Shangdi’s Orphan

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text by Dongmen Yang


Wu Chen is a seasoned badminton player. For whom, slinging a birdie before the net is like drawing a curve with the brush, in a smooth trajectory, at a peculiar angle that lands accurately. Of course, it’s not that easy to reach Lee Chong Wei’s level.


North of the Jianting Bridge on Beijing’s Fifth Ring Road is where Shangdi (formerly, the name of a village, which shares the same phonetic as ‘God’ in Chinese) is located. According to legends, before Empress Dowager Cixi’s death, her serving eunuch had been the landlord of this area. ‘God’s orphan’ in Wu Chen’s paintings seem to be the orphans from there. The characters painted in the style of many ancient emperors for his exhibition’s title seemed to have arrived one by one by subway line 13 to see Wu Chen’s new paintings.

The paintings in this exhibition are indeed all new works completed in the year 2020. Having lived through this year, one would naturally grasp the intentions of the artist’s brushwork. The sudden onset of the pandemic has abruptly transformed the world entirely without leaving any chance to estimate its losses. It is as if the painting began on a single point, from which many lines unfold until they cover the entire picture plane, overflowing and continuing to build up one upon another. Upon awakening from this trance, one must retrain oneself to adapt to the changing ecology and rules. Whether through calling or curse, wonders have become memories, freedom has become imagination, globalization is not the fortune of the world, and the world seems to be erecting doors closing in front of us. Fortunately, there are still artists leaving some visual memories, either in self-ridicule themselves or reverence.

Wu Chen said, ‘After spending Chinese New Year in my hometown, I came back to Beijing in mid-February, and the journey so treacherous as if I was like watching a disaster movie starring myself. The dark grey sky, the open platform, the silent Beijing taxi driver, and my almost suffocating self dressed in the “space suit”’. Everyone in his circle of friends talked about a Wuhan doctor, but Pinocchio, whose nose was growing longer and longer, hovered over his mind. When he arrived at the studio, he was restless, staring at an almost completed painting, at a complete loss for words. In the face of catastrophe, it seems that the artist’s work becomes more and more questionable. If a tableau is only beautiful to look at, if it operates only within the rules of the artist’s traceable rules and self-fulfilling logic, is the act of painting necessary? He picks up a brush, turns the canvas on which a princess looks into the mirror, and violently covers it with a lying puppet (Untitled (Every Year Begins in Winter), 2020). This work is the actual beginning of this exhibition. While we look at the stilted brushstrokes, the skeptical gaze, the rituals of mourning, we have the sense of standing in front of a pre-publicized murder case. The artist has resolutely broken up with the good old days, determined to commit the crime in a series of carefully pre-planned scenes without showing any mercy.

Shortly before the opening of his exhibition, several of us made plans to visit an exhibition of Su Shi at the Palace Museum. The show is the first major exhibition at the Forbidden City since conditions of the epidemic eased. It was overcrowded, so we made reservations at least a week in advance. Wu Chen forgot to bring his ID card that day, who was refused entry despite our tireless persuasion. Now that I think about it, the symbolism of power, the mocked orphans on his canvases, why would the former let a do-as-he-pleases painter go in and out freely? With a calculated attempt to penetrate the palace, upon his failure, Wu Chen said listlessly, ‘I feel anxious, and I should go back to check on Yang Zi’s installation of the show.’


At first glance, the exhibition space is lit and spacious, where young and fashionable girls take selfies on the inside and out. But if one were to stop and look closely, there is an air of pessimism that spreads like a joke, while the phrases printed at the top of the walls weigh heavily on white cube exhibition space, making one feel uneasy. Perhaps, the work, Untitled (Bloodshed on Mandarin Duck Mansion) (2019), hidden behind the glass window at the gallery reception, hits the nail on the head – the imageries and fragments surrounding the entire space are scenes of wanton killing sprees. In Outlaws of the Marsh, it is written that Wu Song’s moment of pleasure in the house of Inspector Zhang, ‘Blood splattered on the paintings from his killing, and corpses strewn with lanterns and shadows.’ Wu Chen gave his all, holding his breath and burying all the things he could and could not say over the past year into the frames of his paintings. These seemingly nonsensical jokes on tableaus are full of flowing brushstrokes, garish colours, warped cartoon characters, animated objects, and furniture; everything makes people simmer with laughter. A friend jokingly asked, ‘How did Wu Chen switch from making “bad paintings” to pretending to be an “outsider” artist?’ Without his usual structure and technique, the works on canvas look like a silly child has painted them. I warned him not to be distracted by appearances. Look behind the disguised children’s drawings and masks of cartoon characters. There are countless aspects and roles, whether it’s a pouting Crayon Shin-chan, the schizophrenic Pinocchio, the black ghost devoured by a white rabbit. Some of the dark and nearly morbid impressions began to gradually dense out and disperse with a little more time. Wu Chen grinned hard at the visitors, just like the clown in his painting (XGJY (It Only Takes A Great Day to Turn the Worst Man into A Hero, 2019), with a banana in his mouth, his smile stretched to its limit until his eyes became moist and his voice choked. Ai Qing asks himself, ‘Why do I often have tears in my eyes?’ Wu Chen buries the poet’s answer, only to allow people to laugh and make fun of him at his masquerade.

In the past, the circus would choreograph dangerous and exciting acrobatic stunts to attract an audience, with programs performed by trapeze artists. Once the performers took a desperate risk, they would inevitably make mistakes. If they missed, they would fall from a height of more than ten meters. With a screaming audience, they would land in the middle of the ring and become motionless. The theatre would then fall silent, and all the adults could do is covering their children’s eyes. This is when the theatre director would yell backstage, ‘Clowns up!’ Clowns run onto the stage, twisting and turning, gagging and laughing, just so someone would carry the injured performer off, so the show can go on as if nothing had happened. The classic jazz song Send in the Clowns echoes the inner monologue of the fallen performer, ‘Isn’t it rich, are we a pair, me here at last on the ground, and you in mid-air. Send in the clowns.’ On the tableaus, Wu Chen seems to be the clowns.


