Symbolism works in the arts because it’s economical. A well-placed symbol can speak out beyond the limitations of direct representation, even past the symbolist’s intentions, expanding to suit the viewer.
Wang Niandong is a symbolist painter. His work is on view at Mandarin Fine Art Gallery (1294 So. Coast Highway). The gallery is also showing some very interesting pastel studies, but go to see the large-scale oils on linen, crammed into the small space just inches away from each other.
They are large indeed, and jaw-dropping, so prepare yourself. His iconography falls into patterns and repetitions, true to the symbolist tradition. There are road signs. There are butterflies. There are animals and plants, and many compositions are set under deep blue water (either a pool or the ocean).
But most of all, there are women. Lots and lots of beautiful Asian women in various stages of undress.
Now, in a symbolist work, you need not ask the artist what the butterflies and road signs mean. You can figure this out on your own, but figure it out you must. They make you read them. So, with so many other symbols, it’s fair to ask what the women symbolize.
“In Quiet Blue” (quite large at 58 x 76) is a fairly simple composition, a woman standing and a woman sitting. The standing woman is in a kimono, meekly turned away. The sitting woman is in an elaborate strapless silk gown, with floating, layered hair.
Her hair is floating because the entire scene is set under water. She sits on a green jacquard settee. A crab scuttles on the floor next to a playing card (the king of diamonds). The floor of this silent sea is decorated with a pedestrian crossing and street signs indicate deer may be present while a gazelle leaps in the background.
Welcome to the place where symbolism crosses into surrealism. The artist can have his point of view, you can have yours. But I see this as an elaborate metaphor for the current state of Chinese contemporary art.
The last time I was in Mandarin Fine Art, taking notes on the paintings, a neatly dressed older man wearing a cap approached me and asked me how Chinese women were different from American women, because he was going to meet one. More than a little creeped out by the implications, I told him I was busy and moved away.
But here it is: Chinese art is exploding in the world market because the art world has been flooded with imitations of Western styles. Collectors hungry for the “contemporary” without the “weird” or abstract snatch up nostalgic landscapes or romantic portraits executed with immaculate technique and virtually no originality.
Wang, it seems to me, has put all his women in this position. She — Wang’s archetypal woman — always seems to me to be like Chinese art itself, which can no longer look back on its past, but rather than forging a new future for itself, puts on the lurid clothes of American capitalism and sells herself like hotcakes.
In “In Quiet Blue,” the past and the future stand next to each other.
The motif of water seems to be a signal to the viewer that the painting has entered into the unreal and should be carefully considered. “Ukiyoe Dining Table” features a girl in a string bikini and long black gloves sitting with her back to us. She’s turned her head over her shoulder, and the look on her face is as if she has heard her name, but does not recognize the voice.
“Ukiyo-e” means “pictures of the floating world” and is a name for Edo period Japanese woodcuts (painted on the tabletop, in this case).
Wang clearly has no fear drawing on Japanese motifs, which I find more than a little mocking, implying the insulting way Westerners use the word “oriental” to lump together the immense diversity of cultures in the East. So we take his “floating” as a double entendre, a joke.
But the girl’s perfect surface, her air brushed finish, her immaculate skin tone and fleshly appeal all provoke us into desire — the stripper gloves seem almost too much, but at the same time leave little room for denial. You are dared to want her. And what does that make you? Would you like to buy this woman?
No other canvas in the show says this more than “Urban Desire” (43 x 70). Its perspective is up and toward a fish-eye distortion of a smooth woman’s bottom in a white garter belt and stockings.
She has a white lace teddy on, but her provocative bend does not allow us to see her face.
The most disturbing thing about her is that she’s in the middle of a city block, and so distorted is our view of her that she appears taller than the buildings.
She appears to be the reason for the buildings, in fact. her perfect Asian skin tone and distorted sexuality make it seem as if she is being worshipped by the steel that surrounds her.
All of Wang’s work seems to be wrestling with this sexual commodity issue. Modern urban life seems to be formed of street signs (“signs” are symbols). The natural world and just how alienated we are from it appears in the form of butterflies and crabs and gazelles.
“Butterfly Wings” is yet another painting of a lovely woman, but rather than distant and slightly scared, she looks profoundly sad. Her white shift and tousled hair are so carefully executed, they seem almost digital (like all of Wang’s canvases, the surface is smoothly glazed).
But behind her, out of focus as if off at a great distance, is a set of faultless butterfly wings, large enough to carry her away.
The ancient Greeks saw the butterfly as a symbol for the psyche or soul.
They can represent change, or even the ephemeral quality of beauty, or the superiority of nature over art (because they’re “painted”).
Wang, being the skilled symbolist that he is, makes it possible for it to be all these things at once.