Yang Zi | Wu Chen: Naming Loneliness

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We can easily claim that someone else’s loneliness never existed because it’s too difficult to provide concrete evidence. For example, I go to a painter’s studio, and he says he’s been painting alone, and he feels lonely for not having gone out. I would immediately see that he is not at the moment because I am there with him. When I finish exploring his private, isolated space and leave, his world would close to me. I speculate that he is probably not lonely when he is by himself. It’s especially doubtful for someone like Wu Chen, who draws so many cartoon characters. As soon as the visitors leave, the characters on his paintings like the toys in Toy Story would ‘mount the stage in full regalia,’ moving their arms and legs, singing and dancing, being at his service, and making him happy. His masquerade begins. He wears a crown and becomes the king of the ball. How can this be called loneliness?

I smile with suspicion – he invites me to be the curator for this exhibition, and right then, I was sitting on the broken couch in his studio. Just then, his eyes looked at the ceiling, his hands gesticulated with enthusiasm and excitement, incoherently he made a suggestion for the title of this exhibition, ‘Right! The exhibition should be called “Therefore, a lonely God can only be the orphan of God.” Wouldn’t that cool? That’s it! It’s settled!’

Most of the paintings in the exhibition are completed in 2020. The largest one, also the earliest one, shares the same name as the exhibition. It measures 5 meters wide and 2.4 meters tall, consisting of fifteen small frames. Due to the large dimension of the painting and the limited studio space, once Wu Chen made the sketch up, he had to put the small frames flat on a stool or the floor and bend down to paint them one by one. An oval palette holds down the bottom of the picture, and a circle of painting tools along the rim – wide paintbrushes, markers, scrapers, pencils, paint tubes – have grown arms and legs, noses, and eyes, and become fairies. They are arranged like The Last Supper. The broad brush sits at the centre of the table, like Jesus Christ. When John baptized Jesus, ‘A voice out of the heavens said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”[1]’ At the table of The Last Supper, the son of God, who has never met his father, looks serene and ready to accept his fate alone amidst a crowd of frightened, cross-eyed whispering believers.

Since Wu Chen separated the painting and completed the work bending his back, Therefore, the Lonely God Can Only be the Orphan of God seems to lack focus and covers the ‘All-over painting.’ With the accumulated layers of vivid paint, shadows and chiaroscuro have been eliminated from his images. A large part of the process is done by laying the canvas flat, often dripping paint onto the surface or squeezing it directly onto the canvas, rather than merely chafing or drawing. It’s the viscosity of the paint, the size of the brush, the urgency, tendency, and rhythm of the painter’s bodily movements that generate the dynamics and layered balance. Moreover, to say the least, a neurotic glee. In terms of work method, Wu Chen’s works remind one of Jackson Pollock and the 1950s and the American Expressionist painter Willem de Kooning. The body drove them, desires drove them, their emotions spur them on, lending their unconscious, radically sought for the vitality of painting. It was a lasting and arduous action. The enjoyment and nightmarish feet in Wu Chen’s paintings seem to reject persistence and hardship.

However, appropriating classic (to the point of boredom) images such as those of Leonardo da Vinci is Wu Chen’s way of tackling the image’s unruly structure. In addition to The Last Supper, Untitled (Travelers Among Watermelon Hills) also belongs to this category: one day, Wu Chen happened to see Frida Khalo’s last painting on the cover of a record. It was called ‘Viva la Vida’ depicting tightly stacked watermelon peels. Drawing inspiration from this imagery, Wu Chen spreads out the watermelon in a sprawling manner, in the same composition of Fan Kuan’s Travelers Among Mountains and Streams. The watermelon is rendered in garish red and green, exposing its intermittent seeds in black and white that flirt with each other. Originally, Frida’s still-life was influenced by the Mexican tradition of ‘ex-voto’ painting, which is ardent piety in its naiveté and insurmountable heftiness. When it ‘imitates’ the paradigm of deep, subtle landscape painting, the imagery floats. This translation may seem stiff, with a dreamy quality of humour and nihilism.

