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Wang Huangsheng: Exploring Mystery

Philip Tinari(The Director of Ullens Center for Contemporary Art )
Wang Huangsheng falls in the great tradition of literati painters who have wielded the brush and occupied high office, whose medium is both ink on paper and civil service, whose contribution is at once artistic and institutional. Any discussion of his work must begin here: in Wang Huangsheng we have not simply an accomplished and sensitive creator of new work, but perhaps the most original and influential thinker China has yet to produce on how art works might be compellingly presented to a broader audience. His years at the Guangdong Museum of Art, followed by those at the CAFA Museum, are a model of how art institutions inside the Chinese state system can cultivate broad audiences, and lead them toward a deeper understanding and appreciation of the art of their time. He is a believer in the power of aesthetic experience to transform outlooks and ultimately lives. It is thus remarkable, if not entirely surprising, that he has managed, in the course of the trying demands of institutional life, to evolve so thoroughly and completely as an artist. And indeed Wang’s art practice, which he has pursued throughout his life, has in recent years reached new and unprecedented levels of achievement, making a distinctive contribution to the longstanding and ongoing conversation around ink, brush, and the magic of the encounter between them.
The title of the exhibition, “Garden of Mystery,” speaks to a realm of interwoven complexity. In Chinese, it refers more explicitly to the maze-like formal structure of his works, and to their setting in this important courtyard of the Suzhou Museum—itself one of the Chinese institutions that can claim and ambition and a public spirit comparable to those Wang has directed. But more than anything, this title is a statement of how Wang sees the world. “Art is a mystery, life is a mystery, the relations among people are a mystery,” he has remarked. But this “mystery” is not the sort that presents a question which cannot be answered—it is rather the sort that implies a complex and interlocking series of connections. Indeed Wang’s own artistic achievement is a “mystery,” growing out of an early interest in and commitment to the particular experimental possibilities offered by the most fundamental of all Chinese painterly disciplines, ink. As a lifelong practitioner of painting, he has journeyed over many years toward the uniquely specific form of abstraction that has by now become his signature. His distinctive formal vocabulary and syntax, which takes the shape of interlocking, overlayered, rounded swirls, is at once metaphorical and non-representational. Looking at his works, we are lost in forests of seemingly endless lines that fold in on themselves with a complexity that opens, upon sustained viewing, into a topography of traces. This surfaces are Wang’s “Garden of Mystery,” in which nothing is quite what it seems, relations cannot be traced as simple progressions from A to B, and the joy is to be found in the wandering moments in between.
In recent years, Wang Huangsheng has experimented not only with the gestural aspects of painting these lines but with the fields on which they reside. One particularly impressive new piece for this exhibition, “Plicated Field," unfolds across a collage of current newspapers, transforming the most everyday and temporally specific of objects into the carrier of a transcendent mark. The relationship in this work between composition and support sets up an unstable equivalence: Wang’s swirling lines encompass and subsume a randomly laid out mash up of newspapers, as if mapping possible connections among the bursts of reportage beneath. Such connections surely exist, albeit certainly not in a one-to-one relationship with the marks they now bear on their surface. Going a level deeper, we might also think of the news and advertisements themselves as unstable marks made on blank paper, the expression of some unspoken collective will. In this context the interactions among these different registers of representation becomes a way of thinking about our own complicated position in a space, a society, and ultimately a history.
Elsewhere in the exhibition, Wang’s spiralling marks assume a new material form in cloudlike sculptures where the alacrity of ink is traded for the ferocity of razor wire. Sublimated from flat pictorial space into deep sculptural space, the marks lose none of their charm, instead positing another answer to the ongoing artistic conversation about the relationship between two and three dimensional composition. This massive sculptural presence is more than an object in its own right—it transforms the context of this ancient hall into a space where Wang’s paintings can exist, not in the straightforward relationship of the contemporary to the traditional, but in a dynamic spatial, historical, and aesthetic equilibrium whose parameters and contents are both determined by his unique painterly sensibility.
Welcome then to Wang Huangsheng’s Garden of Mystery. Please do yourself the favor of getting lost. Explore the lines in regressing, rounded paths until they circle back on the place where they started. Find in them a testament to a life of thoughtful action, and a proposition for how we might be in a world of infinite confusion. Or as T.S. Eliot wrote, “We shall not cease from exploration, and at the end of all this exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
Philip Tinari