeling, that it is truthful, even sometimes when it puts us at unease or even appals us, but what is certain is that he is not trying to create for anyone else. He is in essence an un-artist as his art takes a lifelike form and setting, his art functions in the world as if it were life, but naturally these thinking processes evolve and would become irrelevant to the un-artist himself over time.

Wang’s art and his life are truly one – lifelike art, and that is why those of us who feel something while looking at his work, are especially moved. This goes back to what we consider to be “good” – works with a sense of profoundity? Something well-executed, conception supported by recognised, approved theories and so on? While lifelike art is just something that is parallel to life, “inflecting, probing, testing and even suffering it, but always attentively.” (Essays on the blurring of art and life, p.206) It took Wang over a decade to finally have his work shown to the public, and it will continue to be difficult for him to find his place in the system, let alone the mainstream, as he is not the type to compromise, he has no reason to. He will continue on his search for answers, to inflect, probe, test and suffer, while being around his small community away from everything else, and nothing else matters.