Yang Zi | Wu, Chen, and the Three Encounters

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Wu and Chen are one body with two faces; they are a pair of clones. They have four big eyes in total, all round and very cartoonish. One avatar, Chen, has the social attribute of being a painter. He loves letting his imagination run wild in his studio, only socializing with a few friends regularly. In the small social circle, he is like a fish in water. Everyone loves him, and he also gains nourishment, friendship, and confidence from it. Wu is healthy, relaxed, and willful, like the morning sun, like a child, a baby. In another corner, the other avatar Wu wanders aimlessly; he is the collaborator in Chen’s artistic career. Together they run the painting business. Wu often looks at Chen with a smile—with a hint of surveillance, and at the same time, speculating and analysing the latter. Wu seems a little older than Chen. He is Chen’s critic and carer. Because of his caring attention, he often worries unnecessarily. Fortunately, he only shows up occasionally to issue a serious warning. Wu is an old soul who is also eager to succeed. Wu is powerful, decisive, and has a loud voice.

When Chen was young, he liked Akira Toriyama, and he often imitated “Dragon Ball”. Before the college entrance examination, he signed up for a crash course for the art examination and enrolled painting major at Southwest Jiaotong University, which was just established two years before. The art departments of the science and engineering university lack teaching tradition and are full of freedom. Having never experienced arduous painting training, Chen often says that he is “not good at painting”, but he tries to “paint well”. His Professor, Mr. Xie [1] told the students that they should expel what they had learned in the pre-examination class as soon as possible and get in the independent state of artists. In his freshman year, he rented a studio with a group of friends, and his career as an artist with unconventional training started at a young age.

Wu knows (who knows when he knew) some painters want to go beyond their excellent techniques and try their best to make themselves “impure”. For this purpose, they also use tape, spray paint, and other tools to weaken the texture. They issued a call to action against the “good” painting standards that have been held for a long time. The ignorant are fearless, and Chen has no burden to break into the established territory of painting. Looking at those painters and Chen, Wu couldn’t feel confident about his other clone.

After graduation, Chen stayed in Chengdu to embark on a career as a professional artist. When there was no one around, Wu would appear and come down heavily on Chen. Wu would say to Chen pretentiously, ‘Naive painting cannot be naive. A painter should be obsessed with the strength of his own spirit and hope to control the world with his brush. That black hole-like, frightening, and unpredictable world! It throws out the question of fate and leaves it to the artists to answer. The mentally fragile artist chooses to recede or collapse in front of the terrible puzzle. And you, my friend, have thus come closer to the test!’

Chen understood Wu’s strange words, or thought he understood. He was not too bothered by the vague threat. Chen chose the path of an independent artist, which means that he left the comfort of the university and wanted to sell paintings to earn a living. He needs to clarify the inescapable connections between his impoverished self, the grand capital, and the history of art and find a gap in this tension so that he can relax and be at ease. The two painted many portraits of famous artists in art history, all of which they favoured. The faces of these art masters appear from the darkness, with blurred outlines and stagnant eyes. Portrait of Old Codger Mr AD (2013) is Andy Warhol, and Portrait of the Great Magician Mr M (2014) portrays Magritte. They have also painted several patrons of the arts to keep them company. These ruthless characters are not as favourable. The noble lady in Xanthippe (2013) has her long nose caught between two flashes of yellow lightning, and her fierce right eye traps the audience through its gap, like a primary school teacher urging homework to be submitted. The dark lines in the background drip like asphalt, reminiscent of Francis Bacon’s Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953). Chen and Wu did paint a bust portrait similar to this one, Faithful Believer (2013). On the green fava bean-like head, a pair of crossed eyes shot out red beams of light. The bean was placed on the body of Innocent X, and the spread hands were twisted together this time, deformed like freshly pressed pork stuffing.

The manga imitation that remained in the muscle memory of Chen sprouted and came to life. He exaggeratedly fabricated the skins of art historical figures and patrons, making these towering figures less intimidating. These characters are arranged roles, lines, and relations in his directing; they became his toys. He looked at them, when he had to look at them; they looked at him too.[2] Even if it was only a ‘spiritual victory’, Chen responded to Wu’s questioning. His answers may be self-comforting, but this kind of comfort overflows the frame because of its sincerity and uniqueness. In 2014, they held a solo exhibition, ‘Matisse’s Skirt’ in a gallery in Beijing. The curator was Mr Xie, their former teacher.

In 2015, at Wu’s suggestion, Chen moved his studio to Beijing. Chen drew on popular cartoon characters – Santa Claus, Snow White, Sponge Bob, Pinocchio – in a more direct and bold manner. Different from the stylized Japanese manga, these characters are more moldable and have more relaxed lines and full depth. Chen loves the cartoon ‘Tom and Jerry’, in which the cat and the mouse experience flexible transformation in the never-ending chase. As far as the child audience who enjoys the film is concerned, ‘form’ is a cliché that spoils their entertainment. Chen strives to avoid this kind of boredom in his creation. Wu sometimes derides Chen’s focus as ‘infantile’. Their second and third solo exhibitions are called “Bad Man Can Also End Up in Heaven” (2017, curated by artist Liu Ye) and “Therefore, the Lonely God Can Only be the Orphan of God” (2020).

