The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Dystopian Vistas: the art of Wang Zhibo

Wang Zhibo, 'Springs II', oil on canvas, image courtesy of Edouard Malingue Gallery Hong Kong
Q: When are landscape paintings featuring those traditional Chinese elements of rocks and water part of a rather bleak and dystopian vision? 
A: When they appear in the work of Wang Zhibo, an emerging artist about to burst onto the international art scene with a solo exhibition at the Armory Show in New York next month following a show at Edouard Malingue Gallery in Hong Kong.

Her work has previously been shown at the Chongqing Art Museum, the Today Art Museum in Beijing, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Taipei. She is certainly a painter worth watching, and her vision is original and compelling.

Graduating in 2008 from the China Academy of Art Oil Painting Department in Hangzhou, Wang Zhibo works in a highly academic style to represent a slightly disturbing vision of the landscape of modern China. Parks, fountains, trees and garden vistas - all are such distinctly traditional elements of Chinese literati painting. In these works, however, the trees and rocks possess an appearance of unreality, as if they are part of a landscape designed by a computer program for a property developer. Beautifully painted, with great control of her palette and her medium, she makes us see the world around us in different ways. Skies are murky, and the light so ambiguous that one cannot tell if it is day or night. Adding to the surreal ambience, these landscapes include palm trees, fences and balustrades, emphasising the sense of artificiality. This is a constructed world.
Wang Zhibo, Green Fault, oil on canvas, 157 x 180, image courtesy Edouard Malingue Gallery
Wang Zhibo, 'We Just Love the Beauty', oil on canvas, 96 x  80, image courtesy Edouard Malingue Gallery Hong Kong

Her unpeopled vistas evoke the grandiose hotel lobbies and shopping mall interiors being built in Chinese cities - reminding me of the advertising hoarding for the 'Soluxe Winterless Hotel' that I saw from a Beijing taxi, on a bitterly cold grey-sky day in December. I had visions of that unseen hotel interior as a kind of Las Vegas wonderland. Wang's paintings perhaps even suggest the bizarre copies of European architecture which abound in China, simulacra of French chateaux, English thatched cottages or Tyrolean villages. Constructed with alarming speed by speculative developers they are often utterly deserted - ghost cities. In a similar way Wang Zhibo's  interior spaces, cool, detached and lacking affect, strike me as sinister places where awful things might be just about to happen.

Her exhibition is entitled 'Standing Wave' in reference to the still moment when two waves of equal but opposite forces meet. The awkward artificiality of the parks and interior spaces that she represents reveals a similar paradox. They are places designed for people to gather and meet, but they are empty, deserted, like de Chirico's Turin or Jeffrey Smart's Italian suburbs. The stillness has a dreadful quality of foreboding. Even the water in the fountains seems to have slowed to a stop.

There is no comfortable Chinoiserie here. Wang's paintings represent the landscape within which most of the world's city dwellers are forced to live - an international language of the built environment which replaces the idiosyncratic, messy and authentic with the fake, manicured and simulated. Her paintings make us face an uncomfortable truth.

Wang Zhibo, 'Red Bug', 2012, oil on canvas,130 x 92
Image courtesy of Edouard Malingue Gallery