Wandering in the Crossroads: An Exhibition of Qian Wu's Recent Works
Elga Wimmer PCC
June 19 – July 2, 2019
Curated by Lan Zhang and Elga Wimmer
BY MARK BLOCH, August 2019
A dozen smooth examples of painter Qian Wu's recent works opened at the Elga Wimmer PCC gallery on June 20. It was called "Wandering in the Crossroads" presumably because Mr. Wu’s work strikes at the intersection between two worlds: traditional Chinese brush painting and Western art, particularly American Abstract Expressionism.
From a distance, these works are always grey, constructed from blacks and whites, but at least one with blue around the edges. Cross-hatching like musical staffs appear at right angles to each other, creating hints of grids or rafters. Uniformity, regularity. Then white hash marks. Are they painted white or coming through the negative space underneath? I inevitably see shapes: satyrs, minotaurs, a bison’s head, a skeleton head, a laughing man, a serpent head smiling, then Jimi Hendrix’s head from the album Electric Ladyland as if molded by Tiepolo. Stars. Pinwheels. Pictures of crumpled up newspapers—often. Then imagined shards of glass. Or paint applied with crisscrossing windshield wipers in black over grey and white diamond edges. One thing I don’t see is a lot of white in the foreground. Mostly it peaks through.
The work 2017-1 strikes me as a forest scene, more scrubbed, less sharp—giving an effect like light peeking through after a storm. The gallerist Elga Wimmer says, “The powerful strokes obscure what seems to be a more picturesque scenery, almost like a fuzzy, out-of-focus screen.”
I see whirlwinds in several works. Here a dance, there a tornado. Dark surrounds a light center. Edges close in powerfully like a trash compactor. Then elsewhere softer, less well-defined areas, to good effect. Tranquility. There are occasional mini-globs of paint but not many, hardly ever. An occasional strand or string left over from a brush embedded in the surface, yes, but globs, no. No clumps, no chunks. The surface is thin.
A couple paintings almost have distinctive “content.” 2018-1 resembles an airplane in flight, a wing in space. Not with strokes but as lines applied with a hard edge. Another, 2017-2, built from the bottom up, is white, then grey and finally topped with circulating, splintered scraps of black. It looks like a close-up of Dorothy’s house in the Wizard of Oz, a war scene from a Goya painting come to life.
Wu’s works are completely abstract and dark. Constructed on white unprimed canvases with areas of grey and then black layered on top, their success is an immaculate balance between light and dark, crisp and murky and “smoky” shapes, be they large or miniscule. The tiniest “forms” are textural patterns created by the weave of the cotton canvases the work is constructed on. Larger fields are then added with brush strokes and other applications of pigment, each canvas revealing a different version of a similar abstract composition in dark grey. It is a powerful collection of work. It invites me to look more.
Since homo sapiens first used tools to scratch and drag marks across two-dimensional surfaces, artists have coaxed three-dimensional imagery out of flat planes. In the West, the Holy Grail was to achieve apparitions of volume, perspective, and three-dimensionality. When the Impressionists tossed this quest aside, the idea of “flatness” as an artistic concept emerged as a conscious concern, culminating in the critic Clement Greenberg’s 1960 essay “Modernist Painting” which looked back on the Abstract Expressionism movement that was then giving way to Pop Art and time-based creativity. Art was jumping off the canvas into real life and Greenberg’s essay argued that the limits of painting as a medium, then declared dead, were in the flatness of the picture plane. Western art, from the Old Masters forward, saw opaque canvases as windows to look through, to witness the optical illusion of perspective and other “realism.” Similarly, the theater had created the proscenium arch centuries before—also a 4-sided box—through which to view not “real life,” but a copy of it. With abstraction, Modernism stopped to admire the flatness of the two-dimensional surface as a feature and not a bug. As representation waned, first the Cubists one-upped Impressionism by purging the single clear perspective that had been worked so hard for through the ages. Finally the four corners of the canvas became about what they really always were: boundaries for the “non-objective” status of an artwork’s support mechanism (canvas, etc.) and the properties of forms upon it (paint, etc.).
