Wang Xingwei is the comic scene-maker of contemporary Chinese art. His painting is unique, and uniquely sophisticated, among his contemporaries. Stylistically, he displays a remarkable versatility, choosing a look and feel for each work to suit its subject matter, and never succumbing to a signature style. Perhaps most importantly, he works through a sort of curious humor rarely seen in China. Most often, he is the butt of his own jokes—first in early paintings where he would appear in a rather straightforward self-portrait mode, and more recently as a cartoon avatar based loosely on his own appearance and generally seen courting, unsuccessfully, a beautiful cartoon woman.
While it would be impossible to reduce his art to a few themes or motifs, Wang Xingwei nonetheless has a number of recurring interests. Among the earliest of these was the Chinese art world itself, a concern evident in a painting like Standard Expression after 1989 (Lot 893), 1995. Dated 1995.5, it comes from the moment immediately preceding the second edition of the Venice Biennale to include Chinese artists, with Zhang Xiaogang and Liu Wei showing their paintings under the curation of Johnson Chang. Wang's painting seems to poke fun at the fame they had amassed, by depicting stock characters from a few of the major Chinese painters as patients in a psychiatric hospital, confined to their numbered rooms. The immediate precedent for this work is another painting from 1995, The East is Red, which shows the curator Li Xianting—the man who coined the designations "Political Pop" and "Cynical Realism" as the driver of an "East is Red" brand tractor, atop which ride figures from Fang Lijun, Liu Wei, and Wang Guangyi paintings.
Standard Expression after 1989 gets just slightly more oblique, showing the artist as a hospital orderly pushing a gurney on which lies a character from one of Zeng Fanzhi's Hospital triptychs. Among the patients who stare out from their rooms are Fang Lijun and Liu Wei characters at right, and others evocative of more realist currents in Chinese art such as He Duoling and Chen Weimin at left. Details such as the perspective which sets the yellow room doors back from the white wall, as well as the slightly reflective floor show that this is a technically, as well as a conceptually, competent painting. One layer of reference that cannot be ignored is the notion of "seeing the doctor," a slang term among artists in the 1990s which referred to the process of showing one's work to a visiting, usually Western, curator. The joke behind that phrase equates curatorial interpretation with pathological diagnosis, the same slippage which forms the basis of this painting.
Perhaps topping the list of Wang Xingwei's key pictorial interests is Western art history—its internal dramas and the individual artist's place within its stories. In one major canvas from 1997, he showed himself looking through the hole in the wooden door instantly identifiable to contemporary art aficionados as belonging to Duchamp's last work, Étant Donnés. Standing watch over him are two policemen, who upon closer inspection are none other than Andy Warhol and Josef Beuys, as if warning him not to want too much from the great master.
Midas (Lot 894) continues in this vein, depicting a gaunt Duchamp at far left, in the same profile shot which graces the cover of Calvin Tomkins "Duchamp: A Biography" (the book by which most Chinese artists came to learn of Duchamp) and which also forms the basis for Ai Weiwei's 1985 sculpture Hanging Man, a wire hanger bent into Duchamp's silhouette. In Wang Xingwei's retelling, Duchamp's right hand rests atop a figurine that has been made impossibly valuable with his "golden touch." He stares off into the distance, refusing to fix his gaze on anything in particular. A large rock sits by his feet, as if waiting to be transformed. Front and center in the frame is an oversized version of Duchamp's second readymade, the bottle drying rack. Duchamp's signature is clearly visible, and the object is lit as if it were the star of some theatrical performance, an innuendo added to by the red velvet curtains of the background. Off in the right, rear corner sit perhaps Duchamp's two crowning achievements as an artist, his iconic 1917 Fountain and his first readymade, the 1913 Bicycle Wheel.
The story of King Midas of course ends tragically, as Midas realizes immediately that his golden touch makes it impossible for him to eat or enjoy human contact, and he prays to the god Apollo to reverse what has become a curse. The look on Duchamp's face suggests the same sort of melancholy, a contemplative sadness for the following generations of artists forced to work in his shadow and convinced that the most ordinary of objects could be turned into art. We can only assume that Wang, an obstinate painter, is channeling some of this dissatisfaction.
Wang Xingwei's 2001 painting Magritte's Detective Pretending Calm (Lot 895) is in some ways the end of a certain phase in his engagements with Western art history. The canvas appears as a simple black-on-white composition of two sparsely outlined trees against a background of snow, with no connection to Magritte of which to speak. Here one needs to know the deeper background, as Wang actually began this work with a stock Magritte figure situated in its foreground, back to the viewer, the perspective flat and aerial. (See illustration.) At some point, Wang decided to elide the figure entirely, leaving only the white background. This decision brings to mind nothing so much as Magritte's later detective paintings, in which the figure's head was entirely absent, leaving an empty space between his jacket and his signature bowler hat. It is as if Wang made the decision here that removing the obvious Magritte reference entirely from his composition would be the most "Magrittean" way of handling the painting.
Shortly after completing this work, Wang Xingwei would begin a whole series of paintings less directly pictorial than those of his first decade. In 2002, for example, he began a series of near abstractions—images of skies, waves, soccer pitches—set on undulating asbestos roof tiles. The next few years saw him move toward stock characters—airline stewardesses, nurses, golfers, sailors— thrown into elaborate narrative scenes. In 2006 he would introduce a cartoonish couple loosely based on the illustrations that accompanied the 1980s literary periodicals which he grew up reading; for a solo show that year at Galerie Urs Meile entitled "Large Rowboat," he mixed images of these two accidental heroes with many others which had no outright connection to them at all.
Unlike many of his peers, we get the sense that Wang Xingwei's artistic evolution is far from complete. As the Western art world has begun in the last few years to acknowledge the extreme importance of artists like John Currin and George Condo—painters who interpret the pictorial techniques of an earlier moment in Western painting, representationally retooling them for the current moment— Wang seems a clear candidate for an even more revered position inside the Chinese art world. His varied styles and motifs, in the end, belie a brilliant wit, reacting to a world in which a single symbol or a simple ideology no longer gets anyone very far.
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