Guo Hongwei: the Contingencies of Spreading Paint

Stone No.5, 2011 Watercolor on paper 67 x 101 cm

AT UNIVERSITY, GUO Hongwei was obsessed with analyzing the different styles of brushwork techniques corresponding to different periods of art history. But shortly after, he began attempting to abandoning them. From 2005 to 2007, Guo’s oil paintings mostly drew inspiration from his and his relatives’ childhood photographs. Regardless of whether these photos were in color, he converted them all into monochrome paintings, putting them together for his first solo exhibition in Hong Kong in 2007, “Dissolving Memories: Guo Hongwei’s Paintings.” He first copied the photographs, then dripped turpentine on them, and as his chosen medium spread, the dazzling marks of the images reproduced on the canvas thickened to the point of becoming blurred. Guo focused on the same theme until 2008. Then, in 2009, he shifted toward something different with the “Chiaroscuro” series, which featured smaller paintings, and saw him beginning to experiment with more diffusive watercolors directly on moist watercolor paper.

Media can make the way the image appears take unpredictable directions. Guo not only took advantage of this concept to question and reduce his painting techniques and styles, but also to emphasize the “occasional, natural” pleasure brought in the picture. He chose old photographs from his childhood because they could serve as irrefutable proof, because they could show off the ambiguity of the memory, and because they stealthily echoed the haziness of the final images. These pictures could also be very easily mistaken for a “sensational confession”: comparing those smudged, spread-out details, it is not hard to imagine that a viewer would be more moved by the ongoing feeling of nostalgia in the old photos.

In order to put the position of his paintings into focus, in 2008 Guo created the oil painting series “Parallels”: he used a projector to reproduce the same full body photograph of a child on eight 150 cm by 200 cm canvases, sketched the same identical draft (of him), and then, on the basis of previous stylistic dissimilarities, drew the figure of the young boy on the empty background of each picture plane. When he finished each painting, he proceeded to record the mood and scene (the music he had listened to, the weather, and so on) that had accompanied the creative process at the time. The repetition of the monotonous image made it hard for the viewer’s attention to remain focused on content, turning instead on the textural difference resulting from spreading the turpentine— an act in response to an inner crisis: he had already passed the exploratory stage of his early techniques, and in the wake of his growing experience and increasing familiarity with his media, he gradually became more and more acquainted with the artistic effects he could produce on canvas, and by the pleasure brought by the occasional spread of paint— and when these paintings were displayed crosswise, neighboring each other, the surface color shifted even more vibrantly, recreating the subject through functional existence.

Even using this approach, the portraits were still rich in content, complex, and deep, leading easily to diverse associations. Yet it was difficult to make the texture stand out with only their simple contrasts and the resulting aesthetic taste. Therefore in 2009, with his second solo exhibition “Things,” Guo “trans-copied” everyday objects like chairs, toothbrushes, paper cups, plastic bags, and cactuses, displaying them on the exhibition walls. A considerable part of the exhibition expanded on the same measures taken in the “Parallel” series to avoid the over-interpretation of the picture— with similar yet slightly different daily objects gathered on the same picture, their originally minute, concealed differences becoming involuntarily striking; a plain, colorless background, vivid colors, and eye-pleasing and amiable subject matters rendered with precision, came to form Guo’s so-called “basics.” Because their connotation was subtle and difficult to understand, the viewer’s attention was focused on the image within. In addition, two details of his technique became worthy of attention: in the series’ oil paintings, Guo abandoned the volatile turpentine, and applied instead a thick varnish containing resin glue to dilute the paint. Once dried, the crystallized substance seemed like a frozen mark of the medium’s dispelled power, while in the watercolors, he first used water-soluble colored chalk to delineate the silhouette of the objects, then splashed water on the surface inside the silhouette and painted within it. In this way, the paint spread within the damp area, and as the edges dried up, the irregular distribution of the tint stopped spontaneously, creating a distinctively clear outline that intensified the contrasting difference between the object and the image within in. Guo continues to use this painting technique today.

Undertaking a systematic arrangement of everyday objects is a move that inadvertently reveals the tinkerer’s proclivity for control and possession. As a matter of fact, the same “feeling of possession” can be found in the display of items in a museum— the rise of the modern public museum stems from those wealthy European families who made the “wonder rooms” of their private collections public. As Guo recounts, he has been extremely inquisitive about nature since he was a child. He later discovered that the exhibition method adopted by natural museums fitted the form of his previous works, and, through sampling the “straightforward” descriptive images and the specimen drawings of natural science books, he managed to avoid the over-exploitation of the meanings in the images. The “Museum” series he displayed in Shanghai in 2010 began portraying animal specimens and skeletons, and in his latest solo exhibition, “Painting is Collecting,” watercolors of botanical, animal, and mineral specimens occupy almost the entire exhibition space.

For this subject matter, Guo Hongwei has not broadened the unpredictability of his medium, but on the contrary, he has pursued an even greater control. If in Still Life No. 6 from the “Museum” series all kinds of owls still retained the artist’s early-period intent of turning the painting into a “stain,” then the paintings of bird specimens displayed in his new show seem, from afar, increasingly still and filled with details, to the point of resembling Albrecht Dürer’s Young Hare, and only when the images are observed closely do their moist nuances vividly stand out. This visual difference is even more prominent in the paintings of mineral specimens: under Guo’s brush, their ice-cold, hard details reveal a velvety texture. The increasing obscurity of the occasional details is less disruptive, and the artist’s intent is shyly hidden in the particulars of the painting.

Perhaps the essence of Guo’s paintings serves only patient observers, but we also can see, in his latest exhibition, that the complex and fascinating levels of representation of the portrayed objects have expanded, and it is hard to say that he has not used some good tricks, making the crowds stop before the paintings for a while, and then for a bit more still, so as to discover the subtlety in between. (Translated by Marianna Cerini)