The monumental exhibition Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World, at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City (October 6, 2017–January 7, 2018) helped shape the American art world’s view of contemporary Chinese art. As wide a swath of artists and materials as this exhibition covered, by necessity it largely overlooked those whose practices were not recognized in the West. By this, I mean artists working for the most part in rural areas, and whose art developed out of local traditions, family legacies, or who were, in some cases, self-taught. This is why I went to Boston to see the exhibition Otherworldly Realms of Wu Junyong at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the artist’s first US museum show.
The exhibition is curated by Nancy Berliner, the Wu Tung Senior Curator of Chinese Art at the MFA, and author of Chinese Folk Art: The Small Skills of Carving Insects (1986) and The 8 Brokens: Chinese Bapo Painting (2018), which was the first book to focus on the origins of what I would characterize as Chinese trompe l’oeil painting. I cite these two books as examples of Berliner’s deep interest in aspects of Chinese art that are lesser known and celebrated in the United States. As Wu does not have a gallery in New York and seems little known in this country, Berliner’s exhibition clearly has little to do with the marketplace or art world fads.
Wu Junyong was born in 1978 in Putian, a coastal city in the Fujian Province, in southern China. The museum’s press release tell that he “grew up in a family of artisans who created sculptures and murals for local temples in their southern Chinese village.”
“Immersed in China’s folklore throughout his childhood, he became fascinated with European painting and the heroes of ancient Greek mythology after arriving in art school,” the museum adds.
He attended the Chinese Art Academy in Hangzhou, where he studied printmaking and new media. Although he has made animated films, this exhibition of 16 works focuses on his paintings on paper, with the largest ones measuring nearly 65 by 103 inches.
Paper is an unforgiving surface when a liquid medium, such as ink or watercolor, is applied to it. Working in these mediums and with pigments, Wu depicts imaginary encounters and figures. In “Lion and Tiger Contending for Hegemony” (2017), he portrays the meeting of the two creatures, of which only the tiger is native to China. The lion stands on an oil drum floating in the ocean, while the tiger, rising up on its hind legs, balances on a form that can be read as a rock or, possibly, a stripped-down section of a tree trunk. Above the lion is a rising or setting sun on the horizon.
What does the lion represent? What is the meaning of the oil drum? As these and other questions arose, I found myself fixated on the confidence of the brushstrokes. That confidence is what makes this exhibition special. Whatever the size or length, wet or dry, each of many different brushstrokes feels as if it was made without hesitation. All of them directly define an area or a phenomenon (rain, for example). That directness is what held this viewer’s attention, and invited me to look closer and begin to see the art as both a unified picture and the sum of its distinct parts. Working with pigments on large sheets of paper, Wu’s paintings are neither Western nor Asian, but a synthesis of two very different traditions, which is reflected in many of his subjects.
In the ink and acrylic on paper “Horse, Horse, Tiger, Tiger” (2018), the artist depicts the four animals in an absurd scene of inept embrace; one horse is mounting the other on the far left. The two tigers follow suit, as one mounts the second horse and is, in turn, mounted by the other tiger.
According to the wall label, the inspiration for this impossible scenario is “[t]he Chinese phrase ‘mama huhu’ [which] literally translates into English as ‘horse, horse, tiger, tiger,’ but the expression literally means ‘so, so’ or ‘not great, not awful’ in Chinese.” According to the artist, “Written characters evolved from pictures to abstracted markings. I am practicing a reverse encoding. Turning the characters back into their original shapes.” As humorous as the scene is, Wu’s reversal also suggests something about the use of idiomatic phrases. We agree on their meaning. Does that agreement lead to communication and understanding?
A group of eight black and white, ink and pigment on paper paintings, part of an ongoing project titled Five Hundred Luohan, depicts Wu’s versions of well-known figures in Chinese Buddhism. According to Buddhist writings, 18 Arthats (or Luohan) were the original followers of Guatama Buddha. These holy men followed the Noble Eightfold Path and, having achieved enlightenment, were freed of earthly cravings. The Buddhist artist and monk Guanxiu is recognized as making the first definitive depictions of the holy men. Inscribed with the date 894, Guanxiu donated these depictions to the Shengyin Temple in Qiantang (present day, Hangzhou), where they have been carefully preserved, and where Wu likely first saw them.
Wu’s figures come across as tormented as they struggle to deal with daily life. In keeping with tradition, the artist presents them as vagabonds sitting in caves. Except for “Bodhidharma” (2016–20), who is shown with a beard and wearing an Indian wraparound lungi, the figures seem unable to shed their attachment to the material world. In “Man Meditating at the Entrance to a Cave” (2016–20), a naked man — eyes closed and head angled — listens intently to his surroundings. A layer of thin white lines signify rainy and windy conditions. Different-sized ears are discernible in the cave’s rock formations. Do they point to how intently he is listening to nature? Has he become one with nature?
The wall label of “The Man Who Has Fallen Down in the Cave” (2019) informs us that the artist “made this work to honor a dear friend who had taken his own life.” In this memorializing piece, the viewer gets a sense of how contemporary Wu is in his art. As a subject, suicide is foreign to Buddhist literature and thinking, yet it is alarmingly high among certain demographic groups in China. While he is deeply connected to his upbringing in an artistic family, as well as his love and knowledge of Chinese myths, folktales, and language, his painting of an oil drum and his acknowledgment of suicide underscore his break with the past. There is nothing nostalgic about his work. Using pigment on paper, and confidently working on a large scale, he has found a way to contemplate both the personal and global convulsions of our everyday life with wit and sympathy, a rare combination in a world of posturing and conflict. Reinventing the traditional, his art is more than an eloquent rebuke of our mounting tribalism.
Otherworldly Realms of Wu Junyong continues at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, Massachusetts), through November 3. The exhibition was curated by Nancy Berliner.