A Chinese-born artist who immigrated to the United States and made a life in the Pacific Northwest painting rural Americana is being exhibited at a Western art museum in the American South.
The curious and compelling nature of this cultural mashup isn’t lost on Seth Hopkins, executive director of the Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, Georgia, where the staff is busy hanging the exhibition Z.Z. Wei: Shadow Stories.
“Here’s a foreign national who doesn’t speak our language, but he speaks a visual language that’s universal,” Hopkins says. “He can communicate in an American way because of subjects we can easily identify. He puts them in relationship with each other in a way that allows anyone to understand what he’s getting at and yet leaves you wondering if you really get it. The subjects might seem simple on the surface, but these are richly complex paintings that tempt us with their deeper, somehow hidden meaning.”
That ability to “make you go, hmm,” Hopkins says, is part of the power of Wei’s work. So is the size of the canvases. “A lot of the 25 works are 4 and 5 feet by 6 and 7 feet. Relative to our average show size of 35 or so paintings, this one has fewer. But between the colors and size, these paintings make such bold statements that the presence they have in the space is pretty amazing.”
And the impact goes well beyond their visual boldness. “ ‘Wei’s work is filled with humor, loneliness, peacefulness, grit, and grace,’ ” Hopkins says, quoting from one of the exhibition panels. “In the opposition of those words, you get a sense of the shadow and soul in the pieces.”
How you personally interpret Wei’s depopulated paintings, Hopkins says, depends on your mood. “Because there are no people in his paintings, you can jump in and inhabit the space. ‘Did the people just leave? Are they coming back?’ Wei is quoted as saying, ‘I paint people without painting people.’ What he means is that the story is implied by the landscapes and objects. The presence of man is obvious in the built environment — the trucks, the barns, the roads, etc. You can imagine a story behind every canvas. It’s left open for you to project yourself onto it and go and vicariously experience it.”
But don’t experience the exhibition vicariously. To get the full impact, Hopkins advises, “You gotta be here. Seeing the paintings online or in a magazine is one thing. But standing in front of these large canvases and having them envelop you is a very powerful experience.”
Go, and you’ll experience impactful views of somehow familiar and yet mysterious places suspended half in shadow, half in light — all seemingly suspended in time, all ripe with untold stories.
C&I talked with Wei — through his assistant, wife, and translator, Hsuan Lin — about his powerful, unique perspectives of rural America.
Cowboys & Indians: You were establishing yourself as an artist in China but came to the United States. What led you to America and made you stay in Washington state?
Z.Z. Wei: I was invited to come to Seattle to participate in an art exchange program as part of Washington state’s centennial celebration in 1989. At the program I met Professor [Keiko] Hara from Whitman College. She invited me to visit Walla Walla and be an artist-in-residence at Whitman College. I had wanted to see places and know more about America, so I accepted her invitation right away.
In fact, Walla Walla was an ordinary small town located in the Palouse region of Washington state, peaceful and melancholy, completely different from what I had experienced in life. I immediately fell in love with the rural landscape. Its beauty struck me to the core. I couldn’t help but start painting it.
C&I: What about it attracted you enough that you stayed?
Wei: I wish I had a way with words like I do with paint. It’s hard to explain what the landscape “speaks” to me. Some images come to mind: the surging energy under the rolling hills; strong yet peaceful color; a landscape full of human traces but no one in sight; compelling contrast of light and shadow; simple yet ever-changing shapes of land, roads, and barns.
At that time of my career, I was focusing on continuing my “avant-garde” type of sculptures that I started in China. Painting rural landscape was like having an evocative, adventurous affair. It happened by coincidence, or you can call it serendipity. It changed my life, from a Chinese artist doing rebellious abstract sculptures to a rural landscape painter. As time went by, I not only settled down and started a family in America, but my art also “found a home” in the American landscape.
C&I: Your art evokes the back roads of America. How did that become your go-to subject matter?
Wei: I bought my first car and learned how to drive when I moved to Walla Walla. I love to drive on those winding country roads, wandering through wheat fields, aimlessly. Almost like a hungry stray dog, walking around to find something to eat. I like these kinds of unexpected surprises: Sometimes it’s a scene, sometimes an atmosphere, some lines, or a color combination ... sometimes just the feeling of being on the road, of being in the middle of nowhere.
