Not far from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in northeastern Beijing: Building 115, Room 1904. What could have been a bedroom has been transformed into a studio of sorts, a room devoted entirely to painting. Liang Yuanwei is moving soon and hopes to find a real studio with higher ceilings. With the size of her recent paintings, she has literally reached the limits of her current environment. Only one piece in this series—A Piece of Life—remains to be finished, and it spans the height of the room, from ceiling to floor.
The series is remarkable in its temporal duration, almost exactly matching the length of Liang Yuanwei’s stay in the Room 1904 apartment. Though sizes, colors, and textures vary, each piece is based on a piece of cloth plucked from the artist’s own life—curtains, clothing, found material. And though each painting was completed in the same small room in the artist’s apartment, the series is resolutely not a reclamation or reification of feminine domesticity. Instead, Liang Yuanwei wishes to reengage the connection between art and life by introducing the universalizing notion of human struggle into the manual labor of artistic production.
Liang Yuanwei, a graduate of Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts born in 1977 in Xi’an, is a young artist whose photography, painting, and installation work often focuses on articulating the sites of both beauty and oppression within the semiotics of the everyday. Notable for her membership in the N12 group, she began organizing exhibitions and attracting international attention along with her peers during and immediately after her time as a student. Since then her work has been continually exhibited and collected at the highest levels both internationally and locally.
Her most recent work has involved themes of discretion, secrecy, interpersonal communication, personal struggle, and the affect produced therein. Significantly, her work claims that this affect is all that fills up the empty space that dominates domesticity and everyday life. Uniquely, her practice rejects the feminine specificity idealized by so many of her peers in favor of more broadly universal explorations of social themes.
Liang Yuanwei’s intense exploration of these ideas and strikingly mature response to the pressures of her particular form of artistic practice comes from a lifelong tortured relationship to art. The daughter of scientifically-minded academic parents, she had a difficult time achieving any kind of art education in the first place. After graduation, she found herself miserably working a desk job in order to survive, filling her spare hours with art projects that, more than anything else, gave her the strength to keep living.
Technically rigorous and often requiring extraordinary amounts of time and energy, Liang Yuanwei’s artistic practice forces her audience to re-inspect the subtle points of ecstasy and torture that make up the fabric of the everyday, leading to a rejection of easy answers in favor of a laborious reconstruction of the perceived environment. In her view, art can never be life itself, but it inherently and often implicitly expresses a particular outlook on the outside world.
The series A Piece of Life is highly aesthetically attractive: the texturing is impeccable, with mellow colors and precise detailing creating a sensation of scattered floating blossoms and synthetic patterns over faded backgrounds. The focus in these works, however, is above all on the meticulous process involved in their production. It is a process of design, which Liang Yuanwei once studied, but without structure or construction; instead, it is a struggle.
The creation of these paintings required large amounts of patience and concentration. The artist started painting from the very top, working consistently downwards and progressing strip by strip, each day painting only a very narrow strip—requiring between six and twelve hours. Because the pattern remained incomplete at the end of each day, the artist was unable to anticipate its final appearance. At the same time, she worked under a peculiar constant pressure: a single misplaced brushstroke or minor mistake would mean the failure of the whole piece. Because the previous day’s work was already dry, there would be no way to correct any mistakes other than starting over anew, which she was indeed forced to do on a handful of occasions.
It is a process without closure, one that mocks both its creator and its product in a repetitive and tedious cycle of creation and mimeticism. The one canvas that remained unfinished in Liang Yuanwei’s studio was, like most of the works in this series, accompanied by two failed attempts, one smaller version of the final work, the original cloth itself, and a print created from the remnants of the artist’s palette. The act of creation migrates from site to site within this system; ultimately, it is something more than a painting that emerges.
The final product, viewed through the right eyes, can be stunning. Liang Yuanwei notices three types of viewers of her work: those who see her paintings exhibited and notice a nicely decorated wall; those who notice a poorly decorated wall; and those who see nothing at all. On some level, she hopes that no one understands the intrinsic importance of her works—it is intended for those few who need it, who are looking for it to begin with. It offers no shock, and no explicit message. It stands for reassurance, subtle pleasure, and, if you are looking for it, resistance.
These paintings are deeply personal, and, as such, their function lies largely within the realm of individual affect and cognition. For Liang Yuanwei, they are a source of self-discipline, a way to calm the self and teach it to maintain a certain degree of separation from the restlessness around her. Indeed, she has said that painting is the best teacher, and with every hour in front of her easel she learns more about dealing with life. It is in this way that art becomes a form of resistance to life or a commentary on its travails, rather than a direct component of it.
These lessons have had a profound influence on Liang Yuanwei herself: above all else, she has learned to respect her own situation; that the world is a terribly unfair place; that danger lies in the rushing attitude that accompanies tedium; that bad luck is simply bad luck. Throughout the time-consuming process involved in A Piece of Life, the artist has learned to reject all shortcuts, even in the face of something as powerful as fate itself.
Ultimately, these paintings—humble “pieces of life” and nothing more—act as subtle reminders of the possibility of resistance to the tyranny of the chaotic outside world, reclaiming habitable space through anticipation and tedium.
Text by Robbin Peckhem