Visual Art

Wang Huaiqing: "The Painter’s Painter"

The contemporary Chinese artist eschews politics in his first solo exhibit in the US.

By Clancey Denis November 17, 2010


Contemporary Chinese art hasn’t quite flowed over the Great Wall since the end of the Cultural Revolution—it’s been more like a slow trickle through a tiny hole. The most iconic images are still Mao’s propaganda posters, and the fine art that reaches the West tends to be politically charged, obvious reactions to the recent oppression.

There are exceptions, of course, and perhaps one of the best is Wang Huaiqing, whose work is on display at the Seattle Asian Art Museum from November 18–April 10. Born in 1944 in Beijing, Wang was a member of the Contemporaries, a group of Chinese artists dedicated to “brushing away the ugliness, perversity and deception, and preserving beauty, warmth and candor” after the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976. The group disbanded in 1982, but Wang continues to paint by these same principles.

SAAM now boasts a retrospective of Wang’s paintings, his first solo exhibition in the US in his astounding 45-year career. The 26 paintings capture the breadth of his work: starting with portrait sketches he did in school and ending with his most recent, more abstract paintings. This is only the second time SAAM has featured a solo exhibit by a contemporary Chinese artist—and the first was back in 1966.

Why Wang? “In the West, Chinese art is always thought of as about Mao, the Cultural Revolution, and how the artist struggled through the times,” says Josh Yiu, associate curator of Chinese art. “Artists were victimized—that’s the only way they are portrayed. [Wang] is a huge success story. He was able to break away from the sufferings of China’s past.” Contemporary Chinese art isn’t just about oppression and politics, Yiu adds; it’s also about beauty, optimism and symbolism—things that Western audiences aren’t used to associating with Chinese art. “Huaiqing moves beyond the shadow. He has a sense of optimism and a positive outlook. He doesn’t just want to say that he’s been victimized.”

Wang’s paintings are certainly abstract. They’re almost entirely monochromatic, with the occasional explosion of red—the only reference to Mao’s regime. With the exception of his early sketches, he avoids using people as subjects. Instead, furniture dominates: broken chairs and tables, cloaked in dark shadows, litter his paintings. Dark columns rise from clay pots and light shines through narrow doorways. What may initially seem bleak symbolizes the progress of his country, Wang says. The furniture represents China’s constant drive for progress, casting off what is old and broken; the pillars represent cherished traditions.

Wang doesn’t paint objects, he says; he paints essences, stripping away common perceptions of what things seem to be. He isn’t concerned with educating you about Chinese history, which is what makes him so different than most of his compatriots. He’d rather teach you about art.

Wang Huaiqing: A Painter’s Painter in Contemporary China is on display Nov 18-April 10, 2011 at the Seattle Asian Art Museum.

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