Late in the fall, the exhibition opens on Halloween, the Western equivalent of the Chinese Tomb-sweeping Festival. Those who must learn about forgetting dress up in otherworldly attires to walk the streets and bluff. Instead, the white walls in Magician Space turn the exhibition space into a site of witchcraft, colour-painted door frames and windows set the tone for enigmatic rituals, and the phrases printed at the top of the walls in large characters look like an unknown incantation. The painter has become a priest, grasping with his hand, and everything in the gallery is like a part of the solemn night that is fast approaching outside of the glass window. In Greek Mythology, Eurydice, the beloved of Oedipus, who was brought back from the underworld, is invisible to us in the night. Only with the artist’s recreation of her figure through analogies would she appear under the light. Oedipus must turn his back on Eurydice in order to bring her out of the underworld, and only by giving up the direct appreciation of her beauty can he give her form, shape, and reality. At the entrance, Triangle, Circle, Tetragonum, and Caspar (2019), the transparent ghosts collude and cluster in the artist’s studio, squeezing paint, cupping brushes, picking up palettes, and busying themselves with each other. Casper, in Casper the Ghost, tries to make himself visible. It’s unclear whether they draw on the painter or the painter on them. The act of painting is like witchcraft that calls on the spirits, where it is not necessarily the painter who borrows a corpse to return a spirit, but what’s unsaid and ineffable. In what Alberti stated in On Painting, the painter firmly believes in this ritual, ‘Painting contains a divine force which not only makes absent men present, as friendship is said to do, but moreover makes the dead seem almost alive.’ The familiar cartoon characters and commonplace paper and pencil drawing instruments in the exhibition are possessed by ghosts, placed on a dazzling stage, and act out their own fantastical stories.

The French poet Jacques Prévert composed the poem Barbara in 1946 when he revisited the war-torn port of Brest. The War had just ended, and facing the smoldering ruins, lovers tried to remember the not-so-distant past but could no longer cross the wasteland within. ‘Remember Barbara/ It rained endlessly on Brest that day/ And you walked smiling/ Blooming enraptured streaming/ In the rain……It rains endlessly on Brest/ As it rained before/ But it’s no longer the same everything is gutted/ It is a rain of grief terrible and desolate……’ Wu Chen appropriated a still-life watermelons in the style of Frida Kahlo (Untitled (Travelers Among Watermelon Hills), 2020). It’s the last painting before her death. Looking back at her vibrant youth and rich past, she signed the painting with ‘Viva la Vida’ (Long Live Life). In Wu Chen’s painting, life begins to crumble. The female painter’s proposition is dismantled and revised in the structure with Travelers Among the Mountains and Streams. Watermelons are anthropomorphized into cynical faces, and aphorisms are blurred backward on the underside of the canvas. It is as if nothing is worth mentioning before death; in the vastness of the world, thus things flow away, and in a flash, we are already in a deserted place.


Wu Chen decided to end the exhibition on Christmas, just like symbolic finale work, The Last Supper (as the exhibition also adopts the work of Therefore, the Lonely God Can Only be Orphan of God as its title), which could both serve as the beginning of a new life and a martyrdom. The paint table is almost overturned, everything blends into one another in a mishmash that faintly reveals an unfolding map of the world. It seemed as if from the ‘time of completion’ of the painting, the world no longer swings but plunges into rounds of chaos. Everyone sits around the round table of the international art forum, no longer paying attention to political correctness or diplomatic etiquette, but exchanging fierce looks with each other on the table, with their hands thrown out, the exchange of tripping, harsh words, and cursing went on unhinged. It seems that once this meal is over, the world will fall apart, whether you like it or not, with resolutions and showing no mercy. For the dreamers, they can continue to smoke ‘Golden Leaf’ (Health, No, Harmful, Smoking, ASAP, Company, 2020), as it still embodies the core value for Chinese smokers.


It has been almost three years since his second solo exhibition at the gallery, and the ‘Bad Man Can Also End Up in Heaven’ have become lonely, easy pack dolls. The series of works in Bad Man Can Also End Up in Heaven echo with Wu Chen’s first solo exhibition, ‘Matisse’s Skirt,’ while the series of paintings from 2020, except for some superficial clues, do not fall on the same track or extend from his earlier works. There are apparent ruptures in the materials and techniques of painting, the way of modelling, the approach to composition, and layers of narrative. For this batch of paintings, he attaches more emphasis on the accuracy of emotional expression. The seemingly comic and simple appearance is rendered in traumatic brushstrokes and traces through the accumulated materials and superimposed colours. Wu Chen has chosen a different path, a seemingly simple but difficult one. The artist seems to conceal his own anxieties and fears, while tucking away the same feelings of others beneath a witty and absurd surface. It is apparent that he’s let go of the relatively convenient painting approaches of the past. The complexity of his current smearing, sketching, and planning dissolves the formulaic composition in the previous images. Why is he a glutton for punishment? Ultimately, Wu Chen’s new paintings demonstrate an artist who, in his way, chooses to be true to himself and the world he lives in, as Michel Leiris said in L’Âge d’Homme, ‘The paper (the canvas) would shrivel and flare at each touch of his fiery pen.’ Even though Wu Chen has veiled this truth under a ridiculously childish façade, in his own words, ‘Eventually you will grow old, even if you are a cartoon character’. Sponge Bob also has to put on his high-waisted pants and be an orphan of Shangdi.