By Virginia Campbell
Burnished gold fields. Flaming poplars that throw deep blue shadows. Pitched-roof barns standing flat in their warm red geometry against knolls with almost human curvature. Old, old cars that hug narrow roads whose double yellow lines disappear over the rise, moving toward some horizon which lies behind so many other bends in the highway that low-hanging, islandlike clouds with every variation of the color gray in them seem far more reachable.
What world is this? And what year? The quick answers are: America, and not 2005. Z.Z. Wei’s large oil landscapes could appeal to an eye hungry for a pre-modern, rural America, and many of the collectors who have made Wei successful over the past decade probably feel that way about them. But one of Wei’s landscapes that’s actually titled NOSTALGIA is a stark composition of simple, dark, expressionistic trees standing like a moody chorus in the distance behind an old, dark car—a particularly uncomforting image. Among many feelings this painting might arouse, nothing of a sentimental nature seems to prevail. Even if it did, the fact that Wei was born in Beijing and came to the United States only in 1989 would color one’s interpretation of his scenes of supposed “Americana.” Motivations other than the desire to provoke nostalgia are likely to prove more illuminating considerations.
The surface world of Wei’s landscapes is the countryside near his home, which overlooks Puget Sound just north of Seattle. Wei lives with his family—his wife, Hsuan Lin, and two children—in a house with a view of the water and works in a studio behind the house, amid gardens he tends himself as a favored alternative to painting. He travels up and down the coast and inland through farmland and vineyards by car, by bicycle, and by RV, taking in the natural world of the Northwest. This is the landscape that excited his imagination from the moment he first saw it. It was the point of his arrival in a new world, and a point of departure as well: on an artistic journey that, to judge from the imagery of his painting—road after road cutting through hillsides and along coasts, sweeping around curves and ribboning over successive hills—is not really about getting to a particular destination.
Having come to the United States at the invitation of the Washington State Centennial Committee for the Pacific Rim Cultural Communication Project, Wei became an artist in residence at the host college, Cornish College for the Arts in Seattle. In 1991 he became an artist in residence at Whitman College in Walla Walla. It was in that area that he began painting the Northwest landscape. “When I saw the landscape of rolling fields, it interested me immediately,” says Wei. “It was unique—different from anything I’d ever seen. I started to paint it.”
Actually, this isn’t Wei speaking. Rather than rely on his intransigently sketchy English, Wei speaks through his wife, whom he met at Whitman College. Like her husband, Lin is a native speaker of Mandarin, but unlike him she grew up in Taiwan, worlds away from mainland China no matter how geographically close. In Taiwan she was free to appreciate the long tradition of Chinese painting, which was banned from view and discussion in Communist China. In the aftermath of the Communist takeover after World War II, and in the various throes of “re-education” that the mainland population was subject to, traditional Chinese painting was regarded as an unhealthy remnant of the imperial system whose evils Mao had swept away.
The hostility the Chinese government bore toward the legacy of Chinese painting had direct and dramatic implications for Wei’s development as an artist. He is, after all, a landscape painter, and landscape painting is the greatest of all genres within Chinese art, consisting of more than 1,000 years of continuous genius in brush-and-ink painting. This was the accomplishment of a rarefied subculture of “literati,” scholar-painters who served the imperial government in professional bureaucratic posts but invested themselves ultimately in their activity as “amateur” painters.
This posture of amateurism was very much a conceit, since these scholars were exquisitely refined in sensibility and intensely educated. They were amateur in the sense that they painted only out of aesthetic motivation, not professionally for a living. In their paintings they placed a premium on an appearance of effortlessness. Blatant striving for effect or, worse, pretentious display, was contrary to their ideal. From the Tang to the Northern Sung, Southern Sung, Yuan, Ming, and Ching dynasties, the literati painters produced an unrivaled wealth of landscape masterpieces, arguably one of the greatest collective artistic achievements in the history of the world.
When Wei was born in 1957, China was on the cusp of the chaotic upheaval known as the Cultural Revolution, in which the Communists who’d taken power a dozen years ago unleashed such zealotry as the Red Guards to mount a convulsive cleansing of stubborn “imperialist” mentality. By which they meant people like Wei’s parents.
Both Wei’s father and mother were teachers within a tradition that was politically incorrect in a time and place where real peril attached to that term. His father was also a traditional brush-and-ink painter, an inheritor of the now scorned and outlawed line of literati artists. The paintings of the great literati landscape artists, officially banned, passed from one set of hands to another in the hidden culture that Wei’s father belonged to. At enormous risk to the painters and connoisseurs, the paintings were both appreciated and protected from destruction. As a boy, Wei saw the scrolls and album leaves of masters himself. “The government banned this art, but it circulated in secret, and being able to see it became all the more precious an experience,” he remembers.
Wei had demonstrated artistic ability from an early age and had learned from his father. With plenty of unsupervised time for childhood experimentation, he and a whole group of friends drew and painted in every style and manner. “For portraits,” says Wei, “we’d all get together and choose the best-looking kid in the group, and then everybody else would paint him over and over.”
