"I consider the artist as a postman. He should not be overly curious about what is inside the envelopes he delivers." – Wang Xingwei
The Virgin Olympia
Whimsical, bizarre and playfully cryptic, Recruit is a mischievous take on Edouard Manet’s canonical Olympia from 1863 and epitomizes the best of Wang Xingwei’s trademark unpredictable wit and versatile painterly skill. The nude female figure of Olympia is substituted with a young male recruit clad in the uniform of the People’s Liberation Army, and while the postures per se of the figures are the same, the orientation of the portrait is rotated – such that the recruit is in effect standing to attention rather than lying down. Where Olympia’s gaze was confrontational and masculine, the recruit’s face, modeled after a photograph of the politician Hu Yaobang, is delicately effeminate, sporting a mysterious Mona Lisa-esque smile. Other contrasts include the recruit’s bare mattress vis-à-vis Olympia’s lavish Oriental sheets, the absence of the figure of the maid, and the bright campy colors of Wang’s tableaux versus Manet’s more brooding, somber palette. The key to the painting, however, lies in the unobtrusive kettle situated at the bottom right hand corner. More than just a random substitute for the black cat in Olympia, the kettle plays two important roles: first, to indicate the intended vertical orientation of the work; and second, in reference to how water jugs or pitchers symbolized virginity in 17th and 18th century European paintings, the kettle here coyly signifies the young recruit’s purity and virginity – a final juxtaposition against Olympia’s prostitute identity.
The fun-loving jester of Chinese contemporary art, Wang’s acclaimed oeuvre is defined by a notorious subversive humor that is kitsch, nonsensical and gently absurd, yet which belies a staunch commitment to continuously expand the very possibilities of realism and the language of painting itself. Borrowing and appropriating liberally from Eastern and Western pictorial motifs, and referencing copiously from pop and literary culture, established traditions in classical art history as well as his own works, Wang has amassed a prolific and diverse body of irreverent creations that mocks, delights in, and ruptures the canonical respect for art history. From around 1995, Wang began a series of works that specifically referenced canonical works, creating a powerful connection with the value system of contemporary art. In his masterful weaving of influences that stretch from medieval European and early Renaissance art to Dada and Surrealism, and from Western Pop to China’s own Cynical Realism and Political Pop, Wang constructs pictorial assemblages that are in equal parts cheeky and shrewd, nonchalant and discerning. Such an intelligently artful legacy was rightfully honored in Wang Xingwei’ grand large-scale retrospective at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art in 2013; in the catalogue text, Philip Tinari observes: “In Wang’s world, the most basic tenets of painting undergo a thorough questioning […] His work ultimately suggests that there is still a place for the delights of figuration and narrative, even in a world, and a context, where greater structures of meaning and belief can seem dubious” (Philip Tinari, cited in Exh. Cat. Wang Xingwei, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, 2013, p. 10-11).
In terms of technique, Wang has employed in the present lot a flashlight effect that results in a stage set atmosphere with a surrealist flavor. Strong elements of role play, performance and stage simulation of a theatrical nature can also be perceived in other works of the period. Wang’s skilled brushwork evinces subtlety and intrigue, seen not just in the work’s atmospheric presence but also in the meticulously executed details such as the folds and creases of the recruit’s uniform and the innocuous pattern of the mattress. Wang’s proficiency with his brush has always been evident regardless of his erratically versatile style; he has been described by critic Iona Whittaker as “an artist of consummate ability with his chosen medium […] there is delight for the viewer (and the artist, too, one suspects) in the sheer surfaces of the paintings – the creases in clothes or the portrayal of light; foliage, skin and texture can and do leap from his brush” (Iona Whittaker, in ‘Wang Xingwei: An Acquired Taste?’, Randian, 2013). Whittaker goes on to assert Wang’s unique talent in reinstating compositions from art historical masterpieces that are instantly, strikingly recognizable – spotlighting in particular the present work Recruit, which reoccurs in the self-portrait Ascending (1999), and describing such works as “unduly striking, with a seductive omniscience” (Ibid.).
Wang’s idiosyncratic oeuvre is particularly remarkable when considered in comparison to the dominating schools of Cynical Realism and Political Pop in the glorious 1990s dawn of Chinese contemporary art. According to Tinari, Wang’s irreverence was “notable for two main reasons: first, they called out the legions of other Chinese artists whose 1990s practices focused with less intensity and nuance on directly aping precedents from Western art history; and second, they demonstrated a soft-spoken confidence, even arrogance, [in confronting] a Chinese material and intellectual universe that was self-conscious of its relative deprivation” (Philip Tinari, ‘Wang Xingwei’, Flash Art Online, 2015). In his works in the late 1990s and 2000s, Wang began referencing and recombining images from the growing stock of his own works, composing ever more complex overlappings of meanings, double-meanings, juxtapositions and intersections of various points in art and social history that resound on multiple levels. To borrow Tinari’s words: “There is the notion common throughout art history of a theme and multiple variations […] There is the gentle absurdity of the handling of the subject […] There is the humour conveyed in what is in Chinese called “small intelligence” – the gentle toggling between textures and finishes […]” (Ibid.). Tinari concludes: “But perhaps more striking than any of this is how [Wang’s works] affirm a commitment [he] seems to have made long ago: to the fundamental premise that realism continues to contain possibilities for advanced expression” (Ibid.). Mischievous and impertinent, the mysterious virginal Recruit epitomizes Wang’s refreshing and far-reaching influence on the ongoing development of painting and art.