I love this kind of travel. Very much like my life, you just move forward. Somewhere down the road, there might be surprises, disappointment, or nothing at all. All you do is get in the car and keep going.
C&I: What role does hitting the road play in your work?
Wei: Travel is a very essential part of my life and work. I explore what I am interested in during my travel, mostly while driving. I think observing and understanding landscapes this way directly affects how I paint, and I guess it helps to shape my own style. Those instant observations leave me with the most vivid images and atmosphere, and filter out insignificant details and noises. This sets the primary tone and basic structure of my painting. Back in the studio, I reorganize the elements I think are most important, without limiting myself to a specific scene or image. In other words, my landscape painting is not a depiction of what I see or a place I visited, but a vehicle to express my own feelings, emotions, and ideals and connect with the viewer. This is also the spirit of traditional Chinese painting.
C&I: The exhibition at the Booth Museum is called Shadow Stories. What is the role of shadow in your paintings?
Wei: Shadow is one of the most important elements in my paintings. Shadow adds interesting aspects to ordinary objects, giving them new looks. Light and shadow, like yin and yang — together they form an organic unity.
I paint shadow to paint light. Using shadow, I give light its shape, volume, and weight. I also want to emphasize their contrast and interdependence. I like to paint them as if they are tangible [things] that you can touch. I like to give my paintings rich and solid textures, to create emotional and visual tension, while keeping them in dynamic harmony. Shadow plays as important a role as light. While light displays astonishing glories, shadow hides mysterious tragedies.
C&I: In that visual play of shadow and light, what meaning are you hoping to convey?
Wei: After I finish a painting, I leave it to the viewer’s own interpretation. I believe that’s what makes art interesting and powerful. I had a conversation with a viewer many years ago. A lady came to the show and told me: “This painting reminds me of the farm I grew up on, and it hasn’t changed. I escaped from there to make something of myself. My childhood memory was nothing but hardship, and the landscape was crude and boring. But your paintings make me feel differently. And now I see the farm very differently. How did you do that?”
This is probably the best compliment I can get for my work. I told her, “Maybe because I am an outsider, or someone with a ‘new pair of eyes,’ I see something that you take for granted.”
C&I: And more philosophically, your art seems to say something about a simpler time.
Wei: New technologies have brought us wealth and convenience we haven’t seen before, and at the same time created unprecedented alienation. We are alienated from nature, from traditions, and from each other. Maybe this is what we pay for a fast-changing world. This kind of alienation also happens in the art world. Art becomes a set of complex theories, at the disposal of art historians or some so-called experts. One feels the need to arm oneself with a user’s manual to appreciate art. This is far from what art truly is and the value of its existence. I hope my art connects the viewer to human emotions and spirit, to nature, and to traditions, both in art and in life.
C&I: What do decades of painting uniquely American landscapes add up to as a career? Where does your art “fit in”?
Wei: People often ask me how long it takes to paint a painting. I [used to] tell them “50 years.” The answer now is “60 years.” Kidding aside, I do believe my whole life experience makes me the person and the artist I am today. It affects how I see the world and what I put on the canvas. Aside from the philosophy of traditional Chinese art I mentioned earlier, Western art also plays a big part. I started oil painting by learning traditional skills and painting endless Chinese landscapes in my childhood. Later I liked the rebelliousness of modernism. And my art in China that brought me here was following that track. But since living here, I have had the opportunity to see this country, from big cities to countryside, from museums to country fairs, to truly explore and understand this country. It is very different from what I learned before. (Mind you, I was from the “Red China.”)
This new understanding gives me a deeper appreciation of American art, from masters to artists whom I’ve never heard of. It also teaches me the possibility of seeing America and its art from different perspectives. More important, it inspires me to express my feelings about this land and its life. How it will fit in art history or art theory is no longer my concern. I just paint what moves me and how I really feel. I realize that when my inner world is aligned with the external one, when I am at one in the landscape, that’s when I can communicate and connect with viewers through my art, without words.
Z.Z. Wei: Shadow Stories is on view through June 10 at the Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, Georgia. Wei is represented by Patricia Rovzar Gallery in Seattle and Blue Rain Gallery in Santa Fe. For more on the artist, visit zzweiart.com. Photography (top to bottom) Farmland, Palouse Trestle, At One in the Landscape, Decision, One Ordinary Evening, 55 M.P.H., Sunset. From the May/June 2018 issue.
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