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Wang Guangle
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Fundamental Forms and Expression in the Work of Wang Guangle

Object, Time, and the Gaze, or Wang Guangle's Painting Theater

Digesting Formalism-The Art of Wang Guangle——《LEAP》

Review of "Wang Guangle"

Thomas J. Berghuis


Being the son of an abstract painter, I grew up with abstraction and the consideration of turning art into form, and form into action. Looking at the work of Wang Guangle makes one wonder, what happened to abstraction in the context of contemporary Chinese art? A forgotten field perhaps? First overtaken by the overwhelming emphasis on realist painting and now, more recently, overtaken by the emphasis on ink art as a way to connect Chinese antiquity to its contemporary form. Artists working in abstraction have generally been forgotten, and largely overlooked. Wang Guangle is one of those artists who deserve our attention, considering how forms of expression turn the wheels of contemporary art in China and elsewhere in the world towards new paths of abstraction and how abstraction becomes the pathway for these artists in creating art.


Wang Guangle was born 1976 in Songxi County in Fujian Province, on the southern coast of China, on the Taiwan Strait. Fujian Province is considered one of the most linguistic and culturally diverse provinces in China, making for a rich artistic scene, with several well known contemporary artists coming from Fujian, including Huang Yongping and Qiu Zhijie, both of whom continued their studies at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province. By contrast Wang Guangle studied at the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing, where he first started to consider the surface of oil painting that would lead to his layers of abstraction, rendered on canvas in a highly conceptualized form.


Fundamental Painting


Widely exhibited in group exhibitions in China, less so overseas, one exhibition in which Wang Guangle was featured deserves special mention. This is the exhibition Prayer Beads and Brushstrokes, curated by Li Xianting in 2003,and held at the Beijing Tokyo Art Projects in the 798 Art Zone. The exhibition highlighted a time of conceptually driven works being produced in China when artists were viscously competing for attention, following the rise of the international art market for contemporary Chinese art. Li Xianting’s exhibition brought the artwork back to its most basic principle: labor. Prayer Beads and Brushstrokes focused on the meticulous labor artists were investing in their abstract work, at a time when abstraction was highly unpopular in China and the rest of the world.


Wang Guangle featured with the Terrazzo series (2002+), as an anti-thematic-series that consider abstraction in its most purest form, namely through the grid. The Terrazzo series follows the complex traces of a stone tiledgrid floor. They canalso be related to color field painting, creating unbroken and flat picture planes and emphasizing the gesture of brush strokes that become based on recurrences and reappearances of brush strokes that are laboriously produced over time. These are mental pictures rather than experimental. They rely less on the visual and more on the metaphysical nature of painting and of abstract form. Looking back at the Prayer Beads and Brushstrokes and Wang Guangle’s early paintings, it becomes clear that they were both ahead of their time.


Rather than emphasizing color alone Wang Guangle’s early paintings focus on pure abstract form. They render color minimalist. These paintings are made of lines, planes and surfaces. Yet, as the next series, Coffin paintings (2004+), clearly shows, color does play an important role. The Coffin paintings follow the story of the artist’s childhood when witnessing how traditional coffins were painted in layers. Each year a new layer of red paint would be added, much like what we know of the color field painters, including Barnett Newman with his renderings of red, yellow and blue.


For Wang Guangle however the practice of layer color becomes a natural routine, considering the painting of coffins as continuous process. Painting the coffinsone does not consider painting as an artistic practice. Wang Guangle chose to use his experience to consider the surface of painting; applying layer upon layer, upon layer. The act of painting renders the surface abstract. Each time Wang adds a new layer he leaves the color drip over the edge of the canvas, and thus leaving the process of painting layer upon layervisible to the viewer.


The technique shows characteristics of Blinky Palermo, and particularly his monochromatic painting series To the People of New York City (1976) that consider his explorations in painting though the relationship between paint, color and surface. Like Palermo, Wang Guangle’s paintings bear witness to Constructivism and Minimalism, but also comment on the painterly and expressive modes through their repetitive nature. In the case of Wang Guangle, this repetitive nature is thought through abstract form, and also to everyday life practices in the painting of coffins in his native county of Songxi.


Wang Guangle emphasizes the act of painting in repetitive mode much more than Palermowho focuses his creation on a conceptual environment, and a social landscape for the people.[1] Wang’s paintings instead consider a repetition, one that could beconnected to the mono-ha tradition in Japan, where it not for the fact that Wang Guangle’s work to not seek the connection between objects and space and the dialectical relation between brushstroke and canvas, but rather considers the gesture of painting in a highly fundamental way. Here one can connect Wang Guangle more to the fundamental painting school of the 1970s, connecting artists across Europe and North America.


