Jian Wang | Driving Force

Jian Wang, Contemporary/modern, Oil

By Virginia Campbell

Chinese-born Sacramento artist Jian Wang speaks an imperfect but highly effective English and is given to saying direct, often entertaining things like: “In art I believe quantity is as important as quality.” Because Wang backs up that statement with such examples as Picasso, who, he points out, left behind in his own studio some 60,000 pieces of work in addition to everything already in other hands, the statement is not overtly radical. But it runs counter to the way most people think about art. After all, we are not talking about “product” here, inasmuch as an artist does not “produce,” but rather “creates.” Notions of the quantity or the variety of an artist’s oeuvre seem slightly irrelevant and/or inappropriate. Not to Wang, however. The “work” part in the phrase “works of art” is essential to him. “I’ve worked so hard,” he says, “I’ve developed carpal tunnel syndrome.”

Closely allied to the importance of quantity and quality of work in Wang’s view is versatility. “If I only thought of sales,” he explains, “I might specialize. But I believe in the artist as a Renaissance man, a total package. If you look at history, capable artists can do any subject. Sargent, Degas—they could do figures, still life, landscape. Degas did bronze sculpture, and even though his critics had a horrible time with them, he kept doing them.” Wang himself does bronze sculpture, too, perhaps specifically because Degas did. But the variety of his two-dimensional work alone—in genre, medium, and scale—is notable enough. And the truth is that the energy level suggested by the sheer quantity and versatility of Wang’s work is visible in each individual piece, and is, in fact, the very key to its character and quality.

Southwest ArtWang’s figures and portraits are painted in big, bold, paint-rich brush strokes that defy the stillness of the genre and exceed the normal scale of life. “I don’t know when a brush stroke is right,” Wang admits, “but I do know when one is wrong.” His still lifes depict simple objects (“I prefer painting watermelons to flowers,” he offers) that play up the tactile quality of the paint at least as much as the things painted. His landscapes of inherently peaceful terrain seethe and twist as if reeling with emotion. In his page-size pen, ink, and charcoal drawings, the lines radiating around the contours of a figure are more beautiful and compelling than the lines that are more directly defining the form. The energy of the artist’s mind, hand, and imagination comes through like a pulse under the “fingertip” of the viewer’s eye.

“The process of painting, the power of making, is what interests me,” Wang comments. “I like the aggressiveness of making things, the struggle. When I begin to get too comfortable in one medium, I switch to another. I’m not comfortable till I’m uncomfortable. When I pick subjects, I don’t need to worry about the subject overcoming the process itself.”

This zest for the creative fray has served Wang well, not just in his artistic career but in his life as a whole. All artists lead unusual lives by definition, but even by the odd standards of artistic life Wang’s biography is extraordinary. He was born in 1958, on the cusp of the Cultural Revolution, in China’s Dalian, a cataclysmically historic northeastern city surpassed in Westernization only by Shanghai and Hong Kong. For the latter part of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th it was occupied by foreign powers, first Russia and then, even more brutally, imperial Japan.

Southwest ArtBorn into a family that had farmed for generations, Wang grew up in the city just as the Communist Chinese government’s propaganda machine had need of artistically talented youngsters who could master Russian social realism and Western representationalism and graphic techniques for the greater good of the people. He became one of only six children selected from a city of millions to create movie posters for propaganda films, and every day after school he’d report to the Youth Palace of Art to do so. There was no art college in Dalian, so Wang, armed with brainpower beyond artistic skill, studied engineering and became a successful professor with an active, committed avocation as a painter. In the midst of interesting times within a culture that created the curse “May you live in interesting times,” Wang was able to thrive on sharp wit, high energy, and good fortune on two fronts—his artistic talent and his long romance with a girl he’d known since childhood and had happily married.

The turning point in Wang’s life came when he met Marjorie Francisco, a retired American art teacher who was teaching college in Dalian. She became his mentor in a dramatic, almost novelistic way, streamlining and bankrolling his travel to her home city of Sacramento, CA, giving him a place to live, paying his tuition at a local college, and being his supportive friend. “I always hope she’ll say she did this because she thought I was so talented,” Wang laughs, “but she never says that. She just says she liked me.”

Maybe so, but Francisco was an astute judge of talent and character nonetheless. For a young man who’d done well under China’s communist system, Wang had powerful dreams of living a life of individualistic creative enterprise like his heroes, Michelangelo and Rodin. Leaving his close family and security behind in 1986, Wang ran with the opportunity. After a year in the United States, he was able to bring his wife and baby daughter over and build on his efforts, eventually moving on to the University of California at Davis, where he studied closely with first-rate American artists like Wayne Thiebaud. He went on to get a master’s degree from California State University at Sacramento in 1994.

