During Wang Huaiqing's studies at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts preparatory school, at the Academy itself, and in his graduate courses, he received rigorous academic training prominent artists under such as Wu Guanzhong, Zhang Ding, and Zhu Danian. Wu Guanzhong once publicly praised Wang's ability, quoting the Chinese proverb "the young bamboo grows higher than the old," and added that "Wang Huaiqing doesn't follow in my footsteps, or in the footsteps of anyone who came before him." Unlike the second generation of Chinese artists that spent long years abroad in Europe including their undergraduate years, Wang first completed his graduate studies in China, then became recognized as an artist at home before being invited for a two-year academic visit in the US.
The Western Abstract Expressionists and Minimalists abandoned naturalistic rendering of subjects and returned to focus on basic color, lines, and points, creating abstract works that encourage deep responses and subjective understanding of the images. Such an approach is in line with the thinking of artists the four great Zen Buddhist "painter monks" of the late Ming: Jian Jiang, Shi Tao, BaDa ShanRen, and Shi Qi, who rejected traditional landscape painting approaches, and based on their enlightened and developed awareness, proposed what was called "the method of non-method". They especially emphasized "simplification" (pingdan) and the "flow of ideas" (xiaosan jianyuan), which they expressed in the simplicity of their compositions and images, creating works that conveyed a psychological ambience of ease and naturalness. Pierre Soulages, a western artist of the post-war period, once suggested that "the more limited the means, the more intense the expression", (Fig. 1) a concept that subtly links to these types of artistic thoughts of the Chinese.
Wang's series of paintings on Chinese Ming furniture themes was a study in the use of simple, powerful means to reinterpret the ancient culture of China. The creative concept for the series became clear to Wang during a trip to paint local scenery in Shaoxing, where he became fascinated by the Jiangnan region, its famous waterways and its quaint villages of whitewashed walls and black-tiled roofs. For Wang, the basic architectural elements of the quaint old villages, their deep-toned center columns and cross-beams off set against the clean whiteness of the walls, already represented a perfect and intriguing abstract composition with an air of tranquility and changelessness. Wang's teacher, Wu Guanzhong, also favored these same white walls and black-tiled roofs as a subject for his own paintings, which he treated in styles that ranged between representation and abstraction. For Wang, the textures of the white walls would influence the look and feel of his later work in important ways. Two of Wang's 1986 works, Moon Light and Thousand Houses, Million Families, exemplify his abstract expression of the region's black-and-white themed architecture; for this artist, to step inside such buildings provided instant inspiration in the form of their exquisite hardwood furniture and internal structures. He saw wooden beams, weathered and twisted but strong and unbowed, along with finely made mortise-and-tenon joints. In them he sensed a strong cultural presence, the accumulated wisdom of China's people and its age-old traditions. Henceforth, the structures of traditional Chinese furniture and architecture became the chief subject of his work.
A great variety of furniture was used during the Ming dynasty, and today many examples of its stools and chairs, desks and small tables, cabinets, beds, couches and small stands have been preserved. A number of types of screens were also used: collapsible, portable screens, small screens used to hold marble, jades, or paintings, and larger, floor-standing screens. The manufacture of Ming furniture involved fine, sophisticated craftsmanship with precise and ingenious techniques such as mortise-and-tenon construction. The large panels of screens were fitted into slots in the outer frames to allow them to be adaptable to the changes of heat, cold and humidity. Their height and width were also proportioned to be both practical and beautiful: as a product of China's cultural heritage, screens were built to fit the principles of science, design, craftsmanship and etiquette. In a preface to the "Treatise on Superfluous Things" written by Ming dynasty scholar and poet Wen Zhenheng, his friend Shen Chunzi wrote, "When house and hearth are well-ordered, they will be open, neat, and clean. When flowers and trees, water and stones, and fish and fowl are well-managed, they will be kept at the right distance, and will be beautiful, appropriate and pleasing. When books and paintings are well-catalogued, they will offer ease and diversion, and will remain in good condition. When tables and couches are appropriately placed, utensils systematized, and their places established, they will be refined and practical, simple and well-placed, and clever but natural." The scholars and poets of the Ming strongly upheld these specific ideas about the order and arrangement of the items that made up part of their lifestyle.