“Are your paintings and comics, or rather—caricatures– related? Who are you satirizing? Is your art functional?” Wu yelled again one day.

Chen spoke up: “Don’t just look at the pictures; look at the paintings.”

“Isn’t the image important? The kind of image you choose decides its function, ideology, and interest.”

“I want to paint to the depths of these paintings. Look at that painting of Pinocchio (‘Sorry’, Mr Pinocchio Says”, 2020), his body and his dialogue bubble are all in motion. Those entangled colours position the image on the verge of disintegration. According to the fashionable words of a certain year, painting is launching the final attack on the image!”

“You mean, the structure of caricatures is similar to the internal structure of your paintings?” Wu would not let go but softened his tone.

“A good comedy makes people laugh because it reveals the truth that people cover up layer by layer in an unexpected way.” Chen commented, “I think my paintings are like this. Images are always wrapped in something. Sometimes I stare at those anime characters over and over again. Suddenly, they cracked and exploded, revealing themselves to me. Their insides were like bloody, open chests, full of internal organs we are not normally familiar with. Shaped like aliens, they are real, disgusting, slimy, and might even stink of blood and viscera. They are connected and cooperate in mysterious ways. Look at those two Pinocchio, they are deformed, sharing one body. This is collaboration. In the future, I will continue to develop this collaboration.” [3]

“When you use images, they are related to physiological desire, which will not amuse the audience,” Wu concluded. He then changed his mind, “However, those animations and manga can sell well, some are like candy, and some smell of blood, don’t they all rely on provoking desires?”

It is difficult to be a painter. This thing, however, always elicits indulgence. Chen loves to put his signature on the prominent position of a painting. Most of the time, Wu consented to this. Self Portrait (2019) is the most vivid of their many self-portraits. A face tattoo grows on the bicep of one arm. At the other end of the arm, fingers hold a skull. The facial features of the skull are the pinyin “WU CHEN” of the artist’s name. The tattoo smirked and looked at the skull. “W” is the curled brows and eyes, it seems that the skull has just been beaten violently, and the soul is about to already out of the body. Wu looked at the painting and could not tell which one was himself and which was Chen. The same confusion happened when he stared at the twin Pinocchio– for a moment or two, Chen became Wu, and Wu became Chen. The avatars exchanged identities. In the first two confrontations, Wu was defeated. He was upset, and there was a limit to his frustration. He dared to ask questions on the premise that he believed that he was more experienced and knowledgeable than Chen. Now he is not certain. Wu is more realistic than Chen and has more social experience. He boasted that he knew what was going on in the art world and did not understand Chen’s way of doing things. He wanted himself to be successful and Chen as well. The palms and backs of the hands are both flesh, and he wishes the best for his counterpart. But Chen’s route is slightly strange, not the conventional way.


In 2021, Chen painted Artist, Model, and Angel. Four playful angels and four nude female models surround a male painter. The male artist steps on the blue sphere and leans forward. The expression looks like he is contemplating. Holding a palette in one hand, he supports his face wrapped in his beard and beret using his other hand.  Several angels and models smiled with round eyes and lips painted yellow. The earth laughs, the palette laughs, the brushes laugh, the painter’s shoes laugh. The skeleton held by the angel is also laughing. But the painter does not laugh.

Wu objected to this painting. “Nonsense! I don’t know what the female audience would think, but they must think he’s a narcissist fool. That kind of self-righteousness needs to be concealed!” But he has learned to restrain his worry and anger lately. Having said that, he also feels that the psychological driving forces of narcissism and self-deprecation appear in Chen’s paintings side by side without contradiction. In order to confirm his speculation, he cautiously sent a dialogue invitation to Chen.

“How’s it going, brother? Congratulations on our fourth solo exhibition! It’s called “March 32”, right? It’s fantastic. Very much your style. There’s a painting of you surrounded by beautiful models and angels. You also drew a fly…”

“It’s cool, right? I think this fly looks a bit like Jesus. The painting is called The Last Fly. I couldn’t go out at the time, and I saw a fly in the studio. It is so small, trapped in the warm interior in the Beijing winter. There is nowhere to escape, it is very pitiful. I think I am quite like this fly…”

“The fly was drawn in the end, and it’s quite glorious. It’s not pitiful.”

“Life is too short, too cruel.” Chen showed a rare, sad expression. His sadness is so rare that it feels a little funny. “However,” his tone shifted, and sadness turned into cunningness, “Just like stories are not equal to documentaries, life in paintings is not equal to real life.”

“You want to escape responsibility. Don’t even think about it!” Wu just muttered this sentence in a low voice.

