Featured Artist, Z.Z. Wei, Interviewed by Steve Parker
SP: Hi, ZZ Wei, it’s a real privilege to be able to interview you for the Triggerfish Critical Review. For a bit of background, could you tell us something about your reasons for leaving China and moving to the US?
ZZ: I was invited to the United States by Centrum (in conjunction with the Washington State Centennial Commission) to participate in the Washington/Pacific Cultural Connections Program in 1989. Soon after, I had the opportunity to visit Eastern Washington and later moved to Walla Walla (a small town in Eastern Washington). The lifestyle, the connection to land/nature, and the beauty “talked” to me to stay. It not only affected me as a person but also as an artist.
[At this point ZZ also attached quite a lengthy biographical extract from his luminous and captivating book, Light and Shadow. I have attached it separately below in order to preserve the ‘flow’. My following response to ZZ refers to this longer extract rather than just his reply above.]
SP: That’s fascinating, thanks. Some of the language you use to describe the Palouse sounds as though you have almost a devotional and spiritual relationship with the landscape. Would you regard your paintings as spiritual or religious works in that sense? And to follow that a little, as the visions and processes of the Palouse have been so important and powerful, do you regard it in any sense as a ‘character’ with whom you communicate through art?
ZZ: You are right. Not only the Palouse, I regard nature as a character, whose appearances never cease to amaze me, yet it’s her spirit that I seek after, to be inspired and to learn from.
I’ve never considered myself as a landscape artist. My work is not about landscape, or I should say the “material” side of it, but about the spirit of nature. The road, field, automobiles, barns, even light and shadows are symbols of language I use to communicate with nature. They also serve as a bridge for me to communicate my interpretation of what I see and feel with my viewers, and for my views to connect with nature, rethink their position and relationship with it.
My art is the language I speak to communicate. In other words, landscape is just the means. Man, nature, and their relationship are what I am always interested in. When I paint landscape, I actually paint people, without actually painting people. (except for very few paintings with a cyclist or fisherman.) I rarely paint “pure nature”. My landscapes always have “human traces” in them, the road to travel on, fields plowed, or abandoned artifacts… And they are never a copy of a “real scene”.
SP: ZZ, your paintings seem to be full of mystery. I am reminded a little of Giorgio de Chirico and his haunted, depopulated cityscapes. Do you feel a sense of melancholy in Nature with all its cycles of death and birth? Your broken-down vehicles look as if they are rotting down and becoming organic, almost becoming life forms. Could you say something about your vision of Nature in this sense? I feel like you must be deeply immersed in these moments that become pictures, and your paintings seem to suggest a deep acceptance of Nature and geology and Time and your place in all of it. Am I right to perceive some sort of melancholy, or am I projecting that myself?
ZZ: Let me first say that you have true appreciation for art, with a keen eye, which for an artist is most gratifying. Chirico is one of my favorite artists. Francis Bacon is another I have to add. I don’t see them as painters of landscape or portraits. Rather, they investigated and expressed the heart and spirit of human beings.
For me, the “car” is just a symbol of the passing of the road of life. It is also an audience. Indeed, as you said, they are a form of life. These cookie-cutter “commodities” start to show their personality and character in the process of death, eventually reclaimed by nature. This in itself is a fable, determined by the essence of life forms. No matter how complicated or huge the population is, each individual can only face this process of “cycles of life and death” alone. Isn’t this melancholy innate to human life? Tucked away in some corner of the soul? Some confront it. Yet some feel it unknowingly. When I communicate with my audience, although we don’t use this specific word, we can resonate deep down in our heart, the nuance of emotions that words cannot convey. I am glad to see in this noisy world, people quiet down their mind to “feel” and “think”. You might have noticed that there are “human traces” in all my landscape paintings. Indeed, I am interested in the relationship of man and nature and people themselves. I think if I weren’t living here, I would’ve done the same thing.
Reading your words makes me feel that human beings are not so lonely nor melancholy.
