Artist Interview: Fenghua Wang

Fenghua Wang is an artist and professor of Public Arts at Xi’an Academy of the Arts, China. I first met him when I was studying BA Art and Design at University of Leeds. As we both currently in Xi’an, he invited me to join his residential artist scheme but I have decided to finish MA first, in order to make sure my fields of interests and career plans in the future. I shared with him my current work and ideas, he was very nice and supportive and offered help with reaching out to galleries and curators. Although his expertise lies in oil painting and mainly focuses on representational urban views; I still think this is a good chance to get to know him as an artist based in Xi’an and his work, as well as Xi’an city better.

Below is my interview with him on his series “Safety Zone”.

1. 为什么会选择以油画为媒介来创作?

Why do you choose oil painting as the medium to create artworks?

A: 是因为我在中国念大学的时候是油画专业,有系统的学过油画的基本技法和西方美术史。这种媒介对我来说最熟悉最便捷,所以我用它来作为主要的绘画媒介。

It is because my major was oil painting when I was studying at university in China and I have systematically learned the basic techniques of oil painting and The History of Western Fine Art. This medium is most familiar and convenient for me; therefore, I use it as a primary painting medium. 

2. 您的创作灵感大多来源于哪里?

Where do you usually get your inspirations from?

A: 我觉得来自于我的生活环境。其实我第一次开始画城市的时候是2003年第一次来英国,那时并没有明确的学习目标,在伦敦参展的同时也参观了很多艺术馆展,但是我还是不知道自己的兴趣在哪里,因为各种的方式题材都太多了。所以当我在英国呆了几个月以后回到中国突然发现中国的城市非常有特点。他们的特点就是没有个性。之后我也是去过很多不同的国家与城市,中国的城市就是一个样子,没有很多的特点。不像孟买或新德里,威尼斯或罗马等完全不一样。中国的城市除了标志性建筑之外,几乎无法区分。所以我认为这也是中国在现阶段城市化过程中所面临的问题。

I think my inspiration comes from the living environment. The first time I started investigating the subject matter of cities was in 2003 when I came to the UK for the first time; at that time, I didn’t have any specific study goals. While I attended an exhibition in London, I also visited many others in different art galleries. However, I still had not realised where my interest was since there were various approaches and subjects. Therefore, after staying several months in the UK and returning to China, I suddenly discovered that Chinese cities were very distinctive, which was their featurelessness. I also went to many different countries and cities later on. Cities in China have been cast in the same mould, without too many characteristics. Unlike Bombay or New Delhi, or Venice or Rome, these cities are divergent from each other. Except for those landmark buildings in China, the cities are almost indistinguishable. Therefore, I think this is the problem that China is facing in the process of urbanisation at the current stage.

3. 哪个时期的艺术或者艺术活动对你影响最深?在你的作品中有哪些体现?

What kind of art or the artistic activities of which period affected you the most? How do your works reveal their influences?

A: 我觉得还是第一次来英国看的展览的很多作品令我印象深刻。不光是绘画,包括装置,video等等多种的艺术形式让我明白了一个道理。在中国往往认为艺术理应有一个标准,后来我发现,艺术是可以自由发挥的。 所以那一次英国之行对我影响颇深,从那以后我也开始了我长达十几年所表达的关于中国城市的主题。

I still feel that those exhibited works that I have seen for the first time in the UK have left a deep impression on me. Not only the paintings but also the installations, videos, and various art forms have made me realised a truth. In China, it is usually believed that there should be a standard for artworks; however, I later discovered that art could be produced very freely. Therefore, the visit to the UK has enormously influenced me. And after that, I had begun to explore the theme of cities in China, which I have been trying to express for more than a decade. 

4. 你怎样取舍创作过程中衍生出的新想法?

How do you accept or reject the new ideas coming into your mind in the process of creation?