With difficulty, Wei’s family survived the Cultural Revolution. In 1984 he was admitted to the painting department of the prestigious Central Institute of Arts and Design, which was, according to Wei, “a school that offered both new information and new ideas.” To a priceless background in Chinese painting, Wei added a broad education in the history and technique of Western art: The first Western master to make a permanent impression on his consciousness as a child had been Michelangelo, and now he was schooled in a whole range of contemporary styles and techniques.
Big, heavy, curvaceous automobiles that look to be vintage 1930s cars are an important motif in Wei’s landscapes. They appear chugging along country roads, dragging or sometimes pushing their lengthy shadows, poised right at the end of the viewer’s nose in the foreground or soldiering on in the middle ground with palpable fortitude. One suspects the artist loves the cars for their anthropomorphic qualities. They have so little to do with any notion of speed that they have, in fact, no wheels. Wei paints these cartoony vehicles without even bumpers—they seem to emerge out of the ground and to be almost part of the road itself. And they don’t seem to need drivers.
The puffy clouds that float over them are another motif. They travel in the wind like exemplary tourists, oblivious to the idea of destination, casting their mobile shadows on ploughed fields and across the yellow lines that lead who knows where.
Wei composes his paintings out of these and other evocative motifs, a carefully chosen, limited repertoire that’s proven surprisingly rich and variable. The deliberate simplicity of the individual motifs and of the repertoire as a whole makes the permutations Wei orchestrates with them all the more interesting. Even with his distinctively autumnal palette—he favors golds, deep reds, blues, and browns over green and seeks opportunities for deeper hues—his compositions feel unusually fresh and animated.
It has been noted that Wei has a fondness for the great American painter Edward Hopper, and it’s easy to see an affinity. The period look, the northern latitude shadows, the solidity of the landscape. But the period Hopper was painting was his own, while Wei, in painting landscapes that show no signs of the late 20th or early 21st century, is opting for a timelessness that leaves his paintings free to carry a poetry of inner landscape as much as any reference to the world at large.
“It is always the inner life of the artist having a dialogue with the outer world,” he says. In this he is the heir of Chinese landscape painters from way back. Not that any Western landscapist would have failed to understand the process of painting as such a dialogue, but the ancient Chinese landscapists invented a visual language of unparalleled depth, using a medium that allowed for an unusually direct expression and far more consciously focused on the dialogue. This made for an art that had as much to say about internal, spiritual states as it did about the natural world.
Wei particularly likes the American painters of the first half of the 20th century, not just Hopper and other accepted geniuses like Fairfield Porter, but the many lesser-known painters whose levels of talent and inspiration impress him. This isn’t all that surprising, since Asian landscape art affected these painters, both directly and indirectly through European influences, to the point that any of them could have said what Wei says of his approach to landscape: “I paint from the heart. I follow the flow.” Even hard-core plein-air painters—and Wei is decidedly not a plein-air painter, composing as he does from his imagination with the help of small study sketches of natural effects he’s done on the road—would subscribe to that sentiment.
Wei dislikes the partitioning of art into schools. As Franz Kline’s monumental black-and-white paintings demonstrated, Chinese ink painting was abstract expressionism centuries before the term was coined. It was also, and at the same time, realistic, with more of a reverence for than an obsession with the surfaces of the natural world. In all these tendencies, the quality of brushwork, so visible on the all-revealing weave of silk, was preeminent. That’s why, in the final anaysis, Wei’s paintings look so distinctive. Painting as he does in oil, his brush strokes are different from those of a brush-and-ink artist. But in the large, solid-looking volumes of his compositions, you can home in on whirling textures and swooping, energetic gestures that give everything a hushed vibrancy and lend life-force to the most sullen skies.
You can, of course, enjoy Wei’s work without ever having seen Chinese painting. As someone born and raised in difficult circumstances far from the United States who is now raising a family in the Northwest and painting the landscape he shares with them, he is living a quintessentially American story. Nevertheless, the ethos of “amateurism” that the Chinese literati painters adhered to is irresistibly handy in a discussion of his work. Unlike his ancestors, perhaps, Wei makes his living as a painter, but his work shows the love of deceptive simplicity and unpretentious virtuosity that the literati painters prized.
From this point of view, one of his most rewarding paintings is the grand landscape titled THE MIGHTY COASTline, in which an old-fashioned Air Stream trailer perches at the very bottom of the canvas, the details of its construction reduced to a spare tire and tail lights while vivid brushwork gives it a liveliness allied to that of the natural wonders winding out before it along a coast road whose twists and turns it is going to be traversing. In the total picture is a balance that is as real and mysterious as that in nature. This is the artist’s journey, at once humble and compelling, but it is also an invitation.
Wei is represented by Patricia Rovzar Gallery, Kirkland, WA; Jenkins Johnson Gallery, San Francisco, CA; Attic Gallery, Portland, OR; and Buschlen Mowatt Galleries, Vancouver, BC.
Featured in January 2005