Resisting the Everyday—Interpreting He Wenjue’s Artworks

author :

Source :  Original 

Resisting the Everyday—Interpreting He Wenjue’s Artworks

In the field of Chinese contemporary art, He Wenjue is widely known for his three oil painting series Water, Watching Movies and Everyday Images. Among them, Water is his first series. Looking at this series now, it still contains powerful individual experiences within a social context. Azure blue and dark green are colors commonly seen in traditional Chinese painting. If we take a close look at this series, we see that in most of the paintings, the people’s heads are submerged in the water. To be precise, the entire body is engulfed in the water. The flailing of their limbs whips up foam on the water’s surface, the contorted bodies causes ripples, but the head is still emerged. This is a portrait of “burying one’s head in the effort,” and when combined with the blue or green tone, it gives a suffocating sense of pressure. This is a true portrait of society in real life. To take this further, it is a true portrait of people struggling in society. Truly, when fighting one’s way upstream, one can only press forward or be swept back by the current. We can only put our heads down and press on. This is clearly connected to the artist’s own life experience, and this genuine experience of existence doubtlessly represents the artist’s individual lot at the time.

Moving on to the Watching Movies series, He Wenjue successfully applied his depiction techniques from the Water series to the expression of images from films, creating a hazy painted effect. It appears that he is approaching these film stills through a soft focus lens, making the people and scenes unclear. We can only grasp their outlines, making for a visual effect somewhere between truth and illusion.

As the most powerful means of image production to emerge since the birth of modernism, film transcends painting and photography with its multiple dimensions, providing an unprecedented sensory experience and visual sensation. Moreover, it has become an important component of popular culture through an industrialized production model, giving it broad dominion over the viewing experiences and habits of the people. French historical Paul Delaroche once shocked all of Paris at the Salon Exhibition of 1831 with his painting Charles I Insulted by Cromwell’s Soldiers. Today, it seems that only Hollywood commercial films can produce such an effect. This demonstrates the powerful influence of film over the masses in its ability to unify thinking and visual experience.

The extraction of various film stills provides the possibility of resisting against this monolithic thinking and visual experience in popular culture. As for the dramatic context of each film, these stills all serve as connectors in the frameworks of these films, and have been bestowed with different meanings, playing different roles. But once these “frames” have been extracted from the text by the artist, they have lost their theatrical effect, becoming components of the painter’s series. Through this method, these film stills have been stripped of all their original textual meaning to become pure images, unified within the artist’s serial creative logic as they are presented to the viewer. As these “frames” of cinematic text are transformed into “paintings,” they come to serve as pure carriers for the expressive beauty of painting. Here, the artist turns the tables on the enemy, using the logic of artistic creation to assimilate and unify the textual contents and visual effects of different films. In everyday life, these commercial films are assimilating and unifying the visual experiences and modes of thinking of the masses. He Wenjue has provided a symptomatic viewing method, while effortlessly transforming films into a rarefied form of painting, thus dissolving the everyday viewing habits of the masses.

The inner logic of the shift from Watching Movies on to Everyday Images was completely natural. If, in the previous series, He Wenjue approaches the rethinking of the everyday from that marker of popular culture that is film, then in Everyday Images, the artist has expanded this rethinking and resistance to the broader social level and the common experience of life.

In Everyday Images, we see every facet of society. There are different people, from athletes, farmers, doctors, tourists, monks, travelers, businessmen and infants to characters in films. There are also different types of scenery, from the local to the exotic, from indoor clamor to outdoor desolation, busy scenes, relaxed scenes, natural scenes, artificial scenes and movie scenes. Together, these people and scenes are things we see everywhere in our daily lives, sensory experiences that are always within reach. These themes intentionally establish distance from the narrative content of the macroscopic level, successfully escaping from the sense of estrangement and oppression of the grand narrative, giving the works a timeless living character that manifests as a series of rich portraits of life.

But is this prosaic, innocent atmosphere a true portrait of the real world? The answer is probably no. As described above, Everyday Images establishes distance from the grand narrative, but at the same time, it also establishes distance from those invisible, toiling, dirty, downtrodden people and things at the bottom of society. These things have been suspended in an uncertain position, or perhaps placed in a space for further interpretation of the paintings, waiting for the viewers to absorb and ponder. These “everyday images” are positive images built on a foundation of commercial society, popular culture and modern life, creating a beautiful everyday life. He Wenjue has used his trademark “soft focus lens” effect on these paintings, turning this beautiful everyday into an unstable existence. This unique method is enough to call to our attention that this sweet, prosperous life is only the everyday spectacle, while there are many uncertain things waiting to be revealed, discovered, and more importantly, resolved. This strike at everyday life bestows Everyday Images with cultural significance that goes far beyond the everyday.

He Wenjue's last step in creating a painting is to apply blur. The scraping, which creates a “soft focus lens” effect, is both an aesthetic formal pursuit and a creative ritual that serves as that “final stroke,” like the curtain coming down at the end of a play. As Bertolt Brecht saw it, the “fall of the curtain” is itself a formation of the distancing effect, aimed at drawing the audience from their immersion in the dramatic illusion back to reality. Here, that scraping “final stroke” becomes a metaphor for the fall of the curtain, marking the artist’s completion of the artwork while announcing that the everyday of reality is not so clear or beautiful as the unscraped painting. If the beautiful image of the unscraped painting is the accustomed vision and preferred utopia of the viewer, then this delicate contrarian formal action brings the blurriness, instability, intangibility and confusion of the real world back in front of the eyes of the viewer, destroying their efforts to grasp the world around them. That once clear surface has been ruthlessly scraped and pressed down to the bottom of the canvas to become a formally powerful pile of oil colors.

On the other hand, this is not a purely formal act. The artist has not treated these clumps of sunken scraped oils as garbage to be removed, but instead used them to form a powerful contrast with the smooth, glossy surface of the rest of the painting. The artist retains these clumps of paint to stimulate the eye and provoke the mind. Just take a look. The “truth” of the common man’s everyday observations, the accustomed visual experiences of the masses, the beautiful things in everyday life, all have been scraped up in these clumps of paint, turned into “garbage” to be discarded and recycled in the painting. On one hand, the artist has made the emotional expression of bestowing this “garbage” with a sense of artistic form, giving it recycling value. On the other hand, this pile of oil paint is the only inch in which the common masses can intervene and exist within He Wenjue’s painting, marking the separate coexistence between the artist and mere commoners. In this “rubbish” bestowed by the artist with “re-use value,” we seem to be able to discern a dialogue between elite discourse and mass culture, a dialogue between the artist’s views on natural talent and common aesthetic conventions, as well as the artist’s uncompromising stance towards everyday experience.

From Water to Watching Movies and on to Everyday Images, He Wenjue’s art is filled with individual traits, revealing an almost imperceptible yet thriving outlook on life. The Water series reflects the artist’s affirmation of the struggles of the individual deluged by the social environment, a struggle between one’s existential predicament and the social environment. Watching Movies expanded from concern for the individual to concern for groups, encouraging the literati perspective and popular culture. Everyday Images expands even further, from empathy for the group to doubts about the overall social experience. Throughout all these works, we find the artist’s relentless criticism of the self-contented vulgar life, as well as his struggle to move above it. To be precise, this resistance is not mere rethinking of the “everyday,” but a transcendence of it.



Shi Guanzhe

October 19, 2014

Nanhu East Park, Beijing