A: 我去年在柏林和艾未未还在聊这个问题,其实每个艺术家都会存在这样的疑惑与问题。而现在我比较清晰的是当代艺术和传统艺术最大的区别在于,当代艺术可看作是个人的艺术系统,每件作品所表达的大的方向与主题是在一个系统里面的。而传统艺术反之则可能是一幅作品表达出一个单独完整的想法或有一个功能性的作用。而当代艺术有着很强的实验性,若很多作品同这个大主题不太相关时,你还要继探索与实验。如果他不能纳入到你的系统的话,就尽量不要拿出来, 但要逐渐把这个系统来建立庞大再来取舍。

Actually I was discussing the same question with Ai Weiwei last year in Berlin. In fact, each and every artist will have such doubts and questions. But now I am quite certain about the biggest difference between contemporary art and traditional one: the former can be considered as a personal artistic system since the general direction and theme of each and every art piece can be found in the same system. On the other hand, traditional artists may try to express an individual and complete thought or has a functional purpose in an artwork. For contemporary art, it has strong experimentality: If many works are not pertinent to the broad theme, you will have to go on exploring the subject and keep on experimenting. If it can not be included in your system, it should not be displayed. Instead, you can gradually build the system to make a choice later. Take Ai Weiwei as an example, all of his works are related to politics. They are either immigration issues or political topics in China. Ai himself is political artist. Andy Warhol is another instance. If he had created some art pieces with classical features, or other works out of his system which we have been familiar with, he would no longer be Andy Warhol. This is my opinion. 

6.可以谈一谈这次在School of Design 展出的作品背后的概念以及构思含义吗?

Can you talk about the ideas and implications of conception behind the works on exhibition at School of Design?

A: 我是在画一个城市边缘,如果去过中国的人就会发现,中国的城市变化非常快,每一次去都会不一样。比如很多东西都会拆掉,再建新的,城市也在不断的扩张。城市边缘的那些地方是最没有安全性的地方,在城市膨胀的过程中这些边缘地带会被拆掉,那么我们工作室,我们生活的环境就会离城市越来越远。但我个人是希望离城市越来越远的,因为那是我的安全地带。所以说我的作品也是和中国城市的膨胀与扩展以及我个人的生活环境相关的。
I have been trying to paint and express an urban outskirt. People who have visited China would have discovered that the speed of urbanisation in China is rapid. You will spot something different each time you visited. For example, many buildings would be demolished and rebuilt. Cities are expanding continuously. Those places around cities are the most insecure places since such outskirts will be torn down during the process of developing cities. Then our studios and our living environment will be increasingly far from cities because those are my personal safety zones. Therefore, my works are also relevant to the expansion and development of the cities in China as well as related to my personal surroundings.  

6. 中国传统文化对您艺术的影响体现在什么地方?

What are the influences of traditional Chinese culture on your artworks?

A: 中国传统艺术对我有非常强大的吸引力,我觉得但凡成功的艺术家一定和他的传统文化身份背景有一定的契合性。不管是村上隆还是奈良美智,他们的作品都或多或少和他们的传统文化背景有关。比如日本物派艺术,不论是装置作品还是极简的绘画作品,他们都和传统文化有很深的联系的。作为一个中国艺术家,我当然最熟悉的还是中国的古代绘画,书法包括石窟雕塑。我经常在博物馆里跑,这些作品都是我的营养。也许在表象上看不来,但是在气质上还是会有一些潜移默化的影响的。

Traditional Chinese art are extremely appealing to me. In my opinion, all those successful artists must have conformed to his or her identity and context of traditional culture one way or another. No matter it is Takashi Murakami or Nara Yoshitomo, all of their works are somehow relevant to their traditional cultural background. Take mono-ha art as an example, be it installations or minimalist paintings, they all have everything to do with traditional culture. As a Chinese artist, what I am most familiar with is still ancient paintings in China, as well as calligraphy and grotto sculpture. I frequently visit museums because these works are my nourishment. Maybe the influences can hardly be seen on the surface, but they still do have exerted a subtle influence on the temperament.

7. 现在很多人认为架上绘画必然走向消亡,并且装置艺术和新媒体艺术等等才是以后的发展潮流 。那您对他们的观点怎么看?

