Thinking About Guan Wei

With Traditional Chinese art education requiring students to master the painting styles of each historic period, it is not surpirising that Guan Weis own style (having painted systematically from Impressionism to Postmodernism over ten years) has rendered his work appealing to Australian audiences. His works are cool in colour, surreal in style, quirky in wit. Weis work displays a graphic sensibility and visual language similar to that of Leunigs cartoons and is successful for these exact reasons.

Traditional Chinese art education required a student to master the painting styles of each historic period. Not surprising then that Guan Wei and his fellow New Wave artists, liberated in the eighties after the long period closed to western influence, painted their way through the last century of western art history. As he himself says, he painted systematically from Impressionism to Postmodernism over ten years. From there he developed the fundamentals of his personal style, an art so appealing to his Australian friends in Beijing that they suggested a residency in Hobart in 1989.

He returned to Australia to live in 1990. His early works are cool in colour, surreal in style, quirky in wit. His characters are amorphous beings who move in a hapless, playful way through life, shaped unwittingly by science (the Test Tube Baby series) war (The Great War of the Eggplant series) different social customs (Little Toys) and different art histories (Living Specimens). His people are as endearing as Leunig's and the tone more teasing than dogmatic. He uses a vertical format suggesting a Chinese scroll (though famously influenced by his using abandoned window frames from his old art school). In 1998, Guan Wei during a residency at the Canberra School of Art painted Revisionary a large work in forty eight panels that began the wondrous blue ground paintings that might be called Buddhist blue (or perhaps it was the immense Canberra sky?) developing the new cosmic meditation that he continues to the present.

Recently he has become involved in specific issues. The series Exotic Flowers and Rare Grasses, exhibited at Casula Powerhouse, early this year, are delightful panels of what look like classical Chinese flower painting but explore the trafficking in genetic plant material. In Dow: Island he maps in multiple panels a wide blue world of seas, islands and clouds blown across by the benign four winds. However, across this world people in boats wander in a constant search for refuge and freedom. To the south lies the tip of a land that looks uncommonly like Australia called The Enchanted Coast, patrolled by menacing black birds. Dislocation and a life of wandering is now a global problem. However, in Ned Kelly escapes from the troops down the Yangtze River, he is at play, with a Nolan Ned Kelly inserted into a reproduction classical Chinese landscape scroll.
Guan Wei's appeal perhaps lies in the immediacy of a visual language that, like the cartoonist's, has a strong graphic sensibility and tells a story. There are dream-like spaces that allow the viewer space for interpretation and, of course, his droll players standing in for all humankind. Overall he seeks balance: 'Harmony is the marrow of eastern philosophy. So in my painting I always use this idea.' The balance between elements of the work and balance between the visual and conceptual induces calm. The constantly reinvented traditional Chinese references create a new language that invites dialogue.

The new Asian Art Gallery at the Art Gallery of New South Wales opened in October 2003. At the entrance on the upper level hangs Guan Wei's Revisionary. It hangs outside the gallery as though Guan Wei has become a genial door guardian, fluent in the languages of both inside and outside, who will explain the stories of one world to the other. Inside is a long wall case of export porcelain, witness to the trade and exchange of goods and ideas, of stories and taste between China and the rest of the world. There is a Ming dish, made in China for export to Japan, with a brush drawing of the Taoist spirit He Xiangu, whose diet of mother-of-pearl and moonbeams gave her immortality, borne on an auspicious cloud. We have seen this before for Guan Wei's work always seems to have an auspicious cloud.

Since receiving a residence permit in 1993, Guan Wei has gradually been absorbed into Australian life. He was not represented in the first Asia Pacific Triennial in that year but was on the advisory panel for China in the second, in 1996. In the third Triennial, in 1999, he was asked to exhibit for Australia. Another sign of absorption was his appearance as a subject in this year's Archibald prize. However, the title of Hui Hai Xie's portrait, Bannerman, meaning Manchu, reminds us that Guan Wei is a descendent of the Manchu nobility, whose great-great-aunt was the mother of the last emperor of China.
A recent work, Looking for Home, 2000 might characterise what all Chinese emigré artists face in this new millennium. But like most of Guan Wei's titles, I believe he poses it as a global rather than a personal question. Right now he is in New York visiting old Beijing friends. Should they now paint through the last fifteen years of western art, if there is any longer such a thing, they would be painting themselves somewhere there in the centre.


Note: Thanks to Guan Wei for his work, lectures, writing and conversation, and the major commentators, Nicholas Jose, Linda Jaivin, Geremie Barmé, (from Beijing days), Melanie Eastburn, John Clark, Gao Minglu and Maud Girard-Geslan.

Support independent writing on the visual arts. Subscribe or donate here.