Tang Wugang: The Armory of an Artist

As an emerging artist, Tang Wugang doesn’t aim to rise to a level equal to his luminaries overnight. But he does sport the now proverbial bald crown and saintly expression of a contemporary master as he walks around his brightly lit studio stacked with paintings of armored and embattled souls- examples from the latest collection he’s been working on.

Once tutored by our previously featured artist He Duoling, Tang began his study at Sichuan Pedagogical Academy (Oil Painting department) in Chengdu. He encountered the works of Caravaggio, Tiepolo, Rembrandt, Rubens, Velazquez, Sargent, Goya, and Dali (the latter of whose influence can be seen from Tang’s use of floating fish and eyeballs) and was inspired by their razor-sharp precision and faithfulness to movement and form, their exquisite renderings of light and shadow- a precision of motion that 20th century animators would carry to whole new realms.

Whatever Flies in the Sky

As far as standing out among the crowd goes, Tang is a modestly rebellious intellectual. He’s not advertising full-on eroticism, psychedelic candy colors, or ubiquitous culture cues, but there is enough of the present culture in his work: just look at the popular video game Legend, which he likes to play. Tang Wugang’s paintings are broken, interrupted, and sliced through, even demented at times. He may keep things to scale, but he will offer multiple perspectives, painting a gloomy abscess where light and emptiness reveal the pieces of exploded persons, helpless and breathless, war-torn, drowning under wreckage. Arms, legs and heads disappear as if ripped off, suspended in depth. Moodily sketched female busts and the lingering impressions of war heroes, frozen in place and space, await the end of some struggle or the punishment of some crime.

I visited Tang’s house on a frigid Saturday night in his cul-de-sac near the Chengdu airport, tucked away in the southern reaches of the city. Unlike spaces in modernized He Tang Yuese, his house is a cozy three-story affair- no high ceilings or modern facades. In the lower part of the house are his dining room and studio. We ate together with a number of friends. The household help set out simmering hotpot with Korean-style paocai, lotus root soup, rice, and dishes of spicy vegetables, a meal prepared in observance of a showcase of Tang’s work that day at the nearby Millennium Hotel, where we’d been earlier to photograph his works.

Tang Wugang painting

"General" Canvas Painting

After dinner, he led me to the adjacent studio where I took pictures of paint sets, worktables, and canvases as tall as me. “Why is the head missing and an apple floating at the same level?” I asked the artist of one armor-clad figure, warily drawing toward three others. I got a piecemeal answer which, as we walked from studio to hallway, up the stairs, through the study and sitting room, typified each response he gave me: incomplete. A painting hung on every wall. Though Tang remained aloof about the meaning of his work, every portrait and landscape seemed to have a special significance that tied it in with the rest.

An absence of overt explanations challenges any easy interpretation of Tang Wugang’s dream landscapes. The artist’s symbols are of purely personal and, he’s hinted, mythical significance. Wu Yongqiang, a Sichuan University art professor, writes:

“Tang Wugang is absolutely not a painter who believes in ‘repetition as power.’ He is never a follower of domestic contemporary art trends, painting a symbol again and again until it’s dead… [He] prefers to egotize through his works, rather than sell them as a brand product. He chooses targets at random… Everything, whatever flies in the sky, swims in the river, grows in the soil, gets delivered from the womb or sprouts from seed, can be found in his works.”

 

Tang Wu Gang

The artist takes a look at a recent work in his studio in Chengdu

Colors are muted: shadow and rust are rubbed away, revealing dim exteriors, eerily torn. Fish, apples, eyeballs and other objects appear injected into the atmosphere as in a gel, often propped on the end of stems, or else fixed onto long, spindly ejections of fluid. Tiny fish eat through the empty space like worms in woodwork, suggesting underwater decomposition. At times solitary figures are caught at a crossroads. This recalcitrance of space, the cross-section of the underwater and above land, the absent and the present, make for an uncomfortable viewing experience. But Tang’s palette permits only partial visibility. The cool and removed atmosphere evokes ravages of distance and time which prohibit any actualization of movement. But ravages don’t mean surrender; this is Time trying to resurrect itself. Tang’s bodies don’t speak to a present, riotous existence, screaming to be heard; but rather to a confused, disintegrating, implacable past.

