Looking at Masterworks

text / Tian Kai

John Berger said, “Ancient and modern art, can’t be compared, for the vanguard quality of ancient masterworks has already disappeared and been depleted. A new visual language has replaced them.” Here, the so-called “depleted” “vanguard,” and the “new visual language” that has replaced it, are not all value judgments, but are references to the technology that disseminate them, especially the enormous change in the way we look.

This exhibition presents a series of works by Chen Danqing and Weng Yunpeng that react to picture reproduction and digital images, the later is concerned with today’s images, the former with images from the past. The inherent relationship between the two of them touches on various issues in contemporary painting: reproduction and dissemination, images and the viewer.

Chen Danqing’s early works, Tears Flooding the Harvest Fields and the Tibetan Series were an exploration of Soviet and European traditions, and they are imbued with a deep consciousness of masterworks. Yet he left for the far-away United States to absorb more classical images, and after a long immersion in the Western tradition, the transformed, he began an exploration of “viewing modes.” Since the 1990s, most of his paintings indicate “masterpieces,” but in his series of juxtaposed images and his still life paintings, masterpieces and their printed materials, both painting and related images, are overlapped. At one point, this series of works inspired Weng Yunpeng’s televisions and digital series.

Art “evolves” at its own pace, but the technology to reproduce and broadcast information is endlessly advancing, it continues to change our visual culture and it changes the nature of art. For example, the Prado Museum’s collection has already been digitized; viewers from the entire world over can peruse their entire collection online. Moreover, the television and its culture were integrated into our lives long ago, shaping the viewing experiences of modern people on a deep level. This is the story that Weng Yunpeng is narrating.

When he was a student, Weng Yunpeng was fascinated by Realism, the logical continuation succeeding generations of “masterpieces.” But from Chen Danqing’s “Painting within a painting” to Weng Yunpeng’s “television images” on canvas, the object of viewing, the paradox of viewing, and how viewing has changed painting, already seemed to have undergone a logical evolution of the unexpected––as Chen Danqing was leafing through countless of masterpieces, he suddenly “discovered” the “album.” As Weng Yunpeng was watching countless television programs he suddenly “discovered” the “television” and its surroundings. “Masterpiece” and “public images”––the two being isomorphic in our consciousness––have been completely reinvented according to the way we see them and how they are transmitted. Also reinvented was the creative modes of these two artists.

For Chen Danqing, this transformation was limited, and it’s not easy to be conscious of, for his transformations will always be limited to traditional painting tools and forms: the masterpiece is called “medium,” but it will always be a masterpiece (like the printed images of Dong Qichang or Velázquez). The album becomes a “still life,” but painting is still a traditional skill and system. In what he calls “still life" painting the “backgrounds” of masterpieces or the “accidentals,” only touch on a single piece of paper or page of an album, all these images are placed on an isolated blank page, pulled out of any identifiable space.

For Weng Yunpeng, this transformation has experienced leaping, bold variation at an essential level: even though the author is realizing a traditional Realist tableau, modern electronics appear on the canvas for the first time. The television is both material, and theme, and all the images on it are “famous,” “global” (for example, 911, the Iraq War, National Day, news broadcasts, etc.), their fame alone seems to qualify them as “masterpieces.” His canvases are filled with televisions placed in various spaces (the home, hotels, restaurants, villages, etc.), surroundings that are also in striking contrast to the programs on television.

When we look at Chen Danqing’s still life paintings, it’s hard to determine if we are looking at an album or the masterpiece itself; when we look at Weng Yunpeng’s paintings, it’s hard to determine whether we are “watching television” or observing the environment it is placed in. We clearly see and recognize: this is a landscape by Dong Qichang, or this is the face of Bin Laden, but the cultural significance and symbolism of both have been altered.

Following visual logic, Weng Yunpeng has recently completed an even more daring and direct leap. From his tools of production to the physical forms and creative concept, he has completely broken away from painting, and uses the television to produce large quantities of digitally rendered images. In an additional critical step, he has intercepted the television’s “pause in broadcasting” screen, and attached it as subtitles of a television program. The act of viewing has been turned into one of deciphering. Moving images have become still screens, phrases and words have lost their context––this is a mode of reading that we have never before encountered, this is also a performance we fulfill before the television to understand its content, it accompanies our understanding, this is a modern ritual of looking. Finally, it is provocation and is also like a game; Weng Yunpeng causes us to see ourselves reflected in beautiful and bizarre images.

In 1997 Chen Danqing began his still life albums, and he is still painting the same thing; in 1998 Weng Yunpeng started painting televisions, and from 2003 onward he painted computers, he began producing digital images around 2007. This process cannot be interpreted for any purpose, but is between the regulations of viewing oneself and paradox, agreeable encounters, or one could say, different paths arriving at the same end: Chen Danqing has never concerned himself with the television in his paintings, and Weng Yunpeng has never imagined himself saying goodbye to television––technique changes how one sees, tools change creation, and way of seeing and tools of creation mutually effect each other. Student and teacher, Chen Danqing and Weng Yunpeng, perhaps share a similar relationship––painting, seeing, pictures, images––both are eloquent interpreters.

Their mutual friend, Liu Xiaodong, curates Chen Danqing and Weng Yunpeng’s exhibition. Liu Xiaodong is an artist also fond of pictures, he uses the keen eye of a modern photographer to capture reality on canvas, and he endows his painting with a tension and sense of presence. Liu Xiaodong is also a photographer, and in his early career he was also an experimental photographer. Liu Xiaodong is even more so a painter of life, although in his recent enormous series of paintings, he has brought traditional plein air painting into the realm of image reproduction: there is a director, he chooses the scene, the cast, and he adjusts and directs the events on the scene, leading his team, each one of his international production crews, and each of his laborious work processes, have been thoroughly recorded in pictures, which have become precious photographic materials.

More than ten years ago, Liu Xiaodong was a witness, supporter, and sympathizer to both Chen Danqing and Weng Yunpeng’s experimental work, making him the most ideal curator for this exhibition. His own works, without a doubt, have already counted among China’s contemporary art’s “masterpieces.”