In 1975, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam organizedtheFundamental Paintingexhibition, featuring artists Jaap Berghuis, Jake Berthot, Louis Cane, Alan Charlton, Raimund Girke, Richard Jackson, Robert Mangold, Brice Marden, Agnes Martin, Edda Renouf, Gerhard Richter, Stephen Rosenthal, Robert Ryman, Kees Smits, Marthe Wery, and Jerry Zeniuk. These days the exhibition is largely overlooked in the history of European and North American art. Yetin connecting artists such as Brice Marden, Robert Mangold, Agnes Martin and Gerhart Richter, the exhibition becomes significant for examining important developments in international abstract painting.


Important is the way in which the artists featured in the exhibition consider, as the title of the exhibition suggested, ‘the formal principles of painting,’ and of ‘painting qua painting in a strict sense.’[2] Here it may also suffice to look briefly at the work of my late father Jaap Berghuis who considered painting as the subject, eliminating the object of art. For Berghuis the ‘materiality’ and  ‘tangibility’ of ‘the act of painting’ became important, thus highlighting a particular ‘concreteness’ of painting that can be linked back to the concrete art movement of the Still in the 1930s and 1940s. [3] Fundamental painting thus offers the potential in connecting early forms of post-minimalist paintingto more concrete perspectives of abstract expressionist painting, connecting artists whose work become contemplative of the ‘act of painting’. Early on, the curator of the exhibition, Rini Dippel of also connects fundamental painting to ‘a Post-Minimal and a ’Post-Conceptual painting.’[4]


In his own way Wang Guangle extends the formal principles of painting in the abstract mode, reconsidering the use of color, line, form, texture, material and their exchanges in the act of painting. On the one hand his works become highly performative in considering the act of painting in laying bare the layers of paint on the side on the canvases. At the same time his works become highly concrete in considering the basic form of painting taking effect through the layering of colors and brushstrokes, in which brushstrokes and line works mark the tension of abstract painterly form.


Expression through form


Time and laborious work play an essential role in the practice of Wang Guangle, who seeks the repetitive nature of painting through everyday life experiences in which the canvas becomes the ultimate form of painting fundamental expressions. These expressions focus on the concreteness of painting in abstract form, marked by repetition and occurrences of time in relationto painting as form. At times, however the pure spatial form takes over from its more abstract use on canvas. Such as in the case of the work 20110423 (2011), consistingof a large oval wall installation in paint and plaster that considers the layering of painting in its most extreme form.


This 480 x 1450 x 50 cm installation was exhibited at the Beijing Commune in 2011. The work carries spatial form to its most extreme mode, with the curator of the exhibition, Leng Lin also mentioning how: ‘The form of time culture and history is understood and revealed in the process of Wang Guangle’s partial covering of each layer of paint on his paintings.’[5] With time and process becoming important again in these paintings by Wang Guangle, they challenge the overwhelming emphasis on realism in contemporary Chinese art, and highlighting the significant role of abstraction in the development of painting in China, starting in the 1980s.


Abstraction has been a highly under discussed topic in the field of contemporary Chinese art, even though it stands at the basis of some of the important development of Chinese art after the Cultural revolution, when abstraction becomes part of the subversive responses to socialist and academic realism in China. Until recently, it is as if abstraction never existed, with many of the artists who work in abstract art receiving much less attention than their counterparts in realism, including the popular models of cynical realism and political pop that have driven the market for contemporary Chinese art for much of the last two decades, since the early 1990s.


Wang Guangle’s work can be considered in footsteps of artists such as Huang Rui, who recently has come to exhibit his early series of Space-Structure works that consider the architectural space and form. Making references to Chinese divination and the Book of Changes (I Ching) these paintings depict the urban landscape of Beijing. These early works of abstraction where previously forgotten in research, yet their presence shows a particular genealogy of abstract art in the context of China.


Whereas these earlier artists focused their work on abstract form, with Wang Guangle one can also identify a new focus on anti-form. As art critic He Guiyan states in his study of Wang Guangle, there are two aspects to repetition in his work. The first considers ‘the formal expression of work’ that He Guiyan calls the ‘form of anti-form’ or the ‘proliferation of form’. The second aspect considers the raising of ‘physical experience to the philosophical level’, thus linking the making of art to ‘everyday [bodily] experience’.[6]