Greenberg had not heard of Hilma af Klint (1862 –1944) the Swedish artist and mystic whose works were trotted out earlier this year at the Guggenheim Museum, upsetting the applecart of art history previously owned by the previous founder of abstract art Wassily Kandinsky and the geometric De Stijl works of Piet Mondrian whose embrace of flatness paved the way for the Abstract Expressionists in New York, men and a few women who managed to pull the art world’s focus from Europe to New York. After them Post-Painterly Abstractionists like Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski applied, even poured colors that hardly overlapped each other into canvases that were bare and untreated, painting “within” the fibers of the canvas, allowing surface and the medium to merge as one. True flatness at last, the full opposite of the previously-sought illusion of depth.
It’s a complicated story but necessary to understand how Western art moved from cave paintings to the Minimalism of the 1970s. Painters pointed the gaze of viewers toward wacky shaped canvases and baffling monochrome paintings by Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly, a process that had begun with Malevich, the Russian avant-garde artist and theorist, whose paintings of a white shape on a white surface was an attempt to access “the supremacy of pure feeling” and “spirituality” through art. Spirituality happened to be what af Klint was going for too. And Kandinsky, too, come to think it.
Qian Wu’s paintings are not as flat as the Post Painterly Abstractionists nor as monochromatic as Malevich or say, Ad Reinhardt, whose paintings looked solid black, even though he was working very seriously with barely perceptible variations of it. Qian’s work is both black and white and while pretty darned flat, it is nowhere near “absolute” flatness. Like most paintings, a microscope would reveal deep strata within, veritable mountain ranges of pigment if we could get in close enough.
But when I mentioned that the Abstract Expressionists held “flatness” as their highest ideal, Qian Wu told me that even though his work is not about the externality façade, he, too, happens to be going for a “flat but rich surface.” Of the twelve paintings in this show, most of them are about 3 x 5 feet, mostly verticals with three of them turned horizontally. Two of the twelve are diptychs, using two, rather than one, canvases. And one of those, 2019-4, is vertically oriented, a beauty, the other, 2017-2, horizontal that uses the seam between the two canvases in interesting ways. Wu isn’t opposed to using 3 or 4 or more canvases together in the future so he could work larger. This young painter is just getting started.
I mused that for centuries “realism” was a goal and that with the 20th century artworks grew larger and their subject matter, as well as the shape of the canvases, increasingly abstract. He replied that while he reveres his own culture, he also loves Western art. “Traditional Chinese paintings are mostly flowers, monkeys, bamboo and landscapes,” he said with a smile. We were both intentionally oversimplifying, batting around what his work “means.” It is my understanding that Chinese painting always means something.
While Western art developed along one arc, the East took a different path. And not just with “scatter perspective” that divides a surface into three parts, each with different perspective, making a western rupture like Cubism unnecessary. Since the Shang dynasty, around 1600 BC, “oracle” animal bones and tortoise shells left behind were uncovered by farmers, providing evidence of China’s first writing: indentations that were the earliest pictographs, symbols providing a common foundation for Chinese painting and writing. Furthermore, the early writing was not just to communicate with people but also the spiritual world. Cumbersome scrolls of rolled up bamboo eventually gave way to paper and silk, setting the stage for the history of Chinese ink and brush painting as we know it today, among the oldest continuous artistic traditions on the planet.
Ink painting has been an indispensable piece of Chinese literati culture for millennia, during which the paintings have remained relatively the same. For less than one hundred years artists have elevated the traditions and techniques beyond their roots, merging in new media and concepts to make the paintings more relevant to contemporary situations, just as they did a thousand years ago when a smattering of painters introduced new ideas like scrolls or using the side of the brush to sweep across the surface to create triangular shapes, reflecting new surroundings. Formats and moves developed a millennium ago have been brought to perfection by generations of painters.
While Qian Wu has his eye on Western art and his works utilize but do not imitate traditional brush painting, he lovingly accepts centuries of Chinese art as his starting point. “It’s what I inherit,” he told me, grappling with the concept of Chinese painting’s “legacy,” a concept of great interest to him. Chinese art history has provided seeds for a garden Wu is now harvesting. “I collect the traditional old masters efforts—brush on paper—and I come out from that.”
Wu uses any tools he can get his hands on to continue the history of Chinese painting, not disrupt it. “Many contemporary artists are against the traditional,” he says. “I appreciate it.” Still, he is not afraid to break rules.