Tang Wugang painting

"故国悲风" Oil painting on Canvas

In the shadows of one image was the head of a faded general from pre- Minguo (Gregorian) times in China; a marauder scavenged from the annals of history. His mustache appeared to be fluttering on the winds of a whole, crumbling city, which turned out to be the scene of his own or his kingdom’s demise. I took him for a Western figure, like one of Velazquez’s, but Tang insisted that this Chinese helmet was part of the war regalia having very precise characteristics that he’d taken the time to research. In another work was a boy Tang could recall from his childhood- they were classmates- rimmed by a crushed piece of paper (a homework assignment), and more objects from school: an apple, red stars worn by high-achieving students in the old days of the PRC. There was a man, further in the distance, his back to the viewer (the artist or the boyhood friend?) bent and looking troubled, in despair.

From Chengdu to Ke-lo-ah-ke

In the sitting room lay a traditional Chinese tea service- an yixing clay teapot on a tray, surrounded by little figurines sculpted playfully into animals; a turtle and a monkey. “I’m the turtle,” Tang Wugang said, pouring tea over the clay turtle; the woman beside us happened to be born in the Year of the Monkey, and he drenched the monkey in tea and handed it to her. I’m a Tiger; there was no tiger, but there was wonderful, deeply scented, rich Pu-erh tea, with a scalding bite that made me think of charred conifer leaves.

Tang Wu Gang

The artist in his studio

Tang Wu Gang

Tools of the trade

Beside us were two birds in cages- one was a female named Wei Wei. The other, a male, had no name. In addition to being a connoisseur of history, Tang Wugang has a special fondness for exotic birds and other rare species. The shelves in his house are stacked with books from end to end on art and history, and tapestries and ornaments fill the upstairs of the house, as well as a large tropical fish tank, displaying his love of wildlife. His images always reflect these collections of esoterica. Whether it’s purely an aesthetic appeal, I’m not sure. Like a man of the Renaissance, Tang did not have the opportunity to view his favorite Western art directly when he was in growing up, so he’s developed a style that Westerners may perceive as derivative- leaning toward ideas and themes that appear out of context in place and time. Such derivation typifies much Chinese contemporary work, both because Chinese students are instructed to sketch the plaster heads and busts of Greek statues, and because, as full-grown artists, they often try to work from memory… a model that loses its substance after a while.

Tang Wugang paintings

A pair of Tang Wugang's oil paintings side by side

“I listen, and I read about the West,” Tang, said to me, pouring out tea and emptying the teapot several times, trying to get the flavor to suffuse the pottery. “In college I read many Western books.” His hands moved eloquently, like a song. A CD recording of traditional Buddhist chants droned out from the stereo by the fish tank . (Tang Wugang said he’s not a Buddhist, but appreciates many aspects of Buddhism.) “I understand plenty of Western culture. What I understand, I like. I like the Beatles. Do you know Ke-lou-ah-ke?” he wanted to know, injecting an idiosyncrasy that I was forced to decipher. “Oh, yeah, On the Road,” I said. He took me off on a string of other pop and literary references; where they began and ended I wasn’t sure.

Art Imitates Life Imitates Theater

Three collections of Tang Wugang’s works are featured on his website: Outside the Circle and Inside the Dream, the strangely named Shutiao (French Fries) and Dog Chase Tomorrow, and finally, ‘Feiniao Tianchang’- The Flying Bird in Heaven. Two more series are discussed in an article by Professor Wu Yongqiang, mentioned above. Regarding the title of the first series, Professor Wu describes meeting the artist for the first time and getting a partial explanation:

“‘I am just amusing myself,’ [Tang said.] ‘Including with painting. I am not involved with the Circle and I know little about the Circle.’

…Anyone who has heard about the ancient martial art circles [in China] and the contemporary art circle existing today would be aware of the said ‘Circle.’ When I reflect on this, I have to move my eyes back to the warriors painted by Tang Wugang. Loneliness hides behind the glittering sword, and it suddenly occurs to me why the paintings in this series were named ‘Warrior-Departure.’ Armor, sword and horse ride on, incarnated as a human in battle upon the eye contact of the viewer. However, when you finally find out which is which, they are turning head to leave… now, you see the lonely Universe at their backs… Tang Wugang, who stands outside the circle, draws up the brush to amuse himself alone.”

