Forgotten Garden, 1986–89, by Wang Huaiqing.
Forgotten Garden, 1986–89, by Wang Huaiqing.

The Seattle Asian Art Museum (SAAM) at Volunteer Park is currently exhibiting a collection of paintings by contemporary Chinese artist Wang Huaiqing, with one large-scale piece on display at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) downtown. Although widely appreciated in Asia, this is Wang’s first solo exhibition at a major American museum. We are fortunate to have the opportunity to appreciate first-hand the work of this renowned artist.

“Wang’s works are stunningly beautiful, and knowledge of Chinese culture is not a pre-requisite to appreciate his art,” said SAM’s Josh Yiu, Foster Foundation Associate Curator of Chinese Art. “But the visual appeal will entice you to learn more about this culture and because of that, Wang is an important contemporary Chinese artist whose sensibility to art fosters greater cultural understanding.”

Born in Beijing in 1944, Wang Huaiqing was selected at the age of 12 to become immersed in government-sponsored art training. He was one of 40 students selected from a pool of 30,000 applicants at a time when China was following the Soviet model of selecting the best and brightest children to be trained in various fields. During the Cultural Revolution, Wang painted propaganda posters and endured the hardship of labor camps while secretly developing his own style at night. In spite of this background, Wang’s paintings do not carry the burden of China’s troubled past, instead bringing something beautiful, warm and philosophical to the viewer.

Although Wang Huaiqing’s style appears somewhat abstract at first glance, there is also a sense of naturalism in his portrayal of surface texture and detail that invites the viewer to appreciate objects in their most essential forms. Though his paintings are often quite large, the details are executed with the sensitivity of one who has observed the world with a patient and sympathetic eye. Wang puts a great deal of care into each painting, creating only about five pieces per year on average, while other artists at his level of recognition have a large annual output with the help of many assistants.

Another dimension to Wang’s style is the way in which he pays homage to classical Chinese art. In “Han Xizai’s Night Revel Series – 1” we are shown an alternate interpretation of a famous 10th century painting depicting a wild night party at the residence of a high official. Differing from the original, Wang has removed the people from the composition, leaving blank spaces where there were once beautiful ladies and powerful men. Here we see only furniture, which has been left in disarray from the indulgent evening. A common theme across many of Wang’s paintings involves the depiction of furniture and the metaphorical depth behind such common household objects. In depicting the painting in this manner, the artist alludes to the transience of humankind and the more permanent nature of the objects that surround us. Perhaps the viewer can better relate to pieces of furniture than to remote historical figures.

The strong allegorical and philosophical implications in much of Wang’s work is apparent in “5000 Years,” where many dark columns fill the picture space alluding to the great sages of the past. Painted on four canvases and at around twelve feet in height, the sheer scale of this painting makes the observer feel as though they are walking through an ancient Chinese building. Details such as the worn bases of the pillars bring a sensitive naturalism to a painting that some may otherwise consider abstract.

Another highlight of this exhibition is “Forgotten Garden,” which depicts the solemn interior passageway of a dark house, with bright light filtering in from up ahead. The subtle tonal contrasts beckon the viewer to walk out into the light and explore the unknown, representative of life’s journey.

Although the exhibition is accompanied by a full-color exhibition catalogue, many of the works on display must be viewed in person to convey their full impact. Wang often uses thick layers of paint or adheres material such as wood to the canvas in order to create works of great textural dynamism. This exhibition provides the Northwest with the opportunity to appreciate the work of Wang Huaiqing up close, and because his work is best experienced in person, the show is a must-see for all lovers of art.

“Wang Huaiqing: A Painter’s Painter in Contemporary China” is on view from November 18, 2010 – April 10, 2011 at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, Volunteer Park and Seattle Art Museum, Downtown.

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