SP: Thank you for the appreciative comments, ZZ. That’s kind of you. Yes, I suppose there is always the melancholy of inevitable death and loss, but maybe that’s also a reason to celebrate the time we have here together with our loved ones and the Earth itself. Your paintings also look celebratory to me. Your colours almost look as if the Earth is lit from within, as though you were painting some underlying energy that shines from below. I like de Chirico too, but I think he wants to put more of a message in front of us, and ultimately he’s possibly more abstract for that reason. I feel like your paintings are more direct and concise, maybe more honest. As a poet I can’t help thinking of them as similar to Japanese haiku poems of nature, which take us to revelations about life and mortality without insisting that we get the message. Do you feel like you are communicating a specific message?
ZZ: Thanks for your comments and understanding/comprehension of my art. Speaking of “light”, which is always a theme in my paintings. I think that the light is from the bottom of the artist’s heart. When there is light in our hearts, only then there is light in the world, and light in art. I like the light that is lit from within. It is the internal energy of the objects/beings. I like the light firm like a stone; I like the solidified air; I like the tranquility in strong colors; I like the underlying surging power of the earth.
I also appreciate your understanding about Asian Art (haiku poems). I agree with you that art is to inspire people, rather than to preach. This is the most unique mystery and value of art. Asian cultures view poetry and painting as one. I want my paintings to give people spiritual revelations/inspirations, not just the visual effects or abstract concepts. In the Eastern point of view, “a flower, a world; a leaf, a Bodhi”. That is, everything in the world, even the most mundane tiny ones can also reflect the Tao/Dao/Way, which is the fundamental truth of the universe. These ordinary, or even neglected, objects in fact reflect the reality and the course of this world.
“Nature and man, united/harmonious one.” We are a part of Nature. The human consciousness and the life and death of the physical beings are just the course of nature, a process we will and must face. And this is why we should cherish this “process”, which is lonely and yet rich and colorful.
Furthermore, I am not a theorist. I’m just an art enthusiast honestly facing myself and my environment. I want to express my feelings with the simplest means, nothing more. Of course, I also hope that my expression will resonate with more people and give them something to ponder.
“Know death, then know life.” Know your destination then you know how to live.
SP: ZZ, yes, of course the Tao is all over your paintings. Your ancient vehicles suggest it as much as the colour or the landscape. And obviously one of the tenets of Taoism is that the Tao that can be spoken or expressed is not the true Tao. I’m aware that at night one’s eyes can perceive objects better if you don’t look at them directly, but look slightly to one side. Sometimes I like to attempt this in poetry, so rather than write directly towards something I like to write around it and not mention the thing itself. I probably don’t achieve this very well, but I can’t help feeling that what you are doing is something a little similar to this idea, though maybe less theoretical and Western, as you say. Somehow you seem to have found a way of observing and communicating that suggests far more than is literally displayed by the paint and the light. How far are you conscious of your own technique in this way? Do you think about it while painting? I am wondering how far you can close down your consciousness and just be moved by a landscape to the point where something is allowed to come through you?
ZZ: To me, Michelangelo is not about religious classics, nor is Shakespeare about court stories. Artists use “subject matters” to express human spirits and feelings. It is different from the clear and precise statements of religion, history, science and philosophy. On the contrary it expresses the rich innermost human spiritual activities which words cannot convey. I think we are showing the relations between objects, and their mutual effects and constraints. As for me personally, nature and the relationship between man and nature have always fascinated me. It is simpler and yet more abundant; subtler and yet clearer. It has the most important relations with humanity, and yet is easiest for us to ignore. When we pay close attention to our inner self, we can better perceive the outer world. The seemingly ordinary landscapes around us contain fundamental “dao”. They enlighten me. They provide me with subject matters. They gave me life.
SP: Thanks for a great answer. A more mundane question: do you feel settled in the US, or could you see yourself going back to live in China again one day? Were there any political reasons for your leaving, or were they primarily artistic?
ZZ: I came and settled in Seattle for a combination of causes and reasons. A big part of it is coincidence and my innate laziness/inertia. Maybe this is what life is about?
There is a series of stories. In short, an interesting opportunity knocked on the door. I came, I loved, I stayed. I found my subject matters, I feel and I find my life here, let it be pleasure or anger, sorrow or joy (high and low, thick and thin). As for living in China again, I don’t have such plan in the foreseeable future. Wandering is perhaps the fate of my life. Wandering is the life of a wanderer. Let me first record the feeling of wandering!
