The retrospective comments on China’s intellectual and cultural history, drawing on history as much as autobiography.

Art Radar profiles the Chinese artist, whose 40-painting survey at the UCCA in Beijing runs until 27 May 2016.

Wang Yin, 'Northwest', 2015, oil on canvas, 300 x 400 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Ullens Center for Contemporary Art.

Wang Yin, ‘Northwest’, 2015, oil on canvas, 300 x 400 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Ullens Center for Contemporary Art.

The gift of oil painting

The influences of Chinese painter Wang Yin (b. 1964, Jinan) include a number of China’s early 20th century oil painters, namely Xu Beihong (1895-1953), Pan Yuliang (1895-1977), Yan Wenliang (1893-1988), Ni Yide (1901-1970) and Wu Dayu (1903-1988). Oil painting, newly introduced from the West at the time, was a radical departure from traditional Chinese art, and for Wang the works of these masters exude an “appealing simplicity owing to the strangeness and novelty of the medium at the time”. The UCCA press release for “The Gift” explains:

For Wang Yin, the idea of the “gift” is an allegory of the introduction of “oil painting” from the West to China, a process that has spanned nearly a century, and coincides directly with the period during which China has arrived at its own forms of modernity and postmodernity.

Wang Yin, 'Painting No. 2', 2014, oil on canvas, 180 x 125 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Ullens Center for Contemporary Art.

Wang Yin, ‘Painting No. 2’, 2014, oil on canvas, 180 x 125 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Ullens Center for Contemporary Art.

While Wang’s own works evoke the quiet simplicity of that of his predecessors, the gentle colours and docile purity belie a shrewd commentary on modern Chinese discourse. Combining childhood memories with Cold War symbols, his paintings appropriate ideological motifs in service of a probing deconstruction of iconography. In Father No.1 (2010), for example, Wang depicts two figures of Tibetan ethnic minority. As the exhibition press release explains, visual representations of ethnic minorities are important symbols in the ideological discourse at the time, and Wang “repeats this motif in an anachronistic setting”.

For Wang, the introduction of oil painting in China “serves as a record of the emergence of China’s modernity”. Untitled (2010) is simultaneously a nod to Xu Beihong’s Female Nude from the 1930s and a reflection on the reciprocal artistic influences between the East and the West. The mangoes, a “short-lived fetish object in Cultural Revolution iconography”, reference larger sociopolitical discourses in an intimate, domestic manner – a strategy that follows Wang throughout his oeuvre.

Wang Yin, 'Untitled', 2010, oil on canvas, 70 x 120 cm, Image courtesy the artist and Ullens Center for Contemporary Art.

Wang Yin, ‘Untitled’, 2010, oil on canvas, 70 x 120 cm, Image courtesy the artist and Ullens Center for Contemporary Art.

Poetry in the everyday

Populating Wang’s canvases are characters engaged in everyday actions: “repairing shoes, picking up trash, riding bicycles, walking, talking”. In these paintings, in place of action and drama is the encounter between subject and viewer. Notably, Wang does not depict the facial features of his subjects. In a short interview in Beijing Today Wang once said:

[I hope to express through my work the] daily life of individuals. But an individual has many faces whether busy with work, daily tasks or leisure. […] Rather than focus on the details of facial expression I would prefer to show what my figures are doing.

Wang Yin, 'Northeast', 2015, oil on canvas, 200 x 285 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Ullens Center for Contemporary Art.

Wang Yin, ‘Northeast’, 2015, oil on canvas, 200 x 285 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Ullens Center for Contemporary Art.

There is a poignant poetry in these mundane scenes, which radiate an arresting, profound integrity. As a student Wang studied at Central Academy of Drama, and during his time there he was exposed to the radical plays of Polish dramatist Jerzy Grotowski and Irish author Samuel Beckett. The press release explains:

[Wang’s]fixation on characters on the lowest rungs of society and the omnipresent feeling of solitude in his work evokes the plays of Samuel Beckett. In line with Grotowski’s idea of reducing theater to the immediacy of interaction between performer and viewer, Wang Yin tries to explore the oil painting’s purest modes of expression amidst “an age of machine copying,” and harness the dramatic power inherent in the interaction between this medium and those who view it.

Wang Yin, 'Barefoot Painter', 2013, oil on canvas, 155 x 105 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Ullens Center for Contemporary Art.

Wang Yin, ‘Barefoot Painter’, 2013, oil on canvas, 155 x 105 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Ullens Center for Contemporary Art.

Journey and reciprocation

The emotional resonance in Wang’s paintings stem from the insertion of his personal experience into the conversation of the intellectual and cultural milieu. His visual language is defined by both tradition and subversion, creating a shift in vision and perspective that ignites layers of meaning and artistic engagement. Viewers are transported into a journey with the artist – one that reaches into the rivers of time itself. The press release puts it thus:

[…] the flow of time slows down and stops in such mundane moments. Stripped of superfluous temporal context, they hint at the untouchable eternity beneath.

Wang Yin, 'Father No. 1', 2010, oil on canvas, 60 x 48 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Ullens Center for Contemporary Art.

Wang Yin, ‘Father No. 1’, 2010, oil on canvas, 60 x 48 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Ullens Center for Contemporary Art.

Such a journey in time evokes the universal. In acknowledging the century-long legacy of Western oil painting in China, Wang inadvertently makes a case for a reciprocal relationship. For Wang, art is a “journey of exploration of the self, and his works are his way of reciprocating the “gift” that is for him the medium of oil painting”, according to the exhibition press release. Blouin Artinfo further explains:

For Wang, the “gift” in the exhibition title is an acknowledgment of the complex legacy bequeathed to China by the introduction of the foreign artistic medium of oil painting, and the mutual obligations surrounding the reciprocal relationship of China to the West, as adumbrated by Marcel Mauss in his 1925 treatise of the same name.

Michele Chan

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Related Topics: Chinese artists, paintings, oil, museum shows, artist profiles, events in Beijing

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Brittney

By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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