The concept of literati painters was first devised in China in the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127)—that ruled the country during one of its most luminous cultural eras—but that literati was forever documented during the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644) starting with the legendary sage Dong Qichang whose work favored expressiveness over physical resemblance, avoiding anything slick or saccharine. This led him to render scenery with intentionally contorted characteristics—but never abstract. He took elements from ancient masters interested in experimental brush manipulation but always within the context of landscape painting.
Artists like Wu’s education was, according to tradition, first learned by rote, in which a master indicates the "right way" to draw particular elements. As an apprentice, the student learned to copy these elements rigorously and repeatedly until his actions became instinctive.
In the north, mountains were traditionally depicted linearly in long powerful black strokes, with accompanying washes and detailed repetitive marks to hint at the contours of the rugged stone landscapes. In the south of China where Wu comes from, softer, rubbed brushwork indicated the more serene undulating hills and streams. Southern painters also tried to capture an inner reality, using black ink as opposed to color, more popular in the north.
Wu has now abandoned the landscapes of his forbearers and uses canvases rather than paper or silk. But like Dong Qichang, his pictures point to a “way” that is unseen. Each one of his abstract pieces pursues the reality behind appearances. He pushes and pulls his grey scale palette according to a balanced cosmic flow of all things just like his predecessors, expressing harmony without words and without landscapes. The Taoist ideal of wu wei means not doing but leaving nothing left undone.
Meanwhile, looking west, Jackson Pollock dripped. Qian Wu work contains no drips. Franz Klein executed deliberate brush strokes. Qian Wu’s marks are very deliberate and while he comes from the brush tradition, almost all areas of his paintings do not look brushed per se. I sense, instead, Wu’s Taoist heart. Where in the past a sturdy pine tree in a Chinese landscape symbolized strength or friendship, Wu’s abstract areas of light and shade also tell that story embodying yin and yang, but without representation. Still, he drives the brush to make the shapes he is moved to make. If there is chance, it is his chance, not the paint’s chance as it often was for Pollock. But Wu, like Pollock, has a hypnotic touch. In the end, these works are about harmony and balance.
Wu Qian was born in 1991 in Xiamen, Fujian Province, China. He studied calligraphy and traditional Chinese painting from an early age. During his elementary school years, he even won awards in the national, provincial and municipal youth painting competitions. His children's paintings were collected by the Yanhuang Art Museum. In 2008, as a high school student, he moved to attend boarding school in Maine.
His hometown, Xiamen, near Taiwan and Hong Kong, is a major city of 4 million people but according to Wu, they are only starting to “get” contemporary art now. In the ‘90s, it was his perception that they were not yet ready.
But in the northernmost part of the Maine coast, 320 miles up the coast from Boston and just 24 miles from Canada, his art classes jolted him to re-engage with art after he had moved away from it in his adolescence. The show’s curator, Lan Zhang, said, “For the first time, he came into contact with multimedia, the history of western art, and the various schools of contemporary art. His interest in art was rekindled.” Zhang is an enthusiastic appreciator of this young artist’s work.
He attended the University of Illinois at Chicago for his freshman year of collage but in his 2nd year switched to New York University in Manhattan, graduating with a major in social and cultural analysis, then went back to grad school and decided to paint. He obtained a master's degree from Columbia University from the Weatherhead East Asian Institute.
He also studied at the Art Students League of New York from 2012 to 2015. In his first day of class there, he attracted considerable attention from both his teachers and his peers with his works in ink. A fellow student commented, “It is very Oriental!” making him realize that the most important thing in art creation was the mode of expression, not content. “What you paint isn’t important,” he told me. “It's how you paint.”
Wu has refined a unique style exhibiting influence from both the Eastern and the Western traditions. He paints on dry, semi-dry and wet surfaces, adding multiple layers of paint to create a wide range of effects. Using acrylic, oil or both, mixed with ink and water, with his black and white palette, he has put together all the information and technique he acquired since his time as a youngster to evoke a state of mind that underlies any apparent “reality.” He creates pictures sensitive to the Taoist spirit that his Chinese predecessors honored. In life and art, he expresses personality in his work, manifesting the sacred harmonious relationship between yin and yang.