SP: ZZ, I tend to think love is at the very centre of art, whether it is love of people or things or places. Is love a part of your artistic process? Do you love colour and light and people and nature? What do you love (big question, I know!)?
And a further question: I am English; you’re Chinese; most of the people who read this will probably be American. Do you think we are all different? I suppose I mean that partly artistically and partly just about Humanity.
ZZ: I understand and agree with what you said that love is at the very center of art. Not only that, love is also at the center of life—the passion for life. I think this kind of love is not just some sort of preferences, interests, desires, and so on, but the respect for life, the respect for nature, human beings, and their complexity and diversity, and the respect for their generality and individuality. It’s important that this love should be broad, inclusive, and humble. This is probably the foundation for artistic creation of human beings and the value of its existence. The abundant styles of art are the exact refraction of the richness and complexity of nature and human inner world. Artists’ humanistic care is the foundation for their artistic creation. Without such love, people might not make art, they’ll probably make bombs instead.
What do I love? This is a really big question. I love Seattle’s rain, I also love its blue sky; I love the Winter snow, I also love the Summer sunlight; I love the deep dark night, I also love the clear bright day; I love the smile of a child, I also love the vicissitudes of the elderly; I love to laugh my heart out, I also love the heart-felt hollowness; I love silence, I also love the hustle and bustle; I love intense colors, I also love the simple black and white; I love the precise composition, I also love the affluent flow; I love sitting in the studio all night drinking, I also love walking in nature pondering. I love …. There are too many things that I love. It is really a big question. It’s exhausting to even just think about it.
My audience is mostly Americans. So, it works. In fact, people are people, wherever they are from. Human nature is the same and the love of mankind is the same. My experiences make me believe that firmly.
SP: Do you love paint? As in the actual physical stuff you work with. The smell and sense of it, and the texture. Does it seem alive or spiritual in any way? Is it of the earth? Or is it just a medium and a set of chemicals?
ZZ: You found an important “point.” Oil paint and I have a deep love-hate relationship. He is the most memorable part of my youth. During those years when China was in its poverty era, he consumed immeasurable amount of my energy, time, and even my food. If it is spiritual, it is most likely a devil. I went back and visited China years ago, one of my artist friends from my youth asked if I want to ship a whole container of oil paint back to US. I think he, just like me, still has fresh memories of the deprivation when we grew up.
“He” has accompanied me for nearly 50 years. Is “he” alive? Is he a friend? We see each other every day, but he is not a good friend! Of course, he gave me a lot of good times, and even brought in money to support a family of four and some of my small hobbies – music, wine and the like. But he also put me in situations worse than which a guy named “Faust” was in, giving me big troubles, pain and anger, and too many others to list. You need to understand and obey him, even be subservient to him, damn! Any slight negligence of his personality would bring on his “rebellion.” Not long ago, a collector brought back a painting with some white stuff on it. (It was a very early work painted on a board not properly treated.) I also went through a very painful and complex nasal surgery. And the oil paint and media I use are the prime suspects.
I like going to thrift stores and garage sales, browsing items from “the good old times”. Sometimes when I come across leftover oil paints from artists with short-term affection, I’d buy them without any hesitation in hope to completely fulfill their value. But they are not returning with any gratitude, they either wouldn’t come out, (somewhat or completely dried out in the tube) or worse, simply run wild (because of the old and damaged tube). Just as I said, they are fallen angels, at least 74% of them. But I will continue to work with them. It may sound very much like an old married couple, we’ve known each other too well. I wonder if it’s a comedy or a tragedy.
Color is part of nature, taken from nature, carrying the “dao” of nature, and returning to nature. It’s a media in sociology. It’s reflection of light received by eyes in physics. Chemists may only see its chemical combination. In business, it’s only numbers behind the dollar sign. You see the world differently from different perspectives. They are all correct, aren’t they?
For me, “he” is a part of my life. Without a doubt, I know him inside out. When you accept a person, you will accept a world.
SP: That’s fascinating, thanks. It sounds like some sort of shamanistic relationship with paint. Does the paint represent part or parts of yourself in that process, or do you think it has some objective life of its own?
