A man sits alone in a sleeping berth on an overnight train. He gazes disconsolately at us, one leg propped up casually as he lounges against a corner of the cabin on a bunk, wearing simple clothing that give us no clues to his identity. There is no window; instead a soft light falls from overhead, illuminating a draped tablecloth flanked by piles of starched white pillows. We feel compelled to study the man in the painting even as he seems to study us. The sitter’s demeanour and surroundings suggest that he is an every-man, who could be any one of the many people one passes by on a daily basis.
However, this painting is in fact a self-portrait, and it is the artist Wang Yin himself who gazes out of the painted surface at his own audience. Wang Yin grew up in Qingdao, under the shadow of his father who was a professor of Soviet-style painting at a local art academy. As a young artist, Wang was taught to paint in a strict Socialist Realist style, creating works that glorified working class heroes and emphasized idealistic depictions of everyday life. This early education became the foundation and core of Wang’s artistic practice; it was only later, after moving to Beijing to enroll in the Central Academy of Drama that Wang Yin suddenly gained exposure to Western avant-garde art, music, film and theatre. As part of his degree in stage design, Wang wrote his thesis on the work of Polish theatre director Jerzy Grotowski, a prominent theorist who Wang describes as having had a great impact upon his approach to art and art-making.
Grotowski is famous for advocating for a form of “poor theatre” that stripped stagecraft of its unnecessary components. In his seminal work Towards a Poor Theatre (1968) he wrote: “The Rich Theatre depends on artistic kleptomania, drawing from other disciplines, constructing hybrid-spectacles, conglomerates without backbone or integrity. […] Consequently, I propose a poverty in theatre.” This “poverty” requires paring away the extraneous in order to highlight essential truths, focusing on the relationship between actors and spectators with the goal of breaking down barriers between the two. Wang Yin’s work borrows Grotowski’s theories and applies them to painting, stripping away the detail, history and ideology in his works to focus instead on highlighting the pure and the unfamiliar in the everyday. Speaking about Grotowski, Wang has stated that “while we usually think of being radical as being a “forward” movement, [Grotowski’s] way of being radical was expressed in an ancient manner…he believed that theatre should return to its origins, to its genealogy, wherein lie answers to questions posed by today’s realities.”
In On the Train, Wang Yin has chosen to depict a standard train cabin, intentionally simplifying the interior features so that the bunks are rendered in simple rectangles of yellow, white and grey that appear almost abstract in their symmetrical geometry. Like a Sean Scully painting, the shapes, rendered with a thick painterly technique remind viewers of the intrinsic materiality of the oil paint, even while imparting volume and expressing interplays of shadow and light. The sitter seems to exist in a liminal space, inhabiting an idea of a sleeper berth rather than an actual place. Even the sitter himself feels more like the expression of an abstract concept than an individual, let alone a self-portrait. As the only major non-symmetrical element in the painting, he becomes an object of study, the “actor” who engages with his spectators in a distinctly Grotowskian fashion.
In interviews, Wang Yin has expressed his fascination with painting tropes – from nudes to still-lifes to self-portraits – and his desire to explore the conventions of painting. In an interview with Philip Tinari, former director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, he stated, “I prefer to depict themes that I’m familiar with, and decontextualize them to make them seem strange.” It is this fascination with the familiar – a key tenet of Realist painting – that inspires many of Wang Yin’s works. By stripping away unnecessary stylistic to reveal only the core of what he is hoping to express, Wang Yin exposes the unfamiliar in the familiar, and invites us to engage with the work as spectators. In On the Train, Wang Yin has positioned himself as the actor, stripped of costume and positioned in a bare set, gazing at us as we look back at him and challenging our interpretation of his painting.