Wei Jia

Wei Jia and his students

MICHAEL KU GALLERY,2020,140 P,Chinese/English

Publication Date: Nov. 2020

Paperback: 28x22cm

Page: 140

Language: Chinese/English


Art Director:Chen Erxu


Along the Way

Wei Jia

I have worked with lithography for 20 years, a not particularly extensive or brief period of time. What stood out in the years of artmaking were specific moments and key stages that posed profound and significant questions. I will share a few of them here truthfully as they unfolded in time, with the hopes of discovering something new and personal along the way.

My engagement with lithography began in 1999 with my thesis work at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. I created 7 lithography pieces in 10 months. Due to a lack of experience, it took 3 to 4 proofs to produce a decent blue plate, and 30 plates to complete my first edition, Container 1, in the series. Through rigorous practice and adjustments, I was able to advance my techniques and methods, and created a dynamic composition using just 5 plates for my final piece, Container 7. These 10 months made up a period of intense discovery in which I established my foundation for lithography. I consider this a crucial stage in my life, having to figure out how to approach the technicalities of the medium, as well as how to develop my artistic and conceptual interests. The immense workload and unreserved dedication were a rite of passage into the field of lithography.

I recall my instructor at the time, Li Fan, strictly demanded that all students make sketches of each plate before starting a lithography piece. This drafting stage was particularly difficult to us because as beginners, we needed to experience first-hand the practical, repetitive action of grinding, drawing, and etching our plates to clarify our initial ideas. The trial-and-error process helped us transform our thoughts into imagery and expressions. The technicalities of a plate-by-plate process make printmaking an extremely logical form of image-making. Instead of depicting ideas or emotions directly, colors and compositions are broken down into individual plates, then reassembled together as a complete, layered image. This deductive way of working and the transitional process through which source images become printed images deeply informed my practice later on.

I returned to Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in 1999. Under the tutorship of the Printmaking Department teachers, who were in different phases of their careers ranging from emerging to established, I was able to thrive as an unpredictable youth in his twenties. Most of my time was dedicated to the studio. I’d go to class during the day, and go draw or paint from real-life after class. There was not much noise nor distraction. I could focus on my work in peace. It was in this environment of freedom that I was able to continue my unfinished lithography experimentations from the Central Academy of Fine Arts. I worked 8 hours everyday in the small studio of Sichuan Fine Arts Institute throughout the years. Patiently, I held onto my stone plates and drew. The heavy-handed Northern sensitivity slowly dissipated, and my work began to exhibit some misty and sparse characteristics of the South. Within a quite state of mind, I understood the qualities unique to lithography—the softness of texture in the fine grains of the stone plates, and the depths that lie between subtle layers of colors. I drew and drew, balancing each and every grain and marking on the stone to arrive at a harmonious composition that incorporated the nuance of light and shadow. Early pieces like The Distant Silence and Journey were examples of my attempt to capture the delicate, understated qualities of lithography.

The technical study of lithography concluded in 2002 for me. Starting from the piece Will I Still Love You Tomorrow? I began focusing on personal narratives. My printmaking production peaked from 2002 to 2004, during which both my technical skills and imagery control reached maturity, and created work such as Superman, I See Nothing with My Left Eye Closed, and Language of Birds. These pieces reflected my psychological state at the time. The anxiety towards an identity shift as I turned 30, the sense of loss witnessing my colleagues drift apart, and the self-ridiculing humor of leading a monotonous life were all emotional realities that I channeled into my work. Lithography was not only my specialty, but also a way of thinking, a reconciliation and attitude towards life. Instead of referencing existing images, I created forms that mirrored the emotions stirring inside of me, like self-revealing imprints of my mind. Fewer and fewer representational forms were visible in my work, and the human body was flattened into outlines and edges that delineated connections with other elements. Most subjects were eventually simplified.

After years of working with lithography, and after I had excelled in the medium and received various recognitions and awards, I started to feel trapped. Others may think I had reached an experienced level of ease, but I regarded my situation as a stunted state with limited room for new exploration. It became difficult for me to achieve a sense of fulfillment as a creative practitioner. Executing my ideas and performing my skills impeccably no longer satisfied me. I was in search of a certain passion, and wanted it to drive and direct my practice forward. It would carry me like a tidal wave, guiding me to seek truth in life and stay true to myself.

Around the year of 2003, I spent two summers working with litho ink washes in order to explore techniques beyond litho pencils. I made tests everyday in the studio, comparing print results from different ink wash applications and acid concentrations. Data were recorded daily, and by identifying the range of reliable print results I finally mastered the litho ink wash technique. The breakthrough in technique, however, did not advance my overall practice. My methodology of working and composition priorities at the time did not correspond well with this newfound technique. I was only able to incorporate litho ink wash in small areas of few work such as Say Goodbye. I realized then that technical breakthroughs did not always lead to artistic innovations.

