Wang Huaiqing, Feet-2
Wang Huaiqing once described his works as originating from a deep appreciation of history. This artistic passion, rooted in tradition, was the launching point that propelled him to eminence in China, and then to the international contemporary art world. The lot available at this evening sale, Feet-2 (Lot 1028) was created in 1999, at the crossing of centuries. At the time, the artist was on the one hand filled with fervent passion gazing back at the momentous 20th century of Chinese history, while at the same time he was looking ahead to the future with great anticipation. The artist conveyed this tension upon the canvas with a striking use of red in this painting. Around it he constructs an enormous, half-representational, vast world, and uses painting as a way of investigating time and space, showing the transcendental evolution of the concrete to the dao, the inanimate to the animate, and creating a work that can be called the artist’s magnum opus.
In 2008, American art historian and Director of the Seattle Art Museum Mimi Gardner Gates organized a trip to Wang Huaiqing’s studio in Beijing with the museum’s board of directors. The visit paved the way for the 2010 large-scale retrospective of the artist’s work, Wang Huaiqing: A Painter’s Painter in Contemporary China at the Seattle Art Museum. The event was organized as a special joint exhibition between two museums, the artist’s works on exhibit both at the Seattle Art Museum itself as well as the Asian Art Museum, its sub-division. This arrangement is a statement about the identity of Wang Huaiqing’s art: certainly it possesses an Asian identity, but beyond that, it speaks an international language. Contemporary Chinese art has been not only a product of the deluge of Western influence, but more importantly, it has been richly nourished by the profound traditions of its culture of origin. During this exhibition, the artist and museum selected Feet-2 to be the focus of an academic discussion as part of an effort to change the existing ‘lateralist’ manner of comparing East and West, and instead shifting the emphasis toward the dimension of ‘past and present’. The selection of this painting for that discussion is a testament to its status and significance.
One Long Table, Ages of Wind and Rain
Standing at 2 metres tall and 3.2 metres wide, Feet-2 is one of Wang Huaiqing’s largest paintings. Near the end of the 1990s, the artist’s studio was a mere fifteen square meters. The creation of such a large-scale painting was a challenge to the artist not only physically, but of his experience. Upon the silver-screen-sized canvas, Feet-2 features a close-up of a Ming-style long table, its magnified size creating an air of majesty and grandness, its colour a striking red, appearing before the viewer as a breathing, pulsing entity, shining right into its viewers eyes. Wang Huaiqing uses furniture as the subject of his paintings, originating from his fascination with ancient cultural objects, but it was an interest not limited to the objects themselves, but also the associations and reflections that derived from a profound understanding of culture, society, customs, and tradition. Aside from the long table that dominates the centre of the painting, fifty rectangles float upon the canvas of Feet-2, with forty-six single table legs within them. Adding them to the four legs of the long table, there are a total of fifty legs. Of Wang Huaiqing’s paintings, this is the only one of such composition. The table legs in more muted colours seem to be derivations from the main red table, hinting at something beyond the canvas, that beyond this table, there exist many, many more tables, and beyond this space and time, there exists many more from the past, the present, and the future. Yet all intersect at this precise time and space, forming a complex criss-crossing relationship, illustrating the footsteps of history and civilization, the drops on the record that have survived.
A Nucleus of Passion Beneath a Restrained Exterior
In December 2015, Wang Huai Qing held a large-scale solo exhibition at the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art in Kobe, Japan. At the opening ceremony, director Yukata Mino stated, “[Wang Huaiqing] struck me as a warrior who for 70 long years has been engaging with his own paintings, fighting some tough battles, and at the same time, as a kind man with an air of serenity and a calming warmth.” This assessment not only aptly describes the man, but also the characteristics of his work. Since the 1980s, Wang Huaiqing’s paintings have consistently upheld a style of radical simplicity, restraint, with great depth of colour, the scorched black ink on white xuan paper dominating his canvases. Yet Feet-2, created in 1999, breached this pattern, the artist boldly accenting the canvas with a cinnabar red, making it the only extra-large-scale painting in the 90s with the use of this colour. Wang Huaiqing’s red carries many meanings. In addition to its traditional Chinese representation of fortune and happiness, it seems to invoke the traditional “cinnabar” classically used in Chinese lacquer furniture. In our modern lexicon, red connotes excitement and attention. In this way, the red long table in Feet-2 is a reminder to its viewers to cherish the treasures of their national patrimony.
The Essence of the Song and Ming Dynasties and Post-Modernism
Following Mimi Gardner Gates’ departure from her post as Director of the Seattle Art Museum, her successor Derrick R. Cartwright proclaimed Wang Huaiqing “[a painter] who deserves a high rank among China’s most significant living painters and sculptors”, and described him as belonging “firmly within a continuum that is well known to scholars of historical Chinese representations, albeit always with a visual charge that speaks unmistakably of his contemporary aesthetic concerns.” To reference Feet-2 with respect to the artist’s preoccupation with “historical Chinese representations” and “contemporary aesthetic concerns” is to bring these descriptions into sharper relief. Wang Huaiqing is particularly fond of Chinese Song and Ming culture, its air of refinement, a testament to his interest in “historical Chinese representation”. But he is also a deconstructionist, breaking apart, flattening, and then reconstructing pieces of antique furniture into abstract or half-representational compositions, rich with post-modernist characteristics, a manifestation of his “contemporary aesthetic concerns”. To talk about the representationalism of his painting, Feet-2 can be regarded as a still life, yet because it has been imbued with vitality, it seems to possess an air of anthropomorphism, and appears almost as a portrait. To discuss the historic sentiment expressed by the artist through this painting, one can sense the powerful dramatic tension, as if it were a narrative scene in which the human characters have been concealed. Of course, to examine it from the lens of abstractionism, this piece is a composition rendered from antique furniture pieces. There is no doubt, there are myriad ways to interpret Feet-2, which together reveal the artist’s increasing profundity of thought and creativity.
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