What is time? This seemingly simple question has baffled countless scientists and philosophers, and no one can offer an absolute answer to date. Time is a familiar part of our daily experience. Yet, it is the most elusive concept in the world. Tang dynasty poet Li Bai wrote in his poem Preface to the Feast in Peach and Plum Garden on a Spring Night, “Time is a passenger that travels through hundreds of aeons. Life is in a constant state of flux – it is but a dream. How many joyous days are left for us to enjoy?” Time is intangible. Civilisation began with following the sun and other celestial objects to observe the passage of time. With the advancement in astronomy and horology, we have evolved into the modern society that worships efficiency. Wang Guangle reverts time to a subjective feeling. He keenly captures the nuanced relationship between time and light with the painting medium. His epiphanies are crystallised in the work Terrazzo 2003.3 (Lot 3).
Wang Guangle started representing time with light in his 2000 graduation work Afternoon (Fig. 1). This pentaptych depicts a ray of light entering an empty through a gap in the curtains. Even though this work widely diverged from the mainstream aesthetics of Social Realism in the academy, Wang Guangle took the risk of not being able to graduate and faithfully recorded that moment, “It was quiet, idle, and empty – perhaps these were the inherent qualities of life itself. A ray of light shone on the floor. Perhaps you might be busy, but I had plenty of time. That was why I expressed that moment.” After he graduated, he painted another group of Afternoon. In this work, the ray of light falls on the terrazzo on the floor (Fig. 2) – it replaces the empty room as the visual cue that defines the space. In the process of executing this work, Wang Guangle realised that painting the ray of light only took an afternoon. Yet, painting the sophisticated texture of the terrazzo could consume up to an entire month. The monotonous act of painting this repetitive pattern gave him new insights in the sense of time. This experience inspired him to pursue the Terrazzo series, “Terrazzo is a tacky and unfashionable material for the floor. I use it as a symbol to represent my circumstances. I wanted to devote my all my efforts to paint it. Serendipitously, I discovered an entirely new image. Currently, I still paint the terrazzo to indicate that “Life is here”. The only difference is that, it points to many different “nows” temporally.” Afternoon represents a specific time in a three dimensional space by defining it within a particular scene. Terrazzo 2003.3 retains the depiction of light as the subject matter, but the narrative of a concrete place has been removed. In this work, time is felt in a more unadulterated manner. At the same time, it is also a record in which the viewer can experience the lengthy process of the artist creating this work.
Terrazzo 2003.3 naturalistically captures the sense of movement in light that cannot be seen with the naked eye. Wang Guangle's visualised his feeling of the passage of time with this painting. His later works from the Terrazzo series focus on depicting light by materialising the concept itself. The nuanced depiction of light seen in Terrazzo 2003.3 is a rare specimen – it is a watershed moment in this series. It inherited the quantum leap in understanding time found in Afternoon. It is also a prelude to his exploration of light in the later works from Terrazzo series. It is evident that this work is an significant milestone – it marks an important turning point in Wang Guangle's artistic career. Futurist painter Giacomo Balla's expression of light in Street Light (Fig. 3) is boisterous and intense. It stimulates the viewer's visual experience. The V-shape lines in complementary colours endlessly radiate from the light bulb at the centre. Not only does it champion the sense of speed that the industrial age worshiped, it also demonstrates the Western concept of time, which progresses forward in a linear fashion. When Wang Guangle painted the terrazzo, he paid special attention to the treatment of light and subtle change of colour temperature in its texture. The glow in the centre does not have a define edge – it is between diffusion and focusing. This treatment is similar to the intersecting rays of light in Chu Teh Chun's paintings (Fig. 4). It echoes the cyclical concept of time in Chinese philosophy. Viewers are guided to experiences time in its transitional state of contraction and dilation.
When Xu Beihong was expounding on the direction of Chinese modern painting, he said Chinese literati paintings “emphasize poetic conception, but don't value realistic portrayal” while in Western painting, "if realism is pushed to its limits, it becomes uninteresting". Wang Guangle demonstrated how the two polar opposites can coexist in perfect equilibrium. Viewed from a distance, Terrazzo 2003.3 can be considered as an abstract work. Upon close examination, the viewers are astonished by its naturalistic details. Under normal circumstances, the terrazzo material is usually on the ground being viewed from above. Wang Guangle transposed this materially vertically on the canvas so it can be viewed at the eye level. The artist mentioned that he did not require photographic reference when he painted Terrazzo. All he needed was to focus both physically and mentally on the brush. Wang Guangle has ritualised his painting practice so much that the image of the terrazzo is etched in his mind. Every grain on the material is meticulously depicted. Even the variation of colours in the concrete is faithfully represented. This trial of perseverance and patience is a meditation on the comprehension of time.
Wang Guangle obsessively magnified the amazing details in the terrazzo. He resolutely painted every little grain until they are assembled into a powerful image. Its allure is comparable to Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Net. Her net engulfs everything. The impressive spatial effect draws the viewers into her illusory experience. On the other hand, the intoxicating space in Terrazzo 2003.3 entices the viewers to travel back in time – it is similar to the way lost memories surface when one looks at old photographs. When Wang Guangle was young, he observed his uncle, who was a mason, processed the terrazzo. He thought the material was exquisite at the time. It was not until much later when he grew up did he realise that terrazzo had be phased out of usage. Terrazzo 2003.3 is the artist's personal connection to his first aesthetic experience. Wang Guangle transcended this ordinary material into a vehicle of aesthetic that is filled with poetry. This concept parallels Xu Beihong's idea of beauty, "The beauty of a thing may rest in its nature or in its image. To be truly beautiful, it must be beautiful in both. The beauty of a thing's image can be discovered by observation; the beauty of a thing's nature is discovered through feeling. Its Dao and its virtue will sometimes be merged as one"
Wang Guangle is a member of a contemporary art collective for young artists named N12. The group was founded in 2003 to facilitate a self-financed exhibition for the 12 graduates from the China Central Academy of Fine Arts. The statement of the show was “Painting to the 12th power. 12 participants in the exhibition. 12 different styles of paintings. No unifying theme. Discover the possibilities of painting are to the Nth power.” It represented the desires of young Chinese artists to pursue their individual voices. The members of this group include Qiu Xiaofei, Song Kun, and Liang Yuanwei. Out of the myriads of mundane objects, Wang Guangli chose the terrazzo as a subject matter. His amazing power of observation is unmatched among his peers. Xu Beihong explained the importance of observation for an artist, “Art is the embodiment of wisdom. Wisdom comes into play especially in our ability to observe, and to trim away (to select and reject). When observation is perfected, you can achieve harmony of colour. With the ability to frame your composition, you can use just a part of the whole, and you can also find a painting in anything; there's no end to what you can do.” In this regard, Wang Guangle's achievement is undeniable. His phenomenal acuity earned him an irreplaceable position among the great artists who were born in the 1970s. Terrazzo 2003.3 demonstrates how he bridged the chasm between abstraction and representation with his ground-breaking artistic form. It subverts the conventional dichotomy and opens up new dimensions for the painting medium.