Qian Wu kept experimenting and exploring until his first show in 2016, sponsored by the Chinese American Arts Council, at the 456 Gallery in New York in 2016. This current exhibition is therefore his second solo exhibition in New York. Curator Zhang, said, “Since 2016 his work has shown significant changes: the earlier implicit aesthetics have evolved into a kind of firm power. The earlier delicate and graceful lines have transformed into sharp strokes, and the earlier still surfaces have developed into violent, dynamic clashes. In addition, the new works exhibit a gushing power of daring spirit and dynamic rhythm.”
Indeed, his previous show was reportedly very line-based, varying between visible and invisible, complex and simple strokes. Yao Quanxing, a professor of aesthetics at the Institute of Philosophy of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, called it “a continuation of traditional Chinese literati ink painting… expressed through the style of Western art.” He went on to say that Wu’s work was “removed from fanciful ornateness.”
The curator of Qian Wu’s first exhibition, Yang Shihong, wrote, “Judging from the abstract mode of expression of Qian Wu’s work, we can see that he has the uninhibited personality of the literati and therefore he resonates greatly with the Daoist principle of ‘nonaction.’…He is fond of the stoic colors of black and white, as if he is evoking the Buddhist principle of ‘color is emptiness...’”
This exhibition, his second in New York, is with the daring art dealer Elga Wimmer who commented that Wu “definitely conveys a very contemporary way of expressing abstraction, maintaining the elegance of traditional Chinese ink painting while influenced by Western abstract practices. Some of the work recalls Hans Hartung,”
The self-taught Hartung (1904-1989), like Wu, worked from the start in abstraction. His paintings are often described as calligraphic. There was even a 2005 exhibition Hartung in China that explored the relations between Chinese brush painting and Western painting.
The German-French painter Hartung’s rhythmic brushstrokes were monochromatic like Wu’s. By the late 1950s he had been recognized for his gestural style. Hartung used a camera to document what interested him: moments, phenomena landscapes and “all sorts of light and shade effects” as he described it. Indeed his work resembles Wu’s, especially his late paintings, many of which he made from the vulnerability of a wheelchair, but which conveyed increased vigor, energy and experimentation. Not the repetitive wispy lines seen earlier in his career but larger, bolder areas of black pushed together—much like Wu’s.
Wimmer believes Wu’s “rich compositions with bold rhythms and contrasting layers of black and white, convey a very contemporary way of expressing abstraction.”
Hartung began improvising directly onto canvas and experimenting with new kinds of paint as well as scraping and spraying techniques. The quest for a balance between spontaneity and perfection remained at the core of his painterly aesthetics until the end of his life. Like Wu, Hartung loved the unpredictable energy of light, space and shadow, and started creating gestural work—two decades before Pollock, regarded in Europe as the counterpart of American AbEx.
Finally, during the 1980s, Hartung expanded on the range of techniques he employed in his work, introducing a litany of non-traditional tools into his practice including branches from the olive trees that grew on the grounds of his home and studio in Antibes, France.
“I’ll use brushes or any tools I can use—even cleaning tools,” Wu tells me. “Tradition says only to use a brush.” Thus, the twelve works in this exhibition are each an exploration of his current technique, using whatever means were necessary to achieve his goals, much like Hartung. Wu did it twelve times here and twelve times he seems to have mastered it.
Other painters that remind me of Wu are Jon Scheuler (1916 –1992) whose works whirled pure color and light into suggestions of clouds, seas and islands and Mary Abbott (born 1921) whose oil works on paper were influenced by her time spent in the Caribbean throughout the 1950s. Some of Wu’s marks and moods also remind me of the international painter and printmaker Johnny Friedlaender (1912 –1992) whose work evolved into abstract forms from his roots as an Expressionist after his escape from Nazi Germany.
It is also tough not to think of the young (late) Robert Ryman (1930 – 2019) who started working monochromatically as older artists like Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko had already simplified and clarified painting toward its essence. Ryman also worked with non-traditional materials and surfaces. Finally, a close examination of Ryman’s white paintings reveal extensive variety in their detail, the kinds of subtle changes between dark and light and deliberate and accidental marks that Wu has made entire paintings of here.
When I asked about abstraction Wu replied, “What is abstract? Nothing is abstract. Calligraphy is abstract. Chinese opera is abstract.”
