“These 500 Brushstrokes were completed in 2021. They spent over a year in transit at sea before landing in New York. Today, when I see them again in 2022, I have a sense of familiarity and strangeness. There is some sweetness hidden underneath, and feelings of hope and optimism. I feel that the time I created them was not long ago at a time when a force of gathering and wishing to generate something consequential was moving between the strokes, eager and calling out.” – Wu Jian’an, Beijing, May 2022
This summer the main gallery of ArtFarm is devoted to ten recent examples of Wu Jian’an’s ongoing series 500 Brushstrokes on which work commenced in 2016. The abstract formal language characteristic of these works came as a considerable surprise to Wu’s admirers as until then there had been a strong element of figuration in all his major series of paper cuts from 2003 onwards with the series known as Daydreams.
Born in Beijing in 1980, Wu Jian’an graduated from the Central Academy of Fine Art (CAFA) Beijing in 2005 and currently lives and works there. While studying at the Academy under Lu Shengzhong whose early studies of Chinese folk-art led to a life-long involvement with the traditional craft of paper cut, Wu conceived of ways in which this technique might be used in ways that would have been unimaginable to its original practitioners. A small group of earlier works by Wu hanging in the corridor leading from the gallery shows how his technique evolved from the silhouetting of complicated paper cut-outs against monochromatic sheets of paper to the use of multiple layers of paper of different colors resulting in low-relief effects.
There does not seem to have been a transition period between the wild paper cuts for which he was best known at the time and the equally wild but abstract compositions characteristic of 500 Brushstrokes. Wu Jian’an gave a simple explanation early on in the development of the series. “Visitors of all kinds are invited to the studio to play a brushstroke “game”. They can freely pick the size and type of the brush, as well as choose the density of ink and colors in order to write a single brushstroke on a sheet of Xuan paper in whatever style they choose, without creating a recognizable image or character… In traditional Chinese painting, brushstroke are highly regulated. As in a hierarchical society, only a limited number of accepted brushstrokes can be used. 500 Brushstrokes offers equal opportunity to all manner of brushstrokes, orthodox or not, all can go into an artwork. This creates a variety of previously unimaginable relations. Combinations consisting of “bad” strokes often compose incredible images.”
Consequently Wu’s combinations of individual brushstrokes are as far as could possibly be both from traditional Chinese calligraphy which evidences the continuous movements of the calligrapher’s hand and from Western artists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Tobey or Brice Marden who have responded to Asian calligraphy in highly individual ways.
The skill with which the individual strokes have been collaged to the surface on which they coexist also adds another dimension to the viewing experience. In a description of 500 Brushstrokes #10, 2016, that has recently entered the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, reference is made to the way in which the individual strokes are “collaged into the larger whole using traditional Chinese conservation techniques which allow for nearly seamless layering of paper on paper.” On multiple levels, then, these festive works are not what they seem – not calligraphic, not expressive of a meaning, not painted directly on a flat surface but rather organized by a masterly hand in a manner that fools the eye and delights the mind.