Regarding the theatricality of the artist’s work:

“Aren’t we living in a cultural ambience full of historical theatricals? Aren’t people joking with history, not only now, in an era where we are ‘amusing ourselves to death?’ Isn’t the official history, which has always been transcribed by the elites, time and time again, made fun of again and again? The series ‘Wailing Winds of the Past’ is a theatre for the theatricals…Actually, these paintings are interrogating the theatricality of our culture.”

Finally, looking at Tang Wugang’s striking use of light and bold shadow:

“[His] paintings are colored, but the colorfulness cannot cover the black tones. He applies black in such diverse ways that I cannot help thinking about the charm of ink in Oriental art, not to mention the images in the ‘Warrior-Departure’ series being filled with a calligraphic quality.”

At first glance, Tang’s use of metaphorical signifiers, style, and overall visual language is difficult to decipher. To some it may appear derivative, lacking anything to distinguish it from typical Western fantasy art or graphic design. But the relationships are so mysterious that you must look again. Is there social rhetoric at work here, a rhetorical message? Whatever it is, it’s encrypted with a purely its own significance. I wonder: do Tang Wugang’s historical symbolist images, shadowy, broken, and mysterious, compare to at all- or do they totally disrupt and bastardize- the traditional Eastern practice of depicting persons from history?

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About Tabitha

Tabitha is a Chinese scholar, educator, and art enthusiast who is interested in trans-national movements in art.

8 Responses to “Tang Wugang: The Armory of an Artist”

  1. I wonder if Tang isn’t just painting images for the sake of painting images. There doesn’t have to be a message or coded subtext underneath every artist’s works … Sure something about painting and art in China suggests the sneaky pictographs of Renaissance artists avoiding the ire of the Church, but this guy just seems to want to have fun with color and texture. And he can’t help but be famous – at least a lil bit – because he’s Chinese and painting ….

    I love your writing Tabitha, don’t stop giving us what you got!

  2. I agree with Sascha. Sometimes I think we have this tendency to overanalyze art. This should be especially true regarding postmodern art.

    Btw, Tabitha, did you comment ”great article” on your own article???

  3. Hm. True, I did seem to look for significance in everything. I guess that is b/c Tang looks like he’s using a lot of symbols. The term “symbolism” has been quite prevalent in characterizing Chinese contemporary art.

    I definitely didn’t want to say he’s not having fun. He is having the most fun of almost any artist I’ve met.
    Truth be told, I would be at a loss to say if this is real symbolism, unless I had a Ph.D.

    When I said it looks derivative to a lot of Westerners, there is a reason why- it has to do with the constrictions of the Western cultural imagination. As you can see, I can only draw parallels w/ Goya + Dali- beyond that my own understanding is limited. Also, traditional Chinese art education and Western art education really are different.

    This is a big problem in international art criticism, and has even raised political debates within the Venice Biennale planning committee, which in 1993 introduced a Chinese contemporary art exhibition that was widely criticized as being culturally biased, ethnocentric, and politically convenient.

    In order to understand Chinese art, Westerners have to try to get inside the Chinese mind. However, this is virtually impossible when we don’t have the same cultural signifiers to root the images in context. But we cannot simply be “impartial” as viewers, because we are NOT impartial- we owe a response to all nations that produce great art, not only (and not to mention) those that have experienced former Western imperialism.

  4. Brendan

    Really enjoying your series of artist interviews Tabitha, I do hope there are more to follow.

    Can you post some pictures of Tang Wugang’s works here, I’d especially like to see more of the Warrior-Departure pieces. They look particularly striking.

    Can you also post the link to his website.

    Thanks.

  5. Sure. I’m working with Sascha on getting more photos up here. I think I’ll post some on my blog as well (www.momowuwen.tumblr.com)

    Tang Wugang has a Sina blog:

    http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_8b353a960100ywpf.html

  6. Brendan

    Thanks Tabitha.

    Can you PM me your contact details on the forum, I have something I wanted to run by you.

  7. You write a captivating articles. I truly admire your writing style. Thank you, Tabitha

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