I’ve been wondering how I would describe you to someone who had never seen your work. Do you have a name for what you do? I mean as in do you in any way see yourself as part of a school or a movement? Who have been your biggest influences or mentors? We mentioned Giorgio de Chirico a while back. What other artists do you like or see as important? I know that’s another big question.
ZZ: I am not familiar with “shamanism”, but for sure I am not“possessed” when I paint. I like the scientific, analytical approach of your questions, but I might disappoint you. My answers are likely allegorical/fabular. I think that my relation with paint is more like life’s relation with air. Is it parts of a whole? No. Can they be separated? No. (This is oriental thinking.) I think you have a difficult task. We don’t know each other and at the same time I am a person without “stories”. I understand stories are a big part of any article (even so for articles about art) and I am sorry that even the materials I can provide you are also scarce. I always feel strongly that artists are on the back stage of their work. It’s enough to just enjoy my work. If you like the eggs, it’s not necessary to meet the hen that lays them.
I don’t belong to any schools or movements. (I know that art history, especially history of modern art, is mostly about the evolution of schools and movements.) I am merely an “individual” living in today’s world, who enjoys painting. I express my feelings, and I hope to move others. I know it’s comfortable to “swim with the flow”, but I prefer those styles that are different from what’s trendy, and the artists with unique artistic skills and feelings. The list is actually very long, and should include roadside graffitis and shop signs of some country stores. Let’s just forget about listing the names. Once we start labeling, we are limiting and restraining ourselves. As a poet, you must be agreeing with me that we learn about art not just from art history. Life and living are what’s most important.
As for mentors, I think my father, an unknown art enthusiast, is my most important influence. The reason why I say this is not a “gesture”, but is based on facts. Because of him, I am passionate about art, nature, painting and reading. In my childhood, only when I was painting and reading was I allowed to stay up late way passed my bedtime. He taught me that art has to be “real”—to truly express one’s true feelings, not as a tool to obtain fame and wealth by pleasing the crowd with bombastic words and deeds. I think it is the traditional value of the Chinese scholar gentleman of his generation. Arts (in the forms of string instruments, strategy game of go, Chinese calligraphy and Chinese painting) are their required accomplishments and important part of life. Of course, it won’t be practical in today’s society. Art is still my “occupation”. (Maybe they were a group of people who didn’t have to worry about their means of living.) However, my father’s belief in honestly expressing oneself still deeply affects me. It enables me to remain independent from the often massive and momentous, “populars”. Behind the Dazzling forms there are often commercial hypes. Obscure terms and theories are usually created in need to fill the void of substance (or lack of contents?). What do you think?
SP: No disappointment at all, ZZ. I think your answers are wonderful. By ‘shamanism’ I guess I just mean the spiritually intense level of connection with nature, but you’re right that I should probably stop looking for labels. I just wondered if you felt part of any kind of artistic movement. It’s great that you feel so independent.
But if a hen lays miraculous eggs, then don’t we want to meet that hen?
What do I think? I think it’s impossible to paraphrase poetry or any other art. If it was possible to do it in another way then there would be no reason to do it. But it’s interesting to hear an artist talking about his/her experience of how it’s done and their reasons for doing it. Unfortunately sometimes we try to use the wrong words to ask about it or describe it. My apologies for where I’ve been clumsy.
Can you tell me what you think has changed over the last ten or twenty or thirty years in your approach to your art? Have you become better at catching it? Some people think they were more free when they were younger, and that they wish they could recapture that freedom. What has your experience been?
ZZ: First of all, there is no need to apologize. I feel that we are diligently discussing a very difficult topic between friends. (I wanted to say a “boring” topic with a big grin. But your apology startled me. I should put on my “tuxedo”, LOL. The format of our discussion determined its difficulty. If we were sitting together, each with a bottle of beer in hand, with a few laughs, we can easily understand each other beyond words.)
When I was about nine years old, China was in her chaotic period of Cultural Revolution. My family went through immense difficulties and schools were like madhouses. I felt like I was in paradise to stay home to draw and paint. I like oil painting, unlike my father who liked traditional Chinese painting. Maybe this was a little rebellious side of me? Maybe since then, I knew that men (me) enjoy solitude.