Southwest ArtAlways at least as engaged with Western modes of art as Eastern (“Each tradition has its own validity,” he says. “Western art is more direct; Chinese art has more subtlety”), Wang ventured through various avenues of abstraction as a student, often encouraged by his peers and teachers who’d noticed the vigorous structural and chromatic experiments that still animate his work. He was personally engaged by abstraction’s opportunities for pure focus on investigating methods of applying paint, on studying differences between one medium and another, and on exploring subjects like the onslaught of stimulation in the contemporary world. Ultimately, though, abstraction didn’t satisfy him.

“I found an artist like de Kooning quite wonderful,” Wang recalls. “He had a profound understanding of tradition. I studied cubism, abstraction, constructionism. I could appreciate these modes as part of history, but gradually I found I didn’t have the belief that I was doing something other than just painting a fashionable style. Painting this way was not in my blood. The image gives me the sense of concrete accomplishment. Without the image, I don’t have the sense that I’ve done my work profoundly. The first-generation abstractionists went through the struggle, but in the second generation there’s no spiritual heightening, and fraud comes from not going through the struggle.”

Wang’s artistic struggles have allowed him to support his family for a dozen years now. He has made a true home in Sacramento, the place Marjorie Francisco led him to, where he lives and works in a large home just a block from the American River, which is the subject of many of his landscapes. His work is collected fervently in Sacramento—somewhere between 300 and 400 different people own paintings by him, and several own many of them—though he also has followings in various unlikely outposts around the United States, like Memphis.

At 46, Wang is now by some definitions in mid-career. Yet this career follows another, quite different one that he pursued in another, quite different place. He probably enjoys a greater excitement in some ways than most mid-career painters who were born in America and painted professionally all along. His methods reflect confidence gained from taking risks along his path in life and art, an unspoiled survival instinct born in the cultural crossroads of Dalian, and a self-reliance that is, in terms of the modern art world, quaintly Emersonian. Whether he is painting still lifes or figures in his studio, which he tends to do in the summer when the Sacramento landscape suffers from what he calls “sameness,” or working en plein air, he uses large brushes that tell the tale of the painting process, avoids a palette in favor of squeezing his paint directly into boxes attached to his easel, and never mixes his oils with paint thinner, which, he maintains, “dilutes the intensity and flattens the brush strokes and lessens the accountability of the painter.” He sticks to six or eight colors at any given time, none of them being black because it interrupts the transitions from warm to cool that interest him.

Southwest ArtThe fact that the process of painting concerns Wang as much as the capturing of an image makes time itself an element of his art. In his landscapes he is actually painting not a time of day but often just an instant, and more how that instant felt than exactly how it looked. In one writhing, slashing, orange-red canvas of the Grand Canyon, for example, “I looked at the land only for the structure,” he says. “What I’m doing with the color is painting the feeling of when I saw the sun burst out in the early morning.” In his portraits and figures, however, he is painting a whole passage of moods in a single image, a painter’s equivalent of time-lapse photography. He paints mostly women, because they lend themselves so well to this in-the-momentness, and only from life. “I’ll draw for a while,” he explains, “and I talk with them. I paint them in their lives. They might tell me about their friends, or about breaking up with their boyfriends, and cry for a while. I don’t capture a moment the way a photograph does, but a period of time.”

In his still lifes Wang prefers to present himself with formal problems. For example, he likes to paint eggs and always paints one of them with the pointed end toward the viewer so that the shape on the canvas is perfectly round and ever in danger of “looking like a Ping-Pong ball.” His newest still lifes deal more overtly with concepts and veer into surrealism. In a series of paintings of toys, the objects cast shadows that are not the shadows of the objects themselves but of what a child’s imagination might make of the objects. In a painting called THE THREE GRACES, three gawky toys in primary hues cast a unified, animated abstraction on the wall in pale but vivid blue.

Southwest ArtWang has been back to China twice since coming to the United States, and both his parents and his wife’s have visited them here. He is, apparently, more content than any artist who isn’t comfortable unless he’s uncomfortable could hope to be. His daughter is now a student at the University of California at Davis, and he and his wife, who once overcame opposition from her family to their marriage even though they’d been devoted to each other since childhood, still hold hands when they walk together. Wang’s approach to life may well parallel his successful approach to art: “I don’t try to make something extraordinary. I just try to make a good painting.”

Wang is represented by Art Expressions Gallery, San Diego, CA; Solomon Dubnick Gallery, Sacramento, CA; Richard MacDonald Gallery, Carmel and Laguna Beach, CA; and Lisa Kurts Gallery, Memphis, TN.

Featured in February 2005