Now many people believe that easel paintings will disappear, device art and new medium art will be the vogue in the future. What do you think of their viewpoints?

A: 我觉得艺术家不应该把自己界定在某种材料或者某种形式的框架之内,目前来说我是比较自由,也在做装置,过去还做行为艺术,在做video,这些都是我在用不同的表达形式来完成工作。我用绘画,video,用摄影,用装置的形式来表达我对素材的理解,都是完成系统的一部分。关于绘画会不会走向消亡的问题,我个人看来,如今有很多非常优秀的青年艺术家,他们在绘画上很有创造力。比如说你墙上的这张Elizabeth Peyton的作品,我非常喜欢他的作品我的经纪人也买了很多他的作品;其实她就是在突破绘画,就是用新的语言和绘画方式来表达传统。所以我认为绘画不存在消亡的情况。

I feel that artists should not confine themselves in the framework of certain material or some particular format. Currently speaking, I am still very free: I am producing device art too, and I used to create performance art and make videos. All of these are the different expression forms for me to complete my work. I use painting, videos, photographs and devices to convey my comprehension of the source material, and they are the components of the system. As for the question whether painting will disappear, personally speaking, there are many excellent young artists these days and they have considerable creative powers in painting. For example, let’s look at the art piece made by Elizabeth Peyton on your wall. I like her works very much and my agent has purchased many of her artworks. As a matter of fact, she has been trying to make breakthroughs in painting: to use a new language and drawing method to express the tradition. Therefore, I do not believe that painting will disappear.

8. 在有画廊和代理人介入之前,你怎么处理你和市场的关系?

Before having private art gallery and the involvement of agents, how did you cope with the relationship between you and the market?

A: 艺术家可以被画廊代理,这是一个很好的事情,意味着艺术家可以安心地进行创作。但也是一把双刃剑,有时候绘画题材会被画廊左右。会有的画廊会让你创作迎合市场的作品。但是也分好坏的画廊。好的画廊一定是尊重艺术家的创作意愿的。我自己算是运气比较好吧,有不错的画廊和经纪人来帮我,所以我也可以说是比较自由了。

This a good thing that artists can be represented by art galleries, which means that artists can focus on their creation calmly. However, it is also a double-edged sword: sometimes painting themes will be decided by the galleries. There are galleries who will require you to create art pieces to pamper the buyers. However, there are good and bad art galleries. The good ones must respect the creative intentions of the artists. I might be counted as one of the lucky ones: there are good art galleries and agents coming to help me, so it can be said that I am a very free artist. 

9.  不管是绘画还是其他艺术媒介,都会面临语言和思想之间有效表达的问题,你是如何看待解决这些问题的?

No matter it is painting or other artistic media, they all face the problem of effective expression. How do you approach and solve these problems?

A: 先不要考虑这些吧!要坚持一直创作。一味的迎合市场的话就一定走不远,这是我多年来的经验吧。

I will not consider these problems at first! One should keep on producing artworks. This is a lesson drawn from my years of experience: one cannot go very far by always pampering the purchasers. 

(Recorded interview in Mandarin with Fenghua Wang, 14’25”. Translated by myself.)

Safety Zone, Fenghua Wang, Oil on Canvas. 2018

Fenghua’s paintings have excellent attention to detail, with very smooth brush marks. The paintings are realistic but also has a great sense of characters and brush techniques in them. Each painting seems to express a different location to Fenghua’s personal memory within his “safety zone.”

I personally find that seeking for a subject matter that interests you as your practice is somewhat tricky. Fenghua suggested that inspirations will eventually come to you through researches and experiments. In fact, every artist will have such doubts and questions. He thinks that contemporary artist should each have their own ‘system of working,’ to what I understood, it’s like a personal style, your own identity through your work, to which you would be recognised by the crowd. He gave a few examples such as Ai Weiwei and his political issues; Andy Warhol and his pop art work. 

It was very helpful interviewing him regarding some questions that I have been considering for awhile and being given suggestions from a successful artist’s point of view. 

Fenghua Wang ArtLink: