Untitled (Penguin Trolleys)

Untitled (Penguin Trolleys)
signed and dated 'WXW 2008' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
200 × 200 cm. (78 3/4 x 78 3/4 in.)
Painted in 2008
Galerie Urs Meile
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Wang Xingwei, exh. cat., Beijing, China, 2013 (illustrated, p. 105).
Beijing, China, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), Wang Xingwei, May – August 2013.

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Lot Essay

A pair of regal Emperor penguins stand in formation against a backdrop of pixelated greenery. Rendered in a stately demeanour, these majestic Antarctic birds are displaced in a grassy land as common trolleys. Painted in 2008, Untitled (Penguin Trolleys) exhibits a sense of irony and satire that is a distinct characteristic of Wang Xingwei’s bold painterly ambitions.

Since the early-1990s, Wang pioneered a vision that would link Chinese contemporary art intelligently to the canon of Western art history. The artist grew up amidst the ’85 New Wave period, a time where Chinese contemporary art embraced the foreign and the conceptual. He created an artistic universe all of his own, where subtle references collided, characters repeated itself, and stylistic choices proliferated in a highly articulate and creative manner.

The central motif of this impressive large-scale painting is the Emperor penguin. Appearing as early as Wang’s seminal work New Beijing (2001), which is now part of Hong Kong’s M+ Sigg Collection, the subject of penguins is one that often reappears throughout the artist’s oeuvre. Wang himself once said he “always work(s) with the aim of squeezing out value from form…(t)hey are all objects waiting for me to explore them…”. In many ways, Wang’s penguins can be compared to Magritte’s man in a bowler hat. Aside from the obvious visual ties between a penguin’s fur coat and the man’s formal overcoat, it is the way in which both artists have employed these motifs throughout their artistic career that unites them. Magritte was fascinated by the silhouette and symbolism of the Belgian fonctionnaire and often displaced them in a brilliant theatre of bizarre landscapes.

On the other hand, Wang developed a distinct world of characters in the early to mid-2000s that would appear and disappear, flickering through the artist’s painterly consciousness. Both artists have a personal inventory of everyday objects and motifs that they deployed in a variety of combinations or arrangements that invite the viewer to enter a previously undiscovered reality. In Untitled (Penguin Trolleys) , Wang removes the penguins from their natural surroundings and heightens the sense of unfamiliarity by rendering the birds in short, punctuated brushstrokes. The colours are similarly sharp, with Wang only applying a limited palette of blue, white, yellow and black. The penguins appear stoic, however they also resemble cut-outs that have been plonked into a strange, foreign landscape. Whilst Wang appropriates and pays tribute to the forefathers of European Surrealism he also imbues this seminal work with a contemporary Chinese twist.

Furthermore, the background is composed of a myriad of bright and dark green shades. Although they are rendered similar to Seurat’s pointillist brushstrokes, the deliberate combination of artificially bright green with army camouflage green is reminiscent of contemporary Chinese painter Yue Minjun’s colour palette and by extension the historic Chinese propaganda posters. Comparisons of Wang’s oeuvre can also be compared to George Condo, both artists are deeply proficient in a number of painting styles that they can readily borrow and manipulate – as if appropriating ready-mades.

Wang removes any sign of methodological stability in his paintings and deters his audience from obtaining any conclusive meaning. Instead, the viewer is forced to contemplate the narrative before them and the relationships created between the penguins and its surroundings. There is an element of imbalance and lack of clarity, which makes this seminal work ever more intriguing and mystifying. The artist jumps between figuration and abstraction and asks the viewer to forego any preconceived notions about painting as a medium and completely redirect their attention to learning a new visual language that the artist has created.

Wang’s quirky sensibility and sharp wit are on full display in Untitled (Penguin Trolleys) , as he freely appropriates style and content from different traditions and employs them in a bizarre and highly creative scenario.

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