In China, the peony is embraced as the unofficial national flower, appearing as a frequent subject of ink paintings and folk art where the blooms symbolize bountiful wealth and opulence. The Compendium of Materia Medica, written by renowned herbalist Li Shizhen in the Ming dynasty, states that, “The peony is first among flowers, therefore it is universally considered king amongst them.” In Wang Yin’s Flowers, a carpet of peony blossoms appears to stretch across a perfectly flat landscape as far as the eye can see, dissolving into an abstract blur towards the high horizon line. Yet the flowers themselves are painted with a disorienting flatness, as if they had been plucked directly from a bolt of cloth or pattern-book. Delicately modelled in shades of grey, the blooms appear to recede into the distance while also stubbornly existing on the surface of the canvas, generating a thought-provoking visual dichotomy.
Much of Wang Yin’s work delights in subverting established artistic conventions. As a young artist growing up in Shandong province during the Cultural Revolution, Wang was taught to paint in a Soviet Realist style, trained in the Western techniques of oil painting and linear perspective. It was also during this period that the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art began to exert its influence on artistic production, as Mao’s view that all art should reflect the lives of the working class and the popular masses was accepted as the primary artistic doctrine in China. Encouraged to study the native artistic culture, artists began to borrow techniques and subjects from folk art as inspiration, combining them with techniques learned in the West.
Flowers responds directly to the art of the Yan’an era, presenting a work that blurs the boundaries between Western painting and Chinese folk art in a refreshing way. To create the works in this series, Wang collaborated with a rural artisan, instructing him to paint flowers according to Wang’s particular specifications. The result is a work that positions a traditional Chinese floral motif within a Western formulation of perspective, challenging the categorical associations of contemporary viewers.