While Wang Guangle was a student at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), a professor once walked into his studio. After examining the paintings that Wang planned to exhibit as part of his graduation portfolio, the professor uttered a single comment, “No form, no colour, no volume,” before walking out without a further word. The criticism that was cast by a teacher over a decade ago has since evolved into a guiding principle that has profoundly shaped Wang’s artistic pursuits. Terrazzo No. 12 (Lot 17), a work produced just a few years after Wang’s graduation from CAFA in 2000, takes a common building material as a starting point from which to explore the durational process of painting, while challenging the traditional constraints of academic realism.
Terrazzo was a common building material throughout China in the late 90s, ubiquitous in buildings as both walls and flooring. As a young artist, Wang Guangle became fascinated by the surface qualities of this cheap durable material, made of irregular chips of stone embedded in a matrix and polished smooth. Speaking about the first time he painted the material, “I thought I could finish the painting in a single afternoon, but I found out that the terrazzo floor was very hard to paint. I worked on it for about more than one month, and still didn’t finish it. This made me think a lot. I realized they were two directions to take from there. Either I would emphasize the painting process or the realistic aspect of the specific scene with the light entering the room, etc. I decided to bring a new image out of it. I took out the more dramatic time specific aspects and left only the terrazzo.”
To create the works in his Terrazzo Series, Wang employed a number of different styles and techniques to achieve different effects: executing works with an ink wash technique applied with a Chinese brush to emphasize the blurring effect of the pigment, polishing the painted surface of the canvas to imitate the surface quality of actual terrazzo, and even painting directly onto cement board as a base to give the finished work a more illusionistic solidity. Some works are executed on a white base, with black lines used to articulate surface details. In other works, including Terrazzo No. 12, black is used as a base colour, with the abstract surface elements are rendered in white. Through this time-consuming repeated application of colour, Wang Guangle strives to achieve a stylistic purity that showcases the duration needed to achieve the final visual effect, with the goal of impressing a strong sense of the invested time upon the viewer.
By using multiple methodologies and techniques in parallel, Wang showcases different means of achieving his visual goals; works in the Terrazzo Series showcase the artist’s branching and diverse grasp of media, demonstrating that the artist’s contemporaneous view towards technique: not only as a means to an end, but as a focal point that can supporting larger creative goals. Li Xianting, a prominent critic and curator of contemporary Chinese art, has described Wang’s studio technique in the following manner: “In creating these works, the complex manual process is of utmost importance to the artist. The shape of every brushstroke, every manual gesture, is simple. As a result, every brushstroke and gesture contributes to the overall composition of the work, which primarily relies on tedious repetition and a simple process to produce the end result.” Wang’s conscious decision to paint only the terrazzo and eliminate all traces of specific time or place from his work essentially strips away the illusionistic qualities traditionally associated with academic painting.
In his quest to focus on the meditative qualities of his work, elements of Wang’s Terrazzo series resemble those of Rothko’s black paintings, produced in the later years of the artist’s life. In these works, Rothko focuses on the subtleties of colour and surface, inviting the viewer to examine the work in detail despite the seeming absence of content. Wang’s works prompt a similar reaction, drawing the viewer into the galaxy of minuscule oblong shapes that resemble cells or grains of sand in their imperfect complexity. Each irregular form is the same yet different, coalescing into a shifting surface that seems radiate and ripple outwards with subtle shifts in tone. Like Rothko’s black paintings and the works of other colour field artists, Terrazzo No. 12 responds to the surroundings in which it is viewed, and to shifting changes in light. By consciously darkening the corners and edges of the work, Wang enhances the work’s illusionistic pull, while reminding the viewer of the artist’s hand and the hours of painstaking labour that went into the creation of this piece.
By painting a surface material, the artist reveals that he is not interested in capturing the visual semblance of terrazzo. Rather, it has become a medium through which to channel the artist’s conscious thought process, showcasing the meditative and time-consuming ritual of painting countless irregular blocks onto canvas. Though the allover aspect of Wang’s Terrazzo paintings may recall the intricate nets painted by Yayoi Kusama, the motivation behind Wang’s works and his process is very distinct. Kusama’s thickly painted loops of paint explore the concept of infinity and the artist’s own psychological obsession with the process of accumulation. In contrast, Wang’s interest is in the passage of time, and the meditative process that it takes to produce a work such as this one. According to the artist, “The Terrazzo Series is not about social issues – it lies outside the language of the system – and instead searches for the meaning behind individual life, in its unpredictable brevity and its eternal regeneration.”
By meticulously capturing every detail of a material that most people merely glance at, Wang reproduces a commonplace material as a means of recording the passage of time. Though society may witness endless change in real time, Wang Guangle’s works are removed from a standard chronology, instead capturing a sense of duration without reference to specific occurrences. What his terrazzo paintings lack in traditional form, colour and volume, they make up for in their exploration of tragedy, ecstasy, and the sublime, all expressed within a shallow surface familiar in our everyday lives.