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'Untitled (Flowerpot)' (2009)

A local perspective on the global force that is the west’s modern art history: this is one way of describing what Chinese artist Wang Xingwei tackles in his work. He also channels his experience of coming to art in a China plunged into economic reform and struggling to catch up with the west. For the nation’s artists, the ambitious Maoist slogan “catching up with the US, overtaking Britain” meant getting to grips with modern art (something that would have been impossible when Mao was alive) at least as well as, if not better than, their western counterparts – and Chinese-style.

The initial quest for a “Chinese style” of modern art propelled the emergence of cynical realism and political pop in the early 1990s. Despite being the right age to catch those bandwagons, Wang Xingwei (born 1969) was careful from the first to eschew superficial politicised motifs. Instead he built his reputation on paintings that stand as successive instalments of a potted history of China’s contemporary art – art that was either inspired by western example or sideswiped by a litany of domestic occurrences.

'The Interrogation of the Penguin' (2001)

As demonstrated by the exhibition that opens at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, art history’s constructs and narratives, its benchmark masterworks and iconic masters and the power of culture and ideology all find their way into Wang’s paintings.

And with surprisingly diverse results. Wang Xingwei begins with “Penguin and Hole” (2004), which sets the mood for the show. Penguins also appear in various outlandish compositions, not least “Untitled (Penguin Trolley)” (2008), a marvellous take on the suitcases that Ai Weiwei designed for his Documenta project “Fairytale” in 2007. Other unlikely motifs run through Wang’s neat vocabulary: flower pots, pandas, nurses and airhostesses, lovers or an apple-cheeked old lady. Why the repetition? To “squeeze out the maximum possibilities from a form”, he says. Just as a fine novel can be reread, and a great play restaged over and again, the viewer benefits from familiarity while marvelling at a new means of conveying or interpreting it.

Wang’s first major solo show in a Chinese institution, this timely exhibition is loosely conceived as a retrospective of a 20-year career. The 70 paintings begin with “My Beautiful Life” of 1993-95, from a series of vaguely ambiguous scenes of romance tinged with disquiet, each featuring the artist in a distinctive yellow shirt, only ever seen from the back. Under Mao it was a punishable offence to fail to show the (cheerful) face of a painted subject, and this remained so even for the pioneers of China’s new art scene in the mid-1980s. Here the convention is gently contravened.

'Red East' (1995)

Wang, although he is a hugely respected member of this scene, resists the spotlight that fame thrusts upon similarly successful artists. He prefers a clear vantage point from which the art world becomes the butt of his wry, casual humour. The approach can verge on caricature, as in “East is Red” (1995), in which a tractor is driven by Chinese critic Li Xianting, once dubbed the godfather of the nation’s art world, and artists portrayed in the style for which they became famous.

Wang is an intellectual; like the artist he most admires, Marcel Duchamp, he is as much interested in ideas and intent as in the final product. UCCA’s concurrent exhibition Duchamp and/or/in China contains Wang’s delightful oval painting from 1998 entitled “Beacon”, in which the nude from Duchamp’s “Étant donnés” is transformed into a Dalíesque landscape. It is one of Wang’s many references to Duchamp. His 1997 “Midas” gives us a contemplative Duchamp seated in the presence of his “Bottle Rack”, with a urinal casually laid on the ground to one side. At his knee stands a golden boy reminiscent of an Oscar statuette that Wang confers upon the master in recognition of his services to art. At the same time, “Midas” gently mocks the current market forces turning art into the modern-day equivalent of gold.

'Untitled (Selling Eggs)' (2007)

Unlike Duchamp, Wang Xingwei is devoted to “retinal art”. His love of painting is a motivating force, and his pictorial form of conceptualism is achieved by selecting and rejecting, composing and juxtaposing a range of visual quotations, from Mao to Jeff Koons. But it is not Wang’s intention to rewrite modern art history. While making a perfect play with appropriation, exploiting the power of juxtapositions, he deploys motifs as pegs on which to hang ideas. Seen individually, Wang’s paintings can be disorientating, but if they are understood as clues to a cryptic crossword, then it takes an exhibition of this scale to bring the whole puzzle into view.

Unfortunately, several major works are missing from this show, significantly 1997’s “History of Revolution”. The left half of this painting shows Mao as a young man, grossly stretched by 200 per cent, while on the right-hand side a reproduction of Jacques-Louis David’s “The Death of Marat” is squeezed into a thin sliver, an emphatic visual illustration of the space required for ideology in China under Mao and for many years after.

It is a simple juxtaposition of imagery, but one that says much about the formative experiences of Wang’s generation. Still, this exhibition has more than enough breadth and depth to give full insight into this singular artist’s intriguing obsessions.

Continues to August 15,

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