Inhis early Afternoon series (2000-2001) Wang Guangle considers the role of time, process and the proliferation of natural form, by reflecting on the sunlight coming through a crevice in the roof of his studio forming a line of light on the surface of the stone tiled floor of the Terrazzo series. Suddenly the artist is present, reflecting on his inner feelings when painting these steams of light, commenting on how they represent the ‘inner darkness’ beneath the ideology of a bright future for China. As Wang comments how: ‘Everyone was talking about China’s rising as if the future is really brilliant. But all I saw around me was nothing but dirty, chaotic and underdeveloped.’ [7]


Beyond its pure formalism thus lies a political dimension in Wang Guangle’s work; one that becomes relating to the ideology of a prosperous China amidst rapid urban development. Soon, however, these beams of light in the Afternoon series would disappear, leading to the formalist aspects of theTerrazzo series in which only the meticulous formation of stone tiles remain. Form takes over from content, as Wang Guangle moves towards creating abstractions in which the paintings regain their temporal meaning through time based repetition and time as the means for creating artistic form. These are the forms of expression that connect the work of Wang Guangle to several pioneers in abstract painting, including the artists featured in the previously less well known Fundamental Painting exhibition in Amsterdam in 1975.


Art as being created


Throughout the course of writing this essay, Wang Guangle has been recording his painting in photography and on video. It gives an insight of process and of the time of creation. What better way than to end this essay with the contemplation of writing on Wang Guangle’s work, knowing about the access to the studio and the artist’s practice that connects to the practice of writing. What viewers generally get to see is the finished work, contemplating the meaning of art in the context of its representation.


Instead this essay considers the viewer as participant in contemplating the creation of Wang Guangle’s work, where the meaning of painting lies in its contemplation of painting as gesture and painting as form. The judgment of the work of art comes in stages. Such as in the case of the renowned realist painter and director of the graduation program at the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing, Jin Shangyi visiting the artist studio as Wang Guangle was preparing for his graduation exhibition in 2000. His comment was that Wang Guangle’s paintings had‘No form, no color, no volume.’[8] Yet, a few months later Wang Guangle’s would win the Central Academy’s Director’s Prize, changing the artist’s career into a recognized artist.


Through artists like Wang Guangle one get’s to experience the role of abstraction in the context of Chinese art. Another aspect of his work also comes to the foreground as well, and that is the relation to time and process in the making of art today. Nowhere does this becomes more clear than in the work of these new abstract painters in China, as was already pointed out as well in the 2003 exhibition by Li Xianting, on Prayer Beads and Brushstrokes.


These days a lot of attention is made towards the progression of ink art as somehow being representative of China’s traditional aesthetics in linking the art of the present to the art of China’s ancient past. Yet, though the work of Wang Guangleand other abstract painters in China, one can see another important topic emerge, which is the topic of the role of abstraction in contemporary Chinese art.


One of the ways to consider the role of abstraction is through considering the expression of painting into action. This means considering the role of time and process in the creation of art as an integral part of our viewing experience; and in the process of writing about art. This would mean generating renewed attention to the role of form over context in a pure formalist way, in which the work of art and its material existence becomes important again. What rests is the process of looking at art as it is being created. Such is done in the case of Wang Guangle, whose work considers the time of making in relation to the time of being made visible to the viewer.

[1] After Jaleh Mansoor, who sees Palermo’s work To the People of New York in the specific context of the ‘social and historical matrix’ of post-World War II Europe. See: Jaleh Mansoor, ‘Palermo’s to the People of New York City in Lynne Cooke, Karen Kelly, with Barbara Schröder, eds., Palermo: To the People of New York City (New York and Düsseldorf: Dia Art Foundation and Richter, 2009), 183-199

[2] See Rini Dippel, ‘Fundamental Painting: Some Aspects of Recent International Developments in Abstract Painting’ in Fundamentele Schilderkunst/Fundamental Painting (Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum, 1975), 10

[3] Following an interview with Jaap Berghuis by Gijs van Tuyl in Elementary Forms of Contemporary Painting and Drawing in the Netherlands (Amsterdam: Visual Arts Office for Abroad, May 27th, 1975), 8. Also listed online, at (Accessed March 2014)

[4]Rini Dippel, ‘Fundamental Painting’, 10

[5] Leng Lin, Preface to Wang Guangle, Exhibition Catalogue (Beijing: Beijing Commune, 2011)

[6] He Guiyan, ‘Disappearance of Rhetoric’ in Lu Peng, ed. Wang Guangle: Xiuce de xiaoshi/Wang Guangle: Disappearance of Rhetoric (Changsha: Hunan meishu chubanshe, 2011), 071

[7] As referenced in an artist statement by Wang Guangle in the essay by He Guiyan, ‘Disappearance of Rhetoric’ (2011), 080

[8] Bao Dong, ‘Digesting Formalism: The Art of Wang Guangle’ in LEAP, Vol. 10 (September 2011)