Art Ba Ba | Zhong Shanxu: Disordered New World

This post is also available in: 简体中文 (Chinese (Simplified)) English

What does Wu Chen tell when he tells a story? In a recent group of paintings featuring mosaics and angels, two contrasting yet intermingling fundamental aspects of Wu Chen’s work come to the fore: the sacred and the profane. Seemingly in line with the traditions of late medieval and Renaissance paintings, figures in these paintings avoid the direct gaze into the viewer’s eyes. It is deemed taboo. While direct eye contact is often associated with insight and revelation, avoiding it signifies ignorance and innocence here. We immediately recognize a secular and anti-sublime quality in their naiveté, such as the female nudes with lumpy bodies and small, pendulous sexual organs. And yet, their childish appearance serves to disguise any sense of offensiveness.

Wu Chen’s work can be likened to a kind of ‘turtle soup’ (situation puzzle). The puzzle maker–artist gives enigmatic endings to his stories, requiring the participant–viewer to deduct and unravel. We must make reasonable or absurd inferences and peel away layers of complexity, until we arrive at a solution—or so least believe we have. Throughout his artistic career spanning over a decade, Wu Chen the puzzle maker has become more and more sophisticated and cunning, with his puzzles and answers intricately intertwined. But unlike many artists who prefer to obscure puzzles in their works, Wu Chen’s game does not establish a threshold for entry. Despite the many symbols, references to art history, and political allusions (and puzzle-solving today is almost seen to compromise the purity of painting), the visual simplicity remains the selling point, characterized by recognizable figures that so approachable that they alienate not a singer viewer.

That said, the strong storytelling and easily recognizable cultural symbols can pose a burden for the artist. At one point, Wu Chen was labelled as “the one who draws cartoons.” It is true that the “cartoons” provided him with a safe haven, at least when he just moved to Beijing from Chengdu in 2014—it cleverly resolved his timidity confronting the “orthodox academy painting.” While Wu Chen aspired to paint portraits reminiscent of Francisco Goya or Francis Bacon, he found a middle ground between resemblance and dissimilarity, somewhere between the realms of cartoons and comics. If one were to further define his approach, it would fall roughly between caricature and manga, with a history that went back to Hieronymus Bosch, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, through Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Georg Groz, although Wu Chen’s early works pay homage to not these artists but more orthodox figures in art history. Interestingly, in the 1590s, the Italian Carracci brothers, who taught art theory at the University of Bologna, invented the term “caricature” (carichi) to describe their own exaggerated portrait sketches that mocked the theory they taught—a similar self-reflection and contemplation on the intellectual frameworks of his artistic practice is apparent in Wu Chen’s work.

For a long time, Wu Chen’s paintings seemed to defy the prevailing trends of the era. When he embarked on his artistic career, the craze of the “cartoon generation” had already dissipated; what gained more popularity was the subdued, clean and restrained imagery that followed the low-saturation hues of the academic tradition. In contrast, Wu Chen’s canvases were rife with a reverence for maximalism. Many of his works include at least three figures (which reached balance in both mathematical and religious implications). Even the signature and date can transform into boisterous embellishments. Many consider Wu Chen’s signature to be narcissistic—since the Renaissance, it has indeed been a manifestation of the artist’s desire to assert his individuality and differentiate himself from the collective output of a workshop. The signature declares one’s sovereignty of their work, to claim and to show off their technical prowess. Yet as the name “WUCHEN” spreads across each work in a viral manner, sometimes to the point of overwhelming and ego inflated, the word collapses, inevitably, and loses its reference. It is now but a meme, a meaningless cyber-junkie that tickles the senses and tampers with memory.

Over time, Wu Chen felt compelled to expand beyond the confines of the simplified cartoon world; he needed to proliferate and spread the figures. After extracting elements from cartoons that were anti-modern and even anti-classical elements in nature, he cast the cartoon aesthetic aside. It was not the first time he cast things aside. His focus has always been shifting, from human being as objects to animal fables and, more recently, painting tools—all of these motifs belong to a new world of chaos, a world that disdains the existing value system, a world in which Wu Chen infuses his dissatisfaction with the political climate and his nostalgia for his childhood.

Today, a coherent set of principles has emerged in Wu Chen’s chaotic new world: we find the fly to be most noble and holy, with its legs spread wide upwards, compound eyes shining like torches, and wings proudly unfurled like a bishop’s robe. On a lower level of hierarchy resides the gods portrayed as deformed human beings, followed by men who are reduced to tools or pieces of furniture, with undulating, limp, and arbitrarily proliferating limbs. I have described these limbs as one of the countless pipes in Wu Chen’s works which “bridge mouth and tail, allowing blood, body fluid, watermelon juice and paint to pass between the organs of desire.” These interconnected pipes also constitute a massive machine fueled by human beings or human organs. But this machine is so incompetent and clumsy, or rather it reminds one of a pre-modern imagination of machinery. Whether it is the transparent machine made up of the painter’s body in Untitled (Artist, Model and Perpetual Motion Machine) (2018) or the two bizarre bodies stumbling like jammed chariots in Flags of the Mad Mother (2017), they lack the advanced and sleek characteristics of machines in the paintings of Fernand Leger or of Francis Picabia from a century ago.