That was why I began experimenting with acrylic on canvas in 2004. This shift in medium was a result of my struggles with lithography. Between 2004 and 2006, my acrylic work retained a heavy lithography influence. The thin coating of paint, the way human bodies were depicted, and the composition all resembled my previous lithography work. Eventually, a painterly energy intensified from 2007 to 2008, and an expressive gesture took over the once rigid imagery formation between 2009 and 2013. Slowly but surely, a free-flowing vitality emerged from my brushstrokes that were imbued with emotions.

As my acrylic-on-canvas work evolved from 2004 to 2013, I also moved away from the controlled structure of lithography expressions and created雨見晴 (2014). This piece was conceived from a simple idea: to explore a pure, gestural freedom in lithography. I wanted to break away from the calculated sense of restraint inherent in the lithography process, and introduce powerful contours of pencil-marks. The overall picture resembled a majestic landscape of clouds and water. My acrylic work had inspired a new form of lithography, something similar to a pencil sketch. Unfortunately, I was unable to follow through with this new finding right away.

Kasai in 2016 was a turning point. I had been on a school trip with my students at Tokyo University of the Arts. We visited a Japanese master printmaker who produced lithography pieces for famous artists worldwide. Among his productions were work to which the acrylic-on-canvas technique was applied. I was amazed and began learning this combination technique. It was a brilliant way of melding qualities of both acrylic and lithography work. After Kasai I made Lasting as the High Mountains and Long Rivers and Untitled, two pieces that preserved the traces of mark-making and immediate emotional fluctuations.

My two attempts at renewing the medium of lithography were unrefined. The balance between technique, expression, and composition needed perfecting. Surprisingly, these new methods seem to complement the printmaking education today. Art students now are not trained under technique-oriented curriculums like in the old days, and most students lack foundational skills. Traditional lithography can seem beyond reach to them, demanding great diligence and sensibilities. Students, however, excel at the collection and integration of images in our digital age. Lithography methods that incorporate pencil marks and acrylic-on-canvas expressions introduce a kind of freedom, allowing students to experiment outside of technical constraints and follow their creative thought process. I initiated these two distinct methods but by no means perfected them. Like a stroke of serendipity, my students have become the ones who continue to push and develop these methods. The teaching paradigm of lithography at Sichuan Fine Arts Institute has gradually evolved away from an orthodox, practical indoctrination, and aligned more with an unrestricted, experimental model.

To many students, technical skills and conceptual creativity seem to be at odds. My strong skill-set was once a hindrance to my creative process when I studied at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Most students today favor creative exploration over difficult, technical exercises. However, it is my belief that the two qualities compliment each other. Techniques enhance one’s ability to observe and execute. They guide the maker to pay attention to details and, although may appear to be limiting to the development of new ideas at first, have the potential to enrich the creative process over time. On the other hand, new and fast information may help students develop quick image processing abilities and identify points of interest in a short period of time, but such concept-focused practice lacks the executional power that would sustain and carry out specific ideas. The key lies not in privileging one quality over the other, but utilizing both in appropriate circumstances. Humans are complex, thinking beings, and respond differently when faced with different problems in life. The same is true for art practices. As opposed to adhering to a universal standard, one needs to develop a complex, multi-faceted way of working that continues to experiment and absorb new information. Ultimately, art resembles life. It is organic and can grow from all possible situations, and every growth signifies a new discovery along the creative journey.

Over the years as an educator, I have pondered how lithography should be taught. Can art truly be taught? Need traditional framework be passed on? Is there space for a new future? How can a student be guided towards self-realization? Looking back, aside from the practicalities of making curriculums and establishing a teaching style, I find two aspects of teaching that I value the most. The first is to introduce a heavy workload. By working ferociously on projects, students can experiment with a vast array of techniques, compositions, expressions, and build their own methodology in lithography. The second aspect is to allow freedom for growth. Students need flexibility to conduct ongoing self-discovery and fulfillment. This will in turn inform the evolution of imagery in their work. I believe everyone is a unique individual, and do not impose my experiences onto others. Students have to find their own path through ongoing practice, and not blindly follow someone else’s footsteps.

There exist many methodologies in all forms of teaching and creative processes today, in areas such as image sourcing, narrative formation, and systems of expression. Under the influence of a rational, disciplined Western knowledge system, analyzing the structure of a given methodology has made discourse examination and cerebral discussion mainstream in contemporary art. The Chinese way of creative thinking, however, values the empirical findings of an individual. It attempts to transform the ordinary and liberate the soul, and furthermore help us become one with the true nature of life. The Western and Eastern approaches can be observed simultaneously in contemporary artmaking, sometimes one more prominent than the other but never as conflicting forces. I do not favor any approach or system, and welcome all equally. As society undergoes cultural integration and innovation, I, too, remain open and seek renewal and reconstruction of the self. After all, now may not be the right moment to pledge allegiance to a single principle.



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