‘When a person is in a very pure state, then they might do something avant-garde; when a person tries to be avant-garde, they will, on the contrary, fall behind. The person is more important than the artwork.’
Excerpt from interview with Wang Huaiqing
In his creative practice, Wang Huaiqing has always been loyal to his original intent; he has never latched onto trends. In the early 1980s, Wang garnered acclaim in Chinese painting circles for his seminal early oil painting, Bole, but he was far from satisfied with his accomplishments. He left Northern China, where he had lived for many years, and travelled to the vivid and flourishing Jiangnan region. Amid the white walls and black tiles of the local dwellings of Shaoxing, Wang discovered the formless beauty of abstraction. He consequently abandoned his favoured style of realism, fearlessly departed from the mainstream of mainland Chinese painting, and began to develop his own semi-figurative painting language. In 1987, Wang accepted a two-year visiting scholar position at Oklahoma City University. This experience abroad not only broadened the artist’s horizons, but also provided him with a new perspective on Chinese culture. Upon returning to China, he continued to focus his creative energies on the traditional dwellings and antique furniture of the Jiangnan region. In the early 1990s, his semi-figurative style began to move in two directions: first, toward the humanities, perceptions, and poetics; and second, toward the beauty of philosophy, rationality, dialectics, which led to the creation of several important artworks, including Six Tables (Lot 1025).
During the tumultuous Warring States period of Chinese history, countless schools of thought contended for primacy. The strictly logical School of Names sought to explore the relationship between concepts (or names) and reality. People’s minds produce concepts on the basis of reality; when the relationship between concepts and their definitions is clear, then they become helpful in understanding reality. Gongsun Long, a representative of the School of Names, posited that ‘white horses are not horses’; since the connotation of ‘white horses’ is not the same of that of ‘horses’, so the two should be not confused. In Six Tables, Wang Huaiqing uses the same sort of philosophical dialectic to express the rational quality of Chinese culture and produce an aesthetic deduction.
Wang has stated that Six Tables was the first of a series of works with numbers in their names, and the intention behind these names was to emphasise the mathematical feel. These names, particularly when they are listed in order, recall the clarity and explicitness of a statistical report. Although the painting at hand is titled Six Tables, the artist has only painted a single table on the canvas, suggesting to the audience that a slight semantic difference is reflected by a substantially different reality. The table itself has far more legs than a normal table would, but its top is clearly a long, unitary slab of wood, and would be more accurately described as ‘one’ table. Whether it has four legs, twenty legs, or more, as long as the table top is one piece of wood, then it will always be ‘one table’. The painting thus addresses and clarifies the relationship between rigid concepts and strict logic; herein we see how the concepts in Chinese thought of ‘one and many’, as well as ‘permanence and change’, endow mathematics with profound philosophical value.
The incision point of Six Tables is logic and a desire to express the ‘poetic sentiments of philosophy’, but the artist also firmly believes that artistic creation must culminate in a tableau with visual value: ‘A work of art cannot be merely a concept. Otherwise, it is no more than an argument, and regardless of its basis or validity, its very existence is questionable’. In order to highlight the beauty of rationality, the composition of Six Tables places an emphasis on logic and order. A thick black line separates the canvas horizontally, and beneath it, twenty-four table legs are gathered in neat rows. The long table is painted in planes and resembles a paper-cut silhouette, but to increase the artistic effect and emphasise the visual tension, the artist added a meticulous level of detail in tones of black and white. The twenty-four table legs are slightly irregular in length, width, and orientation, like notes on a musical score. The partially transparent white rectangular shape in the upper left part of the canvas floats like a strip of curtain, disrupting the neat spatial organisation of the table and the space above it while also enhancing the sense of interaction between the two. Another, longer white strip extends horizontally from the right edge of the canvas and passes beneath the table top. As a result, we can see which of the table legs are behind the strip, and which are in front of it; this is the artist’s clever way of revealing the positional arrangement of the legs and the use of perspective. At the same time, Wang creates a mottled effect on the wall behind the table that resemble the stains left by smoke. This effect suggests distance between the table and the wall, and moreover, its fluid and formless presence serves as a foil to the solid form of the table, like clouds coiled around a mountain, quiet and vivid. In this way, Six Tables expresses the artist’s intended ideal: ‘There is space within planes, change within repetition, and chaos within order. These notions are connected to the ideas behind traditional Chinese painting, in which the entire tableau is strictly constructed so that a part of it comes to life’.
Six Tables is representative of an important vein of Wang Huaiqing’s semi-figurative painting style. The painting deconstructs and reassembles a piece of furniture by flattening and superimposing; this treatment, combined with the details of the tableau, such as the strips of white and the smoke marks on the wall, served as an important precedent to the artist’s future work. Its influence is evident in Feet-2, created in 1999, in terms of the multiplied legs, white patches, and smoke marks; in 2000’s Homeless Furniture, the motif of disassembled and reconstructed furniture is heavily featured again. Thus we can see how Six Tables was an early wellspring of creativity that corresponds to the evolutions of Wang Huaiqing’s thought, past and future.
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