In Chinese language systems, symbols or ‘characters’ depict the often monosyllabic words as pictograms or ideograms. In her debut exhibition at Riflemaker, the young Chinese painter Wen Wu takes the idea to its literal conclusion by using the physical shapes of these graphic ‘syllables' to present them as female figures. The forty small, lusciously coloured book paintings evoke an otherworldly nostalgia and sensuality exploring nature, spirituality and intuition; faces hidden, bodies folded or extended, often inclined away from the viewer, naked except for an open book.
Wen Wu’s work melds an instinctive technical virtuosity with a life long obsession with Romantic English and European literature. In one painting, the artist takes the physical shape of the Chinese pictogram for ‘peace’ - its etymology means ‘woman in the house’ - to its literal conclusion, using a book (as home or protector) and a woman’s head and shoulders to visually describe the symbol. In another, the pictogram for mountain is rendered as a woman bent over her knees, face on the ground with an open red book resting on her back bearing ‘the weight of knowledge that binds the human form’. Each small painting is figurative though the spirit of the work appears abstract. Pools of colour almost consume the artist’s subjects within a world of shadows; red clearly derives from Mao’s Red Book, whilst blue alludes to melancholy, green and ochre, to nature and forests.
Wu's paintings counter the commercialisation of art production in modern China, and break from the politically-orientated Social Realist style of the 1950s to 1970s. Her aesthetic is primarily about the representation of beauty, infused with a ‘literary’ neo-realism that takes its cue from Western sources, from 19th century plein air French Romanticism and the English Pre-Raphaelites to the pre-World War II School of Paris.
Wen Wu was born in Qingdao in south-east China and studied in Beijng at Tsinghua University and London Metropolitan University, having trained as a painter from a very young age. Chen Dan Qing, one of China’s leading contemporary artists and a pioneering art educator has recognised Wen Wu as one of the most important artists of her generation, to come out that country.