Duan Jianwei: Homeland, Here and Faraway

By Wang Wei, Translated by Fiona He, Image Courtesy of Hive Center for Contemporary  Art

The new works in the exhibition “Fruits of Earth: Duan Jianwei” held at the Hive Center for Contemporary Art present an unwavering continuation of the artist’s personal style on the subject, “homeland”, one that was first established around the late 1980s. Over his long course of progression, with the narrative features of this subject faded gradually with time, other iconographic details became conduits for conveying a number of metaphysical subjects through formal, aesthetic, and painterly approaches. 

In comparison to Duan Jianwei’s portrayal of figures of an earlier period, where the subjects demonstrated vivacity and energy, instead they reveal a homogenous calmness and solemnity uniformly administered by the artist. In these subdued expressions, one cannot perceive any emotional cues that further mystify the figures in these paintings. 


Go Out Walking in the Night, Oil on Canvas, 160 × 130 cm, 2016

The disposition of Duan Jianwei’s figures also demonstrates similar qualities. Among the new works in this exhibition, either the labors in “Packing Potatoes”, “Autumn Harvest”, or the girls holding flowers in “Three Girls”, or the various figures in “Little Girl by the Lake”, “Night Walk”, “Mashing Garlic”, “Reading”… are all common figures in everyday life. In spite of a seemingly ambiguous relationship with reality, the artist has purposefully reduced his persona’ body movement to frigidity, whereby allowing them to assume an unspeakable monumentality. 

At the same time, the artist continues to adopt his usual way of simplifying the contextual setting for the background of the painting. For instance, the distant mountains, trees, lakes and rivers are filled with large area of color blocks. The artist’s compositional input by adopting the device to abbreviate details provides the painting an opaque sense of beauty. By eliminating the specific references of the surrounding not only allows the figures and the scenes to avoid any narrative propensity, but also affords the image a kind of surreal impression. 

Among these works, Duan Jianwei has even placed the figure directly on canvas without a background, or delineated the horizon only using a line, while mixing the earthy colors of brown, green and gray for its backdrop suggesting a specific type of environment. The vast plateau of central China is reinvented into an environment without any identifiable signage, leaving its geological quality still visible, as a result, a pure and abstract environment thus comes into being. 

Based on Duan Jianwei’s execution on the surface of the canvas and the way in which he renders these figures and their facial expressions, one would get a glimpse of the elements both in early Renaissance paintings of the West and the grottos and cave paintings from traditional China. For instance, visualizing solemnity and enigma through the elimination of emotions, with which the viewer may intuitively associate with figurations in the early Renaissance paintings. Drawing sacrilegious elements from the traditional art forms of the East and West allows Duan Jianwei’s paintings to embody a transcendental quality. 

These appropriated formal effects may seem out of place with the subject matters of “folk art”, yet these seemingly unrelated forms and content engender a harmonious aesthetics through the artist’s visual “cross – over”. His seemingly simple painting style is a product of the artist’s honed skills, compositional elements and motifs applied over the years. With a reconstructed artistic language, the artist adroitly integrates compositional features of his namesake subject matter with stylistic elements from Chinese and Western art in order to gengerate a unique aesthetic taste. 


The Exhibition of "Fruits of Earth: Duan Jianwei" at Hive Center fo Contemporary Art

At this point, it may seem difficult to define Duan Jianwei’s artworks as general folk art addressing the subject of the “homeland”. In other words, before you know it, the topic of “homeland” is no longer the only or primary component in viewing Duan Jianwei’s work. Either the subject matter of homeland, or the iconic farmer figures, both have been adopted as formal vehicles for his study on the language of painting. 

Yet, Duan Jianwei’s painting practice does not dissociate from the specific content of homeland and figuration even though their narrative components have faded. Perhaps his continuation on this subject matter is on the one hand the artist’s subconscious infatuation with his cultural roots; yet from the perspective of painting, his exploration on figuration has preserved a discrete relationship with reality as the artist searches for new possibilities within its confines. 

At the same time, the implicit aesthetics and ambiguous lyricism are conveyed through the content of the painting. It is apparent that the artist’s intent is not solely aimed at formal construction. Instead, while he explores possibilities of formal language, his inner expressions aim for a transcendental expression. With his “consistency” over the years, Duan Jianwei’s sentimental expressions about folk culture and the farmers have transformed into a profound description of the land and its people.