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  Beijing Scene

Deconstructing Wang
Alternating media with the finesse of a gunslinger, artist Wang Jinsong sticks to his message: the world is a lovely, screwed-up place.

By Chris Lew

It's not easy to describe Wang Jinsong's art. In one of his oil paintings, blank, faceless figures pose next to people in business suits and ties - a disquieting contrast of Chinese and Western aesthetics, of traditional minimalism and modern realism.

In another piece, psychedelic acrylics spread across the canvas, glistening like sunlight off grease. The combination of pigments - bleeding purple splashed on stark black - bear little resemblance to reality.

And finally, there's neither trace of ink nor brushstroke in his work Chai. Instead, Wang uses a camera to capture a reality the brush can't in a set of 100 photographs of the Chinese character for demolish (chai) that were scrawled on walls destined for destruction as Beijing undergoes urban renewal.

But which style best represents Wang, a man whose youthful appearance belies his age of 36, and whose black hair hangs down in a flap past his shoulders and whose chin shows the early shadow of a goatee? What style best cuts to the soul of a teacher with over 20 years experience, a gentleman with a calm voice and easygoing demeanor?

"All of my works are me," says Wang. "Each one represents my thoughts and ideas. I wouldn't make them public if they didn't."

As a result, the history of Wang Jinsong and his art is one of evolution. As times have changed, so has his style. However, his ultimate message has stayed true to his underlying vision.

"My line of thought is continuous - it has never ended or changed," says Wang. "Yes, I have used different styles because I like to be free and creative, but I am also concerned with human beings and human nature at work in everyday life. I want people to stop and think about these things."

Wang's rich life experiences are the source of his artistic inspiration. Born in the northeast province of Heilongjiang in 1963, Wang escaped the frozen north in 1983 to attend the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou. There, he majored in traditional Chinese painting. After graduating in 1987, he landed a job as a professor at the Beijing College of Education, where he continues to teach. These days he spends most of his spare time in his apartment/studio in the university district of Beijing.

Wang first gained international attention in 1993 when his work was featured in the Post-1989: China's New Art exhibition in Hong Kong. The collection toured internationally and showcased the brightest new stars of Chinese contemporary art, sparking an interest in a style entirely new to the West.

"Too many people think of traditional Chinese paintings or calligraphy when they think about Chinese art," says Angela Goding, assistant director of Beijing's Courtyard Art Gallery. "People like Wang and exhibits like Post-1989 really made a splash and opened people's eyes to new trends in Chinese art."

A list of exhibitions featuring Wang's works reads like a world atlas. Most recently, Wang's photo collection Parents was on display at the National Museum of History in Beijing, part of the Aperture Foundation-sponsored retrospective China: Fifty Years Inside the People's Republic. The show is now on exhibit at the Shanghai Art Gallery through the end of February.

But long before Wang was recognized as an influential artist, he knew that expressing his thoughts on the world through art was what he wanted to do with his life. Beginning right after high school, he travelled extensively across China's countryside, amassing a wealth of images and experience. Later, travel to the United States and Europe further refined his aesthetic perspective. But how and what Wang wanted to express proved counter-intuitive to what he had learned in school.

"I betrayed my training," says Wang with an embarrassed laugh. "I found that traditional painting couldn't express what I experienced in everyday life."

In the early 1990s, Wang turned to oil painting, but still retained many aspects of Chinese painting, including minimalist strokes and negative space. He would change direction again in 1998 to embrace vivid acrylic colors and surrealism.

"I wanted to establish a new style," says Wang. "But on a deeper level, the colors emphasize thoughts and attract attention while creating a world that is almost real but at the same time so much different than the one we see with our own eyes."

In many ways this phase of Wang's art, with its liquid-crystal visual effect and its contrast to his earlier oil paintings, was the most critical and satirical. The detailed faces, as opposed to the blank ones in Wang's earlier work, were intended to reflect how modern society's superficiality is masked by pride and pomposity.

Now Wang devotes almost all his time to photography. Whether he's taking color pictures of families or Chinese characters chalked onto walls, Wang captures them with the same attention to detail he uses in his paintings.

"I have not stopped painting, but using the camera gives you a different viewpoint," says Wang. "It is more direct. This is reality and it leaves no doubt about what you're seeing."

Many art critics and informed observers have praised Wang for his ability to observe and record everyday life using a variety of media.

Karen Smith, a Beijing-based art consultant, says in her seminal essay on the Post-89 movement: "Wang depicts such issues as the cannibalistic nature of social feeding, more politely termed 'dining out,' accidents made social spectacle, incident as entertainment, It appears on his canvas - just as it does in the city - as a composite of old and new; good and bad; fine and fallacious; crude and cultured, all stewing in the same stock."

Standard Family, a set of 200 photographs of the new nuclear Chinese family - mother, father and one child - is an example of how Wang uses his art to convey a personal, social statement. On one hand it evokes the joy of tighter family units and increased prosperity resulting from China's one-child policy. On the other, it forces one to think about a society without siblings.

The provocative photo collection has appeared in exhibits in Japan, Germany and Switzerland.

"The works I've felt most proud of are the ones produced when I've just started using a new medium," Wang reflects. "With photography, I feel like I've found the perfect form to express my thoughts and that I can just keep going deeper and deeper. At the same time, I'm always searching for new ways to express myself. I'm not afraid to try them out."

Wang Jinsong's photo series "Parents" can be seen in the Aperture Foundation-sponsored retrospective "China: Fifty Years Inside the People's Republic." The show is now on exhibit at the Shanghai Art Gallery through the end of February.


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