In classical Chinese poetry and painting, it is often stated: “placing feelings between mountains and waters”, which means when we write about or paint landscapes we are not to depict the landscape, but to express the artist himself. This belief and my love for oil painting have always accompanied me.
After the Cultural Revolution was over, I started my education at Central Institute of Arts and Design, a college whose mission was to train top design professionals for the Nation. At graduation, I was “assigned” to work as a designer at a State-owned Tapestry Company. So I thought, “Picasso wouldn’t have become Picasso if he were in China, but he for sure would’ve still done something extraordinary.” With this kind of “daring thought”, I used traditional tapestry materials like wool and hemp, and traditional Chinese rice paper to create three-dimensional tapestry, and called it “soft sculpture”. The exhibitions we had at the National Museum were very well received. They were the earliest exhibitions of large-scaled abstract art in China. The reason I was invited to the United States was largely related to the art and exhibitions I did during that time.
I came to Seattle in September of 1989. It was not long after “Tiananmen Square Protest of 1989”. No one knew the future of China, and because I always enjoy roaming about places I took advantage of this opportunity to go places and to see things. (It was very difficult to travel to other countries back then in China.) Who would’ve thought? Once I stayed, I’ve stayed for the second half of my life! (Moving into the 25th year!)
To make a long story short, I had two most profound thoughts after I came to this country. First, I see a different America. Neither the one I saw when I was in China, nor the one portrayed by America herself. Hah! Maybe I’ve found my own Utopia. Second, when I was in China, “Modernism” was the “betrayal of the devil.” And because of that, it was extremely attractive and affective to me. But in the States, it seemed to have become the “pope” of the art world, from art museums to art institutes, from theorists, to medias, and to galleries, everywhere. Of course, there are many great works I really like, but there are also many incidental “splashes” of the current and tide.
Maybe it’s because of these, I want my art and life to return to the origin, “the point zero”. I want my art to have the most simple and profound connection to life and nature. I picked up my brushes again, to paint those around me that touch me, and hopefully to resonate with others. This is not any kind of “art theory”, I am not even sure if my painting is “art”. It doesn’t matter to me anymore. I am an ordinary person who likes to paint. This is for the best. I like your questions. “Questions motivate thinking.”
SP: Thanks so much, ZZ, for a fascinating interview. Any many thanks to Lin for translating.
* * * * *
I referred near the start of the interview to the biographical extract written by Rick Spire and taken from ZZ’s book, Light and Shadow. Here it is:
After living and working in Seattle through 1990, Z. Z. was invited in 1991 to serve as a resident artist at Whitman College and to show his work in its Sheehan Gallery. He made many round trips between his apartment/studio in Seattle and the Whitman campus in Walla Walla before deciding to move there and try a different American lifestyle, one that would allow him to be closer to Nature while furthering his personal growth and evolution as a man and an artist. Perhaps of greater import to his life and career is that his relocation prompted him to purchase his first automobile and driving it soon became a primary passion for him. In Walla Walla, he filled every moment of his free time exploring every back road he could find, gradually expanding his range from the town and its vicinity to the Palouse of Eastern Washington, the vast expanses of the Pacific Northwest and beyond.
