chinese contemporary art
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Beijing Exhibitions>> Wei Dong

While a great number of artists work in the Chinese traditional media of ink and colour on paper, none have taken it into the realm of the avant garde as has Wei Dong. Most painters of the avant garde turned to oil or acrylic on canvas, leaving behind their country's traditional technique. They had great respect for tradition but it was not for them. Artists still working in chinese ink and colour on paper, for the most part, remained outside the avant garde and continued the tradition of emulating old masters. Wei Dong explores through painting the space where heritage and modernity coexist. His works set up a dialogue, present a confrontation and explode a good number of conventions. In a disruption of tradition Wei Dong has taken this male dominated domain and subjected it to domination by women. Traditional Chinese landscape, created by male artists, containing male figures and for the male gaze, finds itself in Wei Dong's works as the backdrop, the stage setting, for the female figures which dominate the paintings and demand the viewers attention. Early works by the artist, such as Ming Landscape, 1996, were fabulously heretical creations where colourful and eccentric females invaded the traditional landscape, perched wherever possible among the mountains, claiming front of stage. Calcified tradition was usurped by a gleeful army of free spirits with a devil may care attitude. In later works the artist moved away from multiple female figures towards one dominant female figure in the foreground. Although the female figures settled on outcrops among the mountains were always out of proportion with the landscape, the single female figures are massive. Their power and presence reduces the background to a haunting memory. There is an odd cohabitation between the two. Tradition, pale and delicate. Modernity, bold and spirited.

Wei Dong's fascination with the female figure, flesh and female sexuality is evident in his works. Earlier works conveyed the idea of emancipation, the figures being free to take over the landscape and to dress in liberated ways. There is lots of flesh on show, some much less enticing than others but intriguing all the same by the sheer fact of its presence. Also, in these works there was greater symbiosis with the landscape, the separation was not complete, the invasion had begin but the conquest was not finished. As the female figures grew in size the division between figure and landscape became absolute. The figures progressed in power. Appealing eccentricity developed into full blown domination. The females now have less clothes, less hair and take the viewer's gaze straight on. There is not an obvious answer to who is doing the looking. Their flesh continues to be obsessively attractive and repellent. There is a lot of it, unavoidable, plump, tactile, perhaps too much, perhaps oddly white - the attraction and repulsion is unfailing. The lack of hair is bizarre. The artist says too much hair gets in the way of his painting what really interests him. Visually it adds an edge to the works. These sexually empowered women are definitely not in the fluffy blond category. It takes a strong character to accept these figures who are clearly the ones in control.

Having started out painting in the traditional Chinese technique Wei Dong moved to work on canvas because he says the technique enables him to better express his emotions. He finds work on paper sometimes too delicate. What he is trying to convey in his work are not stories but impressions, feelings and experiences. The artist describes what the medium of paint on canvas allows him:

"I can paint the intensity of the cloudy sky, the reddest of the flag, the peace of the landscape, and the female bodies as vibrant as possible: you just can be as imaginary as possible."

This brings out another important aspect of the artist's work, the element of the imaginary. He uses a combination of the real and the fantastic or imaginary to express what he feels. He likens his approach to the theatre where drama allows the creation of something which reminds one of reality but is not reality itself. Wei Dong includes in his works a fabulous array of objects, many of which intensify the attention demanded by the females figures as they are concentrated around or on them. There are signs of various eras, prompts of emotions, of trends, of fantasies and of the simply fantastic. References to China's past both imperial and communist abound as do the ubiquitous signs of globalisation or the expansion of western consumer society. In these seemingly random objects there are also the faces of fellow chinese artists and former Chinese leaders. There are lucky goldfish, magicians' trick playing cards and elegant high heeled shoes. It is a theatrical scene with all the main actors and props present. It is interesting that in these new works on canvas the landscapes have disappeared. The female characters are still there but are now part of a stage set, a dramatic composition. The theatrical setting dominates. In fact, having referred to the Chinese tradition in earlier works, these more dramatic pieces refer to the western tradition. One cannot help but think of some of the great Venetian painters in the positioning of the figures, the drapery and the religious references such as those in First Day.

In a new development Wei Dong has created series of works on paper called My Marilyn, Soft and Water. These are somewhat different from the other works in this exhibition. These works concentrate on a face, an expression and in the case of Marilyn, an icon. They are painted with very few colours and the colours used are pale and delicate. They are more abstracted than the other works and, in fact, in the Soft series, the female form starts to disintegrate and becomes a landscape in itself producing a strong contrast between the traditional male landscape in greens and browns next to the abstract female landscape in flesh tones. In the Marilyn series, the abstracted technique helps create the impression of a memory, a vision that is no longer crystal clear but which is so powerful in our collective memory as to still hover in its essential characteristics. Here we find again Wei Dong's desire to remind one of reality but not to recreate it. Marilyn is an interesting subject for an artist with a penchant for painting powerful contemporary figures.

All the elements in Wei Dong's paintings come from his world, his life, his experiences and fantasies. The works capture the edginess of contemporary society and because of Wei Dong's past, growing up under communist China before its opening up to the rest of the world, they have an element of the surreal nature of contemporary Chinese society under assault by influences from all quarters. They also have the fresh and free vision of an outsider, an observer, one who can provoke new visions where others would only see the ordinary.