“That’s not all. Let’s talk about the fun of a painter. As a painter who still creates in the 2020s, he has very little room for his own will. Art history has requirements, museums have requirements, the market has requirements, and audiences have requirements. But from my original intention, I enjoy the feeling of disregarding all kinds of requirements. It is because of this that I pursue art. I say all kinds of requirements can be summed up in a few words ‘social relations’. Neither escaping from nor conforming to social relations is my goal. What I want to do is to reorganise social relations– even only in the universe I create.”

“Take yourself too seriously, and you will suffer,” Wu said with a look of an experienced person.

“When children play, they forget who they are. The adults on the side are bound by the society and have to behave themselves, so they have the idea of ‘who do these noisy children think they are’. Those adults want to have fun but dare not, which makes them jealous of children. To play games well, children need to not have distractions. You remember you told me about the horror of ‘that black hole-like, frightening, unpredictable world’? You said that horror is ‘a question of fate’.”

Wu blinked: “Chengdu is too comfortable. Young people can’t succeed. I just want to urge you…”

Chen interrupted Wu, “At the time, I thought you were so right—your metaphors. Power, money, sex, are all invitations extended from the world of ‘black holes, frightening, and unpredictable’. These invitations are familiar and sweet for humans– everyone has something called “desire” in their hearts to form a perfect match with them. There is only one kind of desire, which is the encroachment of people trapped in self-consciousness. The material world shows its noble silence; it is not bothered to respond, surrender, or resist them. How can a warrior declare victory when there is no enemy? Thus, their victories are all ‘spiritual victories’.

“Once I understood this truth, I think I had enough motivation to paint and saw painting as a sustainable career. Big collectors, capitalists, people with lots of power, aren’t they nothing more than that? They are obsessed with the world revolving around them. I want others to see me and my paintings. I want them to see me playing with images and paints like a big shot. Isn’t that cuter, more environmentally friendly, economical, simpler, and does not disturb others? My world is only me. My freedom is cheap but precious. Frames, paints, and the studio can produce environmentally-friendly freedom. Freedom should not be surrounded by the material world, nor should it be concretised by desire. I also aspire to succeed, but success should be one of my works, not an established model. People who are busy in ‘social relations’ think they are lively. They are actually lonely too.”

Wu was dumbfounded. He thought artists need to be written into the art history, and that is their greatest desire – to be immortal and leave a name in history. Freud would probably agree: this is a variant of reproductive desire. This is why Chen painted so many sex-related paintings at his instigation, as well as pregnant easels (Waiting, 2021) and so on. It turns out that they want to reproduce their children and grandchildren through copulation so that their will continues. Those characters in portraits, Magritte, Any Warhol, and patrons who asked great artists to paint them, those lucky bastards, have been written into art history. He works so hard, yet there is a high probability that he will be forgotten in the boundless future. Thinking of this, he was agitated and frustrated and felt extremely exhausted, almost emptied and drained by himself. He even wanted to cry.

Now, Chen told Wu that his plan was absurd and ridiculous. Why not have a laugh? Lofty, ambitious ideals can be viewed through a caricatured lens. Chen would think this way: since there is no way to destroy this history, and there is no guaranteed ticket to enter this history, then, come on, let’s repeatedly describe and reproduce its appearance. He can keep a distance from it and not take it too seriously. He can provoke it, and laugh at it but not use it as a reason for his cowardice. ‘Unconventional path’ it is! What is being ‘written in art history’? There are too many accidents in history, don’t control the things one cannot control. Focus on your own game. And, of course, it is likely that Chen did not think this much.

“In the past two years, I have paid more and more attention to the lines in paintings.” Chen digressed; perhaps his logic was not completely straightened, and maybe he did not notice Wu’s silence. He stayed in the messy studio in the deserted village of Shunyi, gesticulating randomly in the air with his hands, with a hint of exhaustion in his excitement. In the eyes of an outsider, Chen just widened his eyes and talked to himself as if he is smart. “I tried to squeeze the paint on the surface of the painting, like squeezing toothpaste, to make the outline of the object stand out. In Lover, Thinker, Breeder (2021) and Unsuccessful Escape Plan (2022), my lines are drawn inwards and outwards, facing directions that are difficult to fathom. In the two-dimensional space of the canvas, I wanted to show a multi-dimensional effect. The lines wind around, expand or contract, like gestures in Chinese calligraphy. It can drive and outline a space that does not exist. The art space is huge, close to infinity, I am still expanding it…” [4]

Like the old masters of Chen’s paintings that fade into deep backgrounds, Wu fled back into the darkness. Chen was still talking, not realizing that he was left on his own.


1.Artist Xie Nanxing

2.‘He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby becomes a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.’ Friedrich Nietsche, Beyond Good dand Evil

3.In Wu Chen’s Angel (2021), the angels often share one body.

4.The characters Wu and Chen are based on Wu Chen’s early work, Portrait of Wu and Chen, inspired by two islands the artist encountered during a trip to Hainan. All conversations in this article are made up by the author.