Six Screens (Lot 1012) is a large-scale work based on functional screens. Screens were already in use for partitioning and screening out the wind in the early Western Zhou dynasty, after which they continued to take on more varied and complex forms during the Han and Tang periods. Instead of single independent screens, multiple panels were joined into folding screens that could be opened or folded shut. During the Ming dynasty and later, hanging screens evolved to suit the tastes of a changing society, and screens took on decorative uses beyond their original functionality. Six Screens is modeled after the traditional six-paneled style of screen (Fig. 2), and rather than a single, large-scale painting, the work is itself divided into six panels. The difficulty of controlling physical and painterly spaces increases with the number of individual segments in a painted work. Wang has analyzed the components that form the panels and has simplified the original physical divisions into soft, black, geometrical shapes, which are reminiscent of the Chinese art of paper-cutting in which forms and their shadows are cut starkly in the flat paper. There is also a resemblance to the strong blacks built up through the vivid horizontal, vertical, folded, falling, and pressure strokes of the calligraphy brush. The separated panels are now spread across the canvas, but rather than dissipating their energy, this arrangement allows them to settle into place with an added firmness and solidity. Wu Guanzhong once described Wang's treatment of his Ming furniture theme as a technique of "breaking down" and "reconstructing"; Wang's in-depth thinking about the historical objects that became his themes transcended their physicality set free their inner cultural spirit and implications; the individual panels here seem to link across space and a long river of historical time. Wang employs a highly modernist style of expression in order to restructure and re-present the historical idea of the screen. This creative process, one that moves between "deconstruction" and "reconstruction," is undoubtedly also a metaphor for the way in which the artist, facing his traditional culture, re-engages in dialogue with it.
One of the chief characteristics of Wang's Six Screens is found in the thought and feeling that resides in the endless, manifold changes of texture and expression in the oil medium. Soulages once pointed out that "texture can vary greatly, from fine, smoothly aligned textures to ones with a rough, woven feel; some are deep and peaceful, others tense or in surging agitation, creating their deep grey or dark black effects depending on the way they accept or reject light." Wang uses the palette knife in a probing fashion to create variations in color brightness by scraping off layers of pigment to expose layers underneath; the underpainting in some cases meld with the upper layers adding to the sense of depth and light. The background texture of Six Screens resembles the rough or frosted textures of Chinese ceramics, or the black tiles and rough, uneven white walls of the Jiangnan architecture. The mixture of colors at the surface and in deeper layers calls to mind the lumpy, uneven layers of white lacquers that are spread on the walls and reveal the underlying limestone-colored tile surfaces. The "frosted" texture and the rough, and heavily-layered background symbolizes in all these ways the tiled houses of the Jiangnan region. Wang thus goes beyond the furnishings in the interiors of these buildings by including the walls and its structural elements; the work may seem to be based only on screens as an interior furnishing, but cannot escape hinting at the external architectural elements. Without the one, of course, there would not be the other; furnishings exist only for the occupants of those homes, but it is the two together that symbolize "home and family," which have such a central meaning in the traditional Chinese order of things. The family is society's fundamental building block, a fact emphasized in the Confucian "Book of Rites," where it is said, "To bring order to the world, we must bring order to the nation; for the nation to be in order, we must put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must develop ourselves personally; and to develop ourselves personally, we must first set our hearts right." In his series based on home furnishings, Wang displayed the traditional knowledge and craftsmanship behind the fine Ming furniture pieces he chose, but suggested at the same time a sense of the traditional thought that saw family and home, with everyone under the same roof, as the nation's foundation and as a fundamental part of natural law.
The vermilion red background that spreads across Six Screens is the only piece by Wang that employs that color so broadly. The deep, somewhat reserved tonality of that color here produces a settling and complete feeling. Wang's use of red can be traced back to 1993, when he used small blocks of combined red and brown in some paintings, and in 1999 a furniture-themed work appeared in red. Six Screens, from 2006, explores the use of red as underpainting, producing a strong visual effect and one that is also symbolic of the vermilion red doorways in ancient China which were used in the homes of the wealthy, powerful or even in the Imperial Palace in Beijing (Fig. 3). This provides a further insight into the artist's use of the painting's background to suggest the walls of homes, and links it with the earlier furniture-themed works for a complete "home and family" concept. Wang here employs a red tone that is layered and seems to contain a variety of shades: a purple-red of "China red", a deep date or jujube red, a sumptuous vermilion red, a natural clay red, the suggestion of age in rust red and warm tangerine, each with its strong ethnic or national associations. The artist has also taken special care with the thick oil pigments and broad brushstrokes that add tension, and the contrast of light and depth to the work. In each of the separate panels, the artist has used thick colors to indicate the positions of light and shadow, creating effects that might be seen if it were set out in the fan-leaf configuration of screen panels, with light falling differently on each panel. Wang seems to have absorbed the thought of China's ancient philosopher Laotze, who said, "form and emptiness give rise to each other," as Six Screens can be seen as a set, physical form, or as an indeterminate, settled image, thus more suggestive and open to subjective interpretation.
Wang Huaiqing once said that, "The artist may be searching for a lifetime: searching for himself, for his own understanding of art. But there are some things that will elude you forever, and that is enough to make the artist's life a tough one, because that search will never cease". From Be Le (1980), to Six Screens (2006), Wang has maintained his consistent focus on probing historical sources, while embracing Chinese culture and enthusiastically watching China's contemporary development. He has continued to develop fundamental artistic themes for over 20 years, while always seeking innovative means of expression; Wang's art has been nourished by the traditional culture of China but has borrowed and adapted the expressive means and methods of modern Western art. The artist as a result has evoked an even greater respect for Chinese history and culture, encouraging others to think beyond the boundaries of their own regions or eras, to see the old in the new, and to bring East and West together.