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Wu Jian'an’s Image Confrontation

Wu Jian'an, 500 Brushstrokes #72, 2021. Ink, watercolor, paper cut and collage on Xuan paper, 80 x 100 cm (31 1/2 x 39 1/3 in). Courtesy of the artist and Chambers Fine Art ©Wu Jian'an.

Wu Jian'an: Recent Works

Chambers Fine Art 

September 8 through December 23, 2022 

By HU LINGYUAN, November 2022 

In Wu Jian'an’s art forms and concepts, there are visual tricks, reflections on the polymorphism of cultural heritage, and manifestations of humanity and divinity. Chambers Fine Art is now featuring Wu's recent works. His representative series, 500 Brushstrokes, is rife with randomness and has some characteristics of action painting. Much of this lies in the fact that Wu places no restrictions on his objects, and the materials they use, such as brushes, colors, and paper, or even whether they draw delicately. 500 Brushstrokes thus have a strong conceptual nature, meaning that each stroke represents a person, an individual, which has a more distinct meaning in China with a large population. Different people create brushstrokes that, whether consciously or unconsciously, bear their own imprints—bold, elegant, or discreet. Yet to make them a work of art, the artist’s aesthetic sense is essential. Wu reads such random acts and intentionally reassembles and collages them, which also speaks to the appeal of art. The different forms, strengths, and colors of the brushstrokes create either a soothing or rapid rhythm through Wu’s elaborate orchestration; while the visual effect of abstraction and low relief emerges.

Wu Jian'an, 500 Brushstrokes #77, 2021. Ink, watercolor, paper cut and collage on Xuan paper, 150 x 150 cm (59 x 59 in). Courtesy of the artist and Chambers Fine Art ©Wu Jian'an.

From the perspective of ink wash and calligraphy, Wu’s 500 Brushstrokes series can be seen as an experiment he conducted with the public. As a professor at the School of Experimental Art at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, he has made a contemporary transformation of the expression of traditional Chinese art. His 500 Brushstrokes #10, recently collected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, resembles an abstract ink wash painting collaged of shades of ink strokes. It reminds me of an artist I interviewed not long ago Liang Quan, who also uses the ink collage technique, creating abstract ink works with an oriental Zen aura. Collage is a western art concept, but there are similar expressions in Chinese paintings. Wu followed traditional Chinese art closely, and his skillful collage technique also incorporates the traditional art of paper cutting, which he learned from Chinese paper-cutting artist Lu Shengzhong, who passed away last month. Wu began cutting paper when SARAS hit Beijing forcing him to be stuck at home, and he resorted to paper cutting as self-therapy, according to him. The healing effect of his paper cutting before the full generation of the first series Daydreams is akin to Japanese artist Sachiko Abe’s use of the act of paper cutting to heal herself. The latest 500 Brushstrokes series was completed during COVID-19, a period with a similar background and individual dilemma—how can one transcend themselves to obtain a kind of physical and mental freedom? Wu’s language of brushstrokes achieves this on an artistic level. Aside from that, Wu presents a unique picture of the possible relationship between the individual and the whole. The way he arranges the different brushstrokes is as if a director is making a personal statement, i.e., what position one can be in. 

Wu Jian'an, 500 Brushstrokes #78, 2021. Ink, watercolor, paper cut and collage on Xuan paper, 150 x 150 cm (59 x 59 in). Courtesy of the artist and Chambers Fine Art ©Wu Jian'an.

Wu’s emphasis on the independence of brushstrokes relates to the knowledge that Chinese characters are made up of different strokes. As a Chinese proverb says, “style is the man,” and characters written by different personalities have completely varying styles. However, in 36 Color Balls (X) (2018), each color ball is not entirely independent. They display a varying sense of volume through the variation of lightness and heaviness between colors and their mutual immersion. The rotating strokes of color activate the image’s movement mechanism and dissimilar internal structures spring up, such as forms centered on the origin that appear like solar black holes or totems, and a kaleidoscopic form that is geometrized by cutting color—evokes Robert Delaunay’s late paintings. The circle has often been favored in abstract artists’ paintings and also holds many positive symbolic meanings since ancient times, such as completeness and symmetry. Wu’s 36 balls form a complete square by overlapping and arranging. But his circle is well documented. The book Wu Jian'an produced by Chambers Fine Art mentions that these colored balls evolved from the Color Paints series, in which watercolors are filled into bubbles of polysterol board. The densely colored dots form a picture that resembles either a mosaic or a TV without a signal. The physical properties of the material speak for themselves, and to some extent produce a similar visual effect to that of the pointillists.

Wu Jian'an, 36 Color Balls (X), 2018. Watercolor on paper, 53 x 52 cm (20 3/4 x 20 1/2 in). Courtesy of the artist and Chambers Fine Art ©Wu Jian'an.

As a piece that has a distinct figurative feature, Shapeshifting Deity (2020) is a face collaged from numerous tiny figures formed by paper-cutting and hand-dyed. Each individual figure has a clear identity, and they are clustered into a regular structure comparable to a neural vein network. The face, which is both monkey-like and human-like, has two pairs of eyes. Wu distinguishes between the two through subtle color changes and the paper-cutting images inside the eyes, yet still influences one’s vision to some extent, just like camouflage. Wu challenged vision with vision. One has to find a suitable viewing point on the move up or down. In the switch back and forth, they may develop dialectical thinking about truth and falsehood. I cannot help but relate the idea or form to the plot of the battle between the True and False Monkey King in the novel Journey to the West. The deity is fictional, however, and the human is real. What might this stifle when one appears in non-human forms? Or rather, what features do we rely on to identify things? The tiny figures that make up the face come to life under Wu’s skillful technique, which imbues the whole with a mysterious and primitive dynamism; more importantly, the image features it generates are associated with the possibility of an individual being recognized. WM

Hu Lingyuan

Hu Lingyuan is an art writer and independent curator living in Queens. She is also the co-founder and executive editor of Art SuoDeng Magazine.

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