Seeing America in this up-close-and-personal way made Z. Z. feel as if he were truly experiencing her for the first time. It gave him an appreciation for how European settlers must have felt when they first saw her beautiful, bountiful vastness spreading before them like an empty canvas upon which they could paint themselves new lives. There was uncertainty about their future, of course, though equal excitement and curiosity that made them yearn to press forward, if for no other reason than just to see what there was to be seen. These emotions Z. Z. understood intimately, for he felt them himself as his own curiosity for new things and the freshness of the experience drove him ever deeper into the American heartland. For the first time, too, he could understand the feelings of American landscape painters, whose work he’d admired in books and photographs but whose inspiration did not fully translate until he immersed himself in America and began to discern her spirit. He even listened to country music as he drove and, though he didn’t understand the lyrics, came to feel its primal connection to America and the American Experience as an original and defining art form. At the same time Z. Z. found himself enthralled with the Palouse, he met the woman who would become his wife, Lin Hsuan-Chun, a native of Taiwan who was employed at Whitman. She soon began to accompany him on his outings and witnessed his ardor firsthand as he gazed lovingly upon the panoply unfolding around them. Z. Z. has said of what they saw that:
“It was the landscape that made me decide to move to Walla Walla. I found it so different from any that I was familiar with, from the Chinese landscape I’d seen in person or others that I’d learned about through study. It moved me deeply and enticed me to tell a story, to express my affection for it, for the massive yet simple land forms empowered by the contrast with the complex, ever-changing and strong but calm colors; for the long shadows in the high light of northern latitudes that make the forms even more unpredictable and brings the seemingly tranquil landscape to life; for the contrast of movement and calmness that makes the movement more lively and the calmness ever more peaceful; for the intense, almost tyrannical sunlight of high noon that brightens the wheat fields while paradoxically darkening the sky; for the way in which, from the vantage of a hilltop, the “solid” clouds appear to drag their shadows across the fields, the movement providing yet another contrast to their stillness and tranquility; for the crystalline air enlivened by the light dancing between the immensities of Heaven and Earth; and for the subtle contrast and compliment between the works of Nature and those of Humanity, which are ubiquitous though there are no people in sight. For me, driving in the Palouse is like swimming in waves of rolling fields or perhaps an endless gallery walk with priceless, though endlessly mutable masterpieces following one after another. Yet, what I love most is the way in which the complex elements of the landscape are integrated by light and shadow into one conformity, a logical and internally consistent whole that tells its own powerful story of permanence and change, although differently to each viewer and with each retelling.”
All this, Z. Z. absorbed into his core and took with him into his studio, where he translated it into potent and compelling imagery that spoke in the combined poetry of East and West, not of realism in the photographic sense, but of his interpretation of what he found to be real about rural America. Using familiar objects and settings and the accumulation of what he’d seen along the way, he created intimate scenes that, in the tradition of guo-hua, looked like Every Place but were really No Place in particular. These things he did through oil painting, finding in it a fuller freedom of expression and the ability to do as he pleased with his canvasses, to let them evolve as if the brush were part of his hand and he had but to follow its nature to its logical conclusion. In so doing, he returned to the most basic element of art; that is, to pick up a brush and paint whatever comes to mind, simply and elegantly, without elaboration or ornamentation, moving across the canvas like the pioneers across America, with a destination in mind—shapes, palette, structure, internal logic—but not knowing from moment to moment just what might come next. Primitive, elemental and primal, it was close to the nature of art just as the barns, road signs and rolling fields were close to the nature of the America in which he had immersed himself. It freed him from art history and the burden of trying to find his fit within it, as well as from contemporary art and the burden of trying to make a statement. He was a free man who just painted what he saw, not with his eyes but with that perceptive inner eye that delved beneath the surface and into the spirit of his subject, following its nature to its genetic source.
Using icons that have come to signify his work, Z. Z. captured his feelings from those voyages of discovery and found expression for his inner world, even as he transferred them to his canvases. They became building blocks in his hands, vehicles expressive of his emotions that he combines according to their inner logic to create an atmospheric feeling born of his experience and perspective, yet whose ultimate meaning can be discerned only from the perspective and experience of each individual viewer.
In the divine setting of the Palouse and with Lin by his side, Z. Z. felt truly free for the first time and that his way was open to all possibilities. At some point in his ramblings, there came to him a moment of awakening, of birth into a new life, almost, when he saw his path unfold before him and knew that he would dedicate his remaining time on Earth to painting the magnificent landscape around him. To Z. Z., that realization represented the culmination of everything he’d been and done up to that point, as well as the inspiration for everything he hoped to be and do in the future, for he had listened to Nature as She lovingly taught him Her ways and then followed his own nature till it led him to enlightenment!
So, while Z. Z. went to Walla Walla a poor man in the figurative sense, walking a solitary road to a destination unknown, he was transformed while there, both socially and artistically, for at the same time as he found the love of his life in that far-distant place, his creative soul went home to its first affection—painting—and soon it became his primary vocational focus, as well.