Wang Xiaosong Colour as battle zone
Beate Reifenscheid

Post in: Unruly Ants | July, 2012

“Kneading clay, one forms vessels. Yet it is only their hollowness, their nothingness, that allows one to fill them … The visible, the existent, provides the work with form. The invisible, nothingness, provides the work with essence and purpose.” (Lao Tzu, Chapter 11)

Essentially, nothing could seem more harmless than a painted canvas covered with colour. However, one colour is not the same as the next, and their expression need not be gentle and sweet. Or, to put it more pointedly, colour can convey aggressiveness and can provoke – regardless of the peaceful value often attributed to it.

In Wang Xiaosong’s work, colour behaves in a complex manner: it does not immediately explain itself in strictly unambiguous terms. Standing in front of his paintings, it is entirely impossible to draw any immediate conclusions about their content or iconographical references – in a word, about all that which is subsumed within them and which, upon a more precise analysis, is able to emerge from them. Reminiscences of figurative elements only occasionally emerge in his largely abstract works; somewhat more common are references to geometric formations, cubes and cuboids, or sometimes more biomorphic figures, which seem to develop a life of their own. Within the continuum of colours – and especially because of these colours’ thoroughly material application to the entire surface of the painting – the geometric forms sometimes suggest alien elements, something that has broken in upon a pre-existing whole. They generate an antipode that builds up and tenaciously preserves its charge. When surveying Wang Xiaosong’s oeuvre, it quickly becomes apparent that his work is frequently based on this form of disruption and irritation. Continua are repeatedly broken up, apparently without warning: that of the thickly applied paint with its restless texture, that of the surface of the canvas or of the picture’s support, or ‘only’ that of our thoughts, which had just settled down into comfortably familiar terrain –only to spring up again with a start.

Indubitably, however, the paint is itself an essential element of his art, the source of everything else. The artist expresses himself most completely in the paint itself – more so than through any other material. It thus becomes the most significant vehicle for his pictorial statement – also relative to the format and texture of the painting. Even in the early works, in which plainly narrative elements – such as furniture, ladders, and figures – can be seen, the situation is not substantially different. In the 1990s, while studying in Berlin, he was already conceiving of and applying colour in terms of a solid mass. In both the Western and Asian traditions, colour is initially perceived in terms of its visual appeal and, through its specific qualities, as an emotional value as well. It is colour that immediately produces the first impression, instantly determines the outward effect of a painting – even before it has had the opportunity to share information by means of the further levels of the image and iconic references.18 However, once the initial basic mood has been defined by qualities of colour, this basis need not remain unaltered. Rather, any sustained reception of a work makes it clear that colour and form, but also different colours, often exist in a state of contradiction, which perpetuates itself in the form of optic and psychic vibrations. This is a quality which is anchored within the concept of Wang Xiaosong’s work and which clearly distinguishes him from his Asian colleagues. He uses paint as an instrument that produces the corporeality of his works while also encompassing the spiritual entity of the given pictorial statement.

Essentially, this occurs in two ways that are closely interrelated and mutually dependent upon one another.

In the work of Wang Xiaosong, applying colour in terms of a mass does not simply mean to delight in an unrestrained assault on his material. While it is true that he repeatedly becomes intoxicated with the thickly applied paint and its glossy surface, this goes beyond the haptic aspect and also encompasses the handling of the paint itself, which is suggestive of an obsession. The picture plane is peopled by absurd, small mounds of paint recalling thousands of colourful worms. Seen at a distance, they melt into a homogeneous surface; if the viewer approaches more closely, however, the dominant impression becomes that of their wandering about in isolation. The association soon arises of hordes of human bodies turning towards an imaginary destination – even if they themselves may not be aware of that destination.

In an interview with Ma Yan on 14 April 2009, Wang Xiaosong very emphatically asserts this context of materiality and corporeality by explaining: “I have been engaged in a longterm training of making pure material and purifying my soul. This is also a kind of development in perseverance. … Every stroke is full of my conscious control. But it is very pure. It is easy to follow the trace of each stroke.”19 Looking at the countless agglomerations of paint, lined up in narrow rows and pursuing their imaginary destination, it is easy to imagine that the conscious act of the brushstrokes finally transforms into a meditative, rhythmic application of paint, uniting both the calm and focus of a concentration directed within. Strength, rhythm, force, and – simultaneously – gentleness culminate in the reworking of the picture plane, intensified again and again.
An artwork is always a process, but in the work of Wang Xiaosong, this process is born out of a sequence of actions, first the canvas is primed and then the paint applied as a thick paste, built up as a mass, and then – as though through an act of hesitation or destruction – also scraped away again. The extensive scraping away of the paint is somehow related to a fundamental concept of erasure as related to something that must not be permitted to become significant or to be granted any emphasis. This elimination of paint may be said to occur within the space of a single breath, which returns something to the fore that seems to have been present from the beginning, but was almost completely concealed behind the haptic experience of the masses of paint. Now, however, through the exposing, the divesting and stripping of the pictorial support of its uppermost layer of skin – its painterly epidermis – this internal material emerges like an essential substance. The artist, like the viewer, penetrates into the innermost soul of the work, which has been dissected to free it from all outward aspects. Still, even at this point, Wang Xiaosong does not stop, but once again causes new structures to appear, built up upon the canvas that had only just been exposed: brushstroke alongside brushstroke, colour module alongside colour module. Here it does not necessarily play a role whether these again take the form of the voluptuous masses of paint that – sometimes aimlessly but sometimes purposefully – follow their course or, instead, the form of a fine net stretching across the picture plane. Both formations establish a pattern that stretches across the body of the image and forms a system that produces cohesion. To this extent, the system operating here combines elements – mutually contradictory and mutually dependent – of openness and closure and of interrelated forms integrated within a precise “all-over” network and the potential for this network to break apart without warning.