Once the exhibition title was decided, we talked again. Wu Chen said he started reading Schopenhauer and repeated, ‘A man can be himself so long as he is alone.’ I laughed out loud. He said out loud, “I’m serious!” I apologized again. To confirm his seriousness, I talked about the will to power. Nietzsche believed that the will is the origin of all things. In the history of philosophy, such a view can be traced back to Aristotle. Aristotle thought that the source of practice is the will, the desire, and the vital impulse. Marx held up the notion of ‘labour’ as the biological counterpart to the necessity of reproduction of the species and material life production. In short, to practice or to create always relates to the spontaneous impulses of life. I add, for Schopenhauer, most people are afraid of facing the will to live because it burns, it doesn’t let them settle for less, but it can make them suffer. People who are true to their own will and nature certainly don’t fit in.

Nietzsche adapted the story of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. According to whom, God transformed into a snake on the weekend and tempted Adam and Eve to steal the apple, which caused the expulsion from a perfect paradise. This adaptation is meant to show that Christian morality can reach a point where people become numb to themselves and deceitful, lonely, and bewildered. People suffer from ‘religious functionalism,’ blindly convinced of their sins, then devoted to believing in a religion. It is as if by suppressing the will to live with faith, they can be cleansed of their sins and be saved in heaven. To rectify this situation, evil has to come out, resentment has to come out, and the desire and impulse for life have to come out. In the 1980s, when Wu Chen was born, the Chinese read Nietzsche in their context, treating not the lack of Christian morality, but the numbness from the accumulation of heredity throughout history. Today, the numbness has transformed, like the adorable cartoon characters that provide solace and entertainment, is hardly wary. There are too many cute good guys, and the bad guys need to show up. Wu Chen says, ‘Bad man can also end up in heaven.’[2]

The stories in Wu Chen’s paintings are too extensive and twisted. He paints pictures, embedded with subtexts: mixing what’s on the news, hearsay, what he’s seen, what he quotes. As to where the plot takes us, it would be difficult to determine. He drew a picture of Pinocchio, called ‘Sorry,’ Mr.Pinocchio says. In this painting, an identical Pinocchio is growing from the waist of another embarrassed one, as if it were a Siamese twin. The half-born Pinocchio, with his head sticking out to the side, is bowing in apology – his nose has grown longer, mingling with four stiff arms. Pinocchio faced with the dilemma is synonymous with 2020[3]. He bends over, but the apology is a white lie – he can’t figure out for himself who did wrong and why, and how to bear bad fruit.

When the epidemic was raging in China, people were forced to experience the painter’s solitude. The treacherous and absurd movements of the world seeped into Wu Chen’s studio. According to Wu Chen, all of the paintings in this exhibition are related to the year 2020. However, he quite aware that he is not an expert on current affairs, and his lofty claims on politics and current affairs would resemble sophistry and not conducive to the truth. You can’t fool yourself like Pinocchio. As catastrophe approaches, either new or old, crazy, or numb, one has to come up with solutions. In mid-February, Wu Chen returned to Beijing from Zhengzhou. Self-quarantined in his studio, with a fervent impulse to paint. He picked up the brush. At a depth of the painting is a joyous place. He is still the king of his prom.[4]


[1] Book of Matthew 3:17
[2] Wu Chen’s previous solo exhibition is entitled, ‘Bad Man Can Also End Up in Heaven.’
[3] On March 2, 2020, Jesse Watters, a host of Fox News, publicly demanded a formal apology from the Chinese for the Covid-19 pandemic. This incident incited lasting public outcry and discussion, which inspired Wu Chen to create this painting. ‘Sorry,’ Mr. Pinocchio says is the second time Wu Chen paints the image of Pinocchio. The first, Untitled (Every Year Begins in Winter). Both artworks were completed during the severe phase of the epidemic in China.
[4] Wu Chen collected calligraphic works of many ancient Chinese emperors and modern political leaders, who pieced them together to form the phrase, ‘Therefore, a lonely God can only be the Orphan of God.’ He drew these characters into a series of works. The inscriptions used in the exhibition poster are from this group of artworks. The font for the title of Wu Chen’s last solo exhibition, ‘Bad Man Can Also End Up in Heaven,’ is also composed of the political leader’s cursive handwriting.