For Wu Chen, before degrading mankind at large, he must first degrade himself as a painter. He has long been captivated by the idea of portraying a painter who ridiculously fits the stereotypical painter image—wearing a painter’s hat, holding brushes and a palette in hand. Through the portrayal, he revisits the history of painting and portraiture and trying to dispel the illusion of painting. His work thus become paintings that reveal the secrets of painting, most notably embodied through the recurring appearance of palette in his composition. Wu Chen has observed that exhibitions featuring master painters often include a small room that meticulously recreates the artist’s studio, complete with his (more often his than hers) palette, easel, and brushes. The differences between palettes are striking, almost like a self-portrait of an artist. Nonetheless, these objects intended for contextualization seem to create but a selfie corner. In this way, the palette serves more as a seasoning within exhibitions, a superfluous creature of artistic creation. Seemingly sacred yet ultimately humble, a dispensable object as such is Wu Chen’s favorite.

Remarkably, the palette in Wu Chen’s paintings does not refer to his own painting experience. In fact, he rarely even uses the tool. Instead, he describes his approach as conducting “scientific experiments” with materials. Before he started using oil pastels in 2019, he predominantly worked with acrylics, which are quick-drying, convenient and inexpensive, combining it with various mediums and testing the boundaries of this material. The use of acrylics is strongly reflected in Wu Chen’s representation of liquid or body fluids. The liquid he painted with acrylics never has the tendency to drip before it dries, unlike oil paints. Rather, it reminds one of the watermelon juice that occasionally appears in his paintings: the juice has solidified but retains a unpleasantly sticky quality. Wu Chen must be satisfied with this sick stickiness, since he is wary of creating visual comfort for the viewer. He would call such comfort as being empty, and he is cautious of emptiness.

Abstraction held such a sense of emptiness for him, and he carried this prejudice for a long period of time. He could only find excitement in painting the main figures, considering the task of painting the edges and corners with lines and color blocks necessary, but tedious.

In the small-scale half portraits painted from 2013 to 2014, the black color appears only as smooth background, with the heads of artists such as Joseph Beuys, Andy Warhol, and Araki Nobuyoshi—their identities cleverly disguised through code names in the titles; even though the answers are clear, Wu Chen never revealed them—almost floating in the center of the paintings, their bodies blending into the background. More recent works show the influence of Goya’s late “black painting” series can be seen in more recent works. Goya created these works towards the end of his life, during a period marked by political changes and his own fear of death. Goya’s use of black as a powerful expression of emotion resonated with Wu Chen, inspiring him to bring blackness out of darkness and fearlessly present it in his own paintings. In his solo exhibition March 32nd at Qiao Space, A gambler’s anxiety when faced with spade A (2022) cuts colors down to bi-chromatic, in which black becomes cracked and dry. In another piece Untitled (Sisyphus) (2022), a raven perches on the finger-smeared mixture of black, purple and red, creating a scene imbued with a Max Ernst-style of oppressive drama.
Correspondingly, Wu Chen’s suspicion of abstraction gradually changed into trust. Albert Oehlen expressed his dissatisfaction with the narrow and unenlightened concept of abstract art, “people sort out motifs, or speak of the work’s function, or place the work in history. Instead, why don’t they talk about a “good mood” or “bad mood” section of a painting, or about quick and slow parts?” [1] In line with Oehlen’s critique, Wu Chen came to view abstraction not simply as a visual departure from realism, but sees all the undercurrents beneath the surface as a form of abstraction: starting with Stop Sketching Autumn When Summer Comes (2020), he handles the imagery of “hole” or “open body” in different subjects, making them both empty and rich, both vacant and voluminous. The abstraction is the ambiguity of the image, the ambiguity of the figure-ground relationship.

The entangled relationship between color and line is another feature of Wu Chen’s recent works that have become “abstract.” In Wu Chen’s early works, there is a clear functional division between the two. Inspired by Dunhuang frescoes, he incorporated lines to frame the ambiguous images that cannot seem to stand upright. Distortion and alienation are expressed without disguise through the extensive use of curves. And occasionally, when the usually soft limbs are depicted with straight lines, their rigid interplay recalls the rhythmic qualities found in Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-43), like several brief, short rhythms inserted into the chaos. In some works, he paints straight lines outside frames and wooden frames. The lines are intruders into the picture, reducing the distorted painted scenes to a flat representation—by doing so they are almost telling us, “These are merely painted, not real!” By around 2017, the motley colors and messy, disorganized brushstrokes had intersected, titillating the viewer’s senses fiercely. With his most recent mosaic works, it was difficult to discern whether it was line or color that created the sense of relief in these paintings, thus putting an end to the smoothness of his earlier works.

Ultimately, these entanglements lead to a sense of disorder. In many cases, his images almost fall out of the frame, and his habitual poker composition implies inversion and weightlessness. The question arises: where will this disorder ultimately lead? The new work, In honor of 13th September 2022 (2022), gives us a glimpse into the possible answer. The work features a white human figure on a white square that seems to pay homage to Malevich, but behind the flat spades realistic details rarely appear: a slightly creased, rolled-up cloth covers privacy and civilization, on which resides a glass of translucent red wine (which could be interpreted as blood or watermelon juice), pressed against the corner of the canvas. This shaky scene may show the true reality, and it is here that we shout, “Puzzle solved!” But the game is far from over.