This scraping open, exposing, covering, and causing to become overgrown – these are all symbols within the visual idiom of Wang Xiaosong and permit at least two levels of interpretation. The first of these is the level of the body, that is, Wang Xiaosong sees the painting lying directly before him as a human body whose nakedness is to be covered and whose wounds are worthy of an exhaustive investigation, after which they will finally regenerate themselves in a healing process. Wang Xiaosong has expressed himself precisely on this point: "I liked scraping most. Many of my works were the results of scraping. To me, the works are tracks, representing the restless heart. It is no explanation. For example, if there is a hole in a desk, many people would reach their fingers into the hole to explore. This is my concept of painting."20 If the picture plane becomes a projection of the corporeal and, under this surface, something like its innermost parts can be laid bare, then the numerous holes and openings may certainly also to be interpreted as wounds. It is the tear in the flesh, the open wound, that permits viewers to physically force their way into the works – Wang Xiaosong thus articulates something entirely distinct from that which Lucio Fontana, for example, has investigated by way of experiment. The slits and openings in Fontana’s canvasses imply something liberating; in the most genuine sense, they extend space and break the spell of the supposed inviolability of the planimetric picture plane. Wang Xiaosong’s works emphasize different aspects. Some of the works truly do only develop a double-layered and also extremely haptic surface texture; in other works, pictorial spaces are partially opened up and their surroundings typically display a darker colour or, through a deep red, directly suggest blood.

Wang Xiaosong Colour

In my opinion, this form of the corporeality of the painting has no precedent in the Chinese tradition. The tendencies appearing here are much more closely linked to a Western conception of painting, particularly when we think of painted space in the spirit of Laslo Lackner, Emil Schumacher, or – in an entirely different sense – Gotthard Graubner, or when we accept corporeality as a fundamental concept within Christian iconography. Artists such as Hermann Nitsch, Arnulf Rainer, and Michael Morgner have explored the vulnerability of the human being and, in this context, have also presented the external, manifest signs of physical entities’ injury or destruction as a symbol of emotional and psychic injury. What becomes apparent in these paintings is a merging of both cultures – the Chinese and the European. It is surely correct to attribute a greater influence to Chinese art in terms of the use of colour and the various specific narratives used in the individual motifs. However, Wang Xiaosong still seems to be firmly anchored within a European perspective in respect to the manner in which paint is applied as a mass and in which – behind all of the shimmering agglomerations of paint – injuries and areas containing gaping wounds appear. The references are too direct, too corporeal in their emphasis. Not everything is defined by pain – it is much more the case that the images grow out of this pain.

In addition to the considerable fascination of the visual sensation provided by Wang Xiaosong’s brilliant and dynamic surfaces, the pioneering spirit’s desire to explore, and the sensual penetration of the picture planes, a further dimension appears in his work – one that permits them to be read in terms of a reflection upon the state of Chinese society. Here, the innumerable dashes of paint become synonymous with the human being, who, in China, appears only as a part of an enormous crowd. Here, the openings in the painting’s surface become the wounds inflicted upon an entire people or those experienced by the individual confronted by the masses. In particular, Wang Xiaosong’s film Title?, conceived and realized by the artist to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests, reveals that such a dimension plays a role.

In this special sense, colour does not play a primarily visual role in Wang Xiaosong’s work, but proves to be a medium for fundamental themes of a psychic, social, and sometimes also political nature, which manifest themselves almost solely by means of colour, its materiality, and its application. And it is thoroughly important to the artist that his work incorporates this existential sense. No day goes by that he is not in a state of conflict with himself or that he fails to question himself. The demand that he makes upon himself here is well chosen – as in all of his works, Wang Xiaosong seems to place particular importance upon the principle of harmony. The one cannot exist without the other – even conflict involves repeated phases of calm – and here it is the colours themselves that most plainly mediate the tension immanent within the paintings. The ‘painting up’ and the ‘exposure’ as well as the renewed painting over develop into a process-based approach that is not only fascinating, but simultaneously of an existential and highly emotional nature. Wang Xiaosong is always in pursuit of this concept of inner concentration, which enables him to sublimate everything that is all too narrative or figurative into abstraction – thus, the inner nature of the painting and the existence of its outward appearance are interdependent. Both serve him as mirrors of the outside world, of the experience of a world full of tensions and internal strife, full of social and political danger zones that threaten to overwhelm the individual. For him, the abstract artist and performer, painting becomes a critical proclamation of defiance.

However, as mentioned at the outset, Wang Xiaosong’s challenge often involves a return to the Chinese tradition. The achievement of absolute emptiness in Buddhist meditative practice hints at the scope of still-unrealized potential. Only within this emptiness, born of a highly concentrated wakefulness, can the view from the outside into the inside develop. It purifies our gaze and provides us with distance – a detachment that can sometimes soothe and reconcile.