Wu’s grandparents were big fans of Beijing opera, which combines music, vocal performance and dance with mime and acrobatics. It arose in the late 18th century. He did not see it in person but has fond memories of watching it with his grandparents on TV “because the Beijing opera did not come to Xiamen.” The opera explored loyal or treacherous characters and their feelings of happiness and sorrow, surprise and anger. He loved it because the Beijing opera is abstract. “They ride a fake horse with just a few movements. When they walk out the door—in the west, in the Italian opera —it's a physical door. In the Chinese opera there is no door; it’s a pantomime.” It made a deep impression on him as a child. Perhaps it embodies the idea of the profound reality behind the illusions of art.
“Ink painting is contemporary art. All arts are contemporary arts,” he said. “It is the 21st century and we still paint like the Ming or the Sung dynasty. We copy it.” Wu seems to have fused the best of the East and West. Chinese works on paper, in which brushstrokes cannot be revised, require a painter to have a complete conceptual vision of the painting before begining. By working with thick oil, acrylic, and ink on canvas, Wu can revise while operating steadily with confidence and technical mastery, infusing spiritual energy into the brushstrokes with attention to the Taoist ideal of total concentration in every moment, and harmony between himself and nature. Each of his paintings takes 3-4 weeks, with Wu often working on two and three at a time.
When I inquired about Gerhard Richter, Wu smiled and called him his “hero.” Richter (born 1932) is known for new attempts to understand the world via materials. He says is not trying to imitate photos but to make one. While nearly all of his work tackles illusionistic space in ways that seem natural, it also prominently calls attention to the physical activity and material of painting. Richter famously blurs his images for the “smooth equalizing surface… to make everything equally important and equally unimportant.”
This is a quality I think Wu does best of all. His work embodies energy and motion. He told me, “I don't care about anything else—motion, power, energy.” His use of lines and areas of monochromatic color convey the transmission of the spirit that all Chinese art seeks. Like timeless expressive calligraphy, the energy that flowed through Wu’s hand allows our eyes to dance across the surfaces.
He tells me his peers believe black and white and abstraction are what make “a Qian painting” but he doesn't agree. “There are no rules,” he explains. His current work is just where he is at now. In the future, he is “open to collage” and other ideas. He may add color. It could be anything. His current work is his training and energy in a form he wants to share with the viewer now. That is all. He said, “That is why I don’t give titles. I want the audience to use their full imagination to think about what it is themselves.” Wu is referring to the numbered dates his work carry, much like Hartung did, by the way.
Qian Wu mainly uses acrylic paint to which he adds the water-based inks and oils. He uses some watercolor. A few of these works have definite blue hues in them that appeared unexpectedly when he added water to the black ink. 2018-4, 2017-1, 2018-1, 2018-3 each have light blue brush marks in addition to black, white and grey. Wu takes it in stride. He has a very matter of fact attitude about what he is doing.
Consistency lies at the heart of Chinese art and Wu’s steady demeanor reflects this. Taoist meditation and artistic creation are inseparable and Wu’s embrace of the present moment projects a Taoist point of view that looks to nature for inspiration. Chinese sages have a tradition of walking in the wilderness then returning to their scholar’s desk and closing their eyes, contemplating the immortal and letting the idea precede the brush.
The first emperor Qin Shi Huang conquered nearby warring states and unified all of China in 221 BC. Calligraphy then developed the way it did because the emperor sought one language, even for people separated by dialects, and so he instructed the most literate men in China, called mandarins, to create a standard ideographic writing system to unify the people. Today, young artists like Qian Wu, who inherited that language, seek, in turn, to reconcile sources as diverse as China and the West. Wu’s work creates an art that unifies all his influences into one visual language. This show was one coherent body of work with twelve different versions of the same idea. “The paintings are brothers,” he told me. “These paintings are all my children.”WM
Mark Bloch is a writer, performer, videographer and multi-media artist living in Manhattan. In 1978, this native Ohioan founded the Post(al) Art Network a.k.a. PAN. NYU's Downtown Collection now houses an archive of many of Bloch's papers including a vast collection of mail art and related ephemera. For three decades Bloch has done performance art in the USA and internationally. In addition to his work as a writer and fine artist, he has also worked as a graphic designer for ABCNews.com, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He can be reached at email@example.com and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.
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