In recent years, Chinese artist Fu Wenjun is getting more attention. Through a large number of works of art, such as After Fresh Rain in the Mountain, East Wind Blew Again Last Night, Ask Tea, F1, April, Red Cherry, etc., Fu Wenjun gradually made the concept “digital pictorial painting” into a clear form of artistic expression. Digital pictorial photography is a combination of painting elements through digital post-adjustment and multiple-exposure photographic images to reveal unique visual effects. It emphasizes the rediscovering and reuse of image resources. Fu’s works not only appear in important international exhibitions, but also are appreciated by many contemporary art historians.
Fu Wenjun himself once said: “I actually incorporate a lot of experience of traditional Chinese art in my work. Many people say that my work is ‘not like photography’, but ‘unlike photography’ is a new way of presentation. We can change anything.” Fu Wenjun uses photography to express his artistic ideas and integrates the essence of modern and contemporary art such as Dadaism, Abstract Expressionism, conceptual art and pop art. While getting rid of the shackles of documentary photography, Fu’s digital pictorial photography captures painting elements, embodying a touch of freehand brushwork in traditional Chinese art. They offer people with unexpected innovations and new visual experience. Rosalind Krauss, a contemporary American female critic, once pointed out that artworks after the modernist paintings have greatly broadened the connotation of “medium”. A medium can be something solid, or it can be a behavior itself. In other words, artists’ medium is no longer tied to specific things; it exists in the field of communication with the audience. With the purpose of challenging people’s inherent ideas about artistic medium, Fu Wenjun invites his audience to think about the boundaries of art.
Photography has always been regarded as documentary, while digital pictorial photography blurs the line between reality and illusion. The viewer is invited to enter different scenes created by the artist. Fu Wenjun’s works should be treated as a sequence, because they provide a complete context for the audience. As American contemporary scholar Claude Cernuschi has pointed out when analyzing Abstract Expressionist painter Franz Kline: “An individual canvas will be read in in terms of the canvases that surround it as well as against the frame of reference, or interpretive background, the spectator has gradually internalized. Consequently, a painting such as Probst I cannot have a single, fixed meaning or emotive resonance existing ‘on’ the canvas…That meaning or resonance, rather, is ‘in’ the spectator’s mind.” Similarly, the meaning of Fu’s digital pictorial photography is also contingent on context and on the beholder’s participation.
Fu Wenjun once summed up his creative means as such: “My concept will be expressed by means of collage, juxtaposition, etc.” Collage and juxtaposition are important methods in western modern and contemporary art. They were initiated by the masters of early 20th century modern art such as Pablo Picasso and Gorge Braque, culminating in the hands of postmodern artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. But the difference is that the post-modern juxtaposition of Western art largely cancels oppositions, while Fu Wenjun sharpens the opposition between different items, thus creating a tension on the two-dimensional surface.
Fu Wenjun has shaped his digital pictorial photography with various decompositions and reconstructions. Contemporary critic Katharine W. Kuh believes that the core of modern art is “break-up”. She proposes that in our time, the characteristics of art are manifested in the following aspects: broken appearances, messy colors, scattered composition, disintegrated shape and broken images. Since the birth of modern art, every part of art has been broken down, including colors, light, paint, shapes, lines, spaces, painting surfaces and layouts. Modern art has always emphasized “break-up”, but it does not mean lack of rules. It attempts to establish a new rule. In other words, break-up is another form of reconstruction. By doing so, artists analyze, enlarge, and separate some aspects that people have easily overlooked in the past, and provide them with rich and complex experience.
Just as contemporary art historian Yve-Alain Bois has pointed out, most abstract artists are never tired of stressing the richness of their abstract/conceptual subject-matter. As an artist living in the southwestern province of China, Fu Wenjun has been trying to show the collision between traditional national culture and contemporary culture, which is an important theme in his works. In Ask Tea series, Fu chooses to locate typical daily objects of Chinese teahouse in the center, but the whole images display fragmentations and divisions. This is a way of bringing history back to the present on one hand, and emphasizing the impact of modern lifestyle on tradition on the other hand. In his East Wind Blew Again Last Night, Come and Go, and After Fresh Rain in the Mountain, Fu Wenjun also contemplates on the binary opposition such as the past and the present. The process of creation is time-consuming. For example, in order to create Twelve Zodiac series, Fu Wenjun took several days taking documentary photos in Yuanmingyuan. After returning to Chongqing, he spent another five months to complete the work. A detailed observation of the world and a large amount of tedious post-processing are both essential in Fu Wenjun’s creation.
The exploration of abstraction is a major feature of digital pictorial photography. Although we often find it difficult to describe abstraction, the experience of it play an important part in our visual activities. It seems sure enough that Fu Wenjun is a typical abstract artist. But I think this conclusion is incomplete. In a famous conversation with Christian Zervos in 1935, Pablo Picasso expressed such ideas: “There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterwards you can remove all appearance of reality; there is no longer any danger, because the idea of the object left an indelible mark.” Nowadays more and more people have realized that the interpretation of the dichotomy between “abstract” and “figurative” is only a historical phenomenon instead of an objective truth.
From a close perspective, we tend to interpret Fu Wenjun’s works as diversified combinations of forms, but from a certain distance, we may prefer to interpret them as a unified whole. This is of course a generalization, but in many ways, people do encounter difficulties in distinguishing diversity and unity. This difficulty shows that the meaning of abstract artworks exists in the active reconstruction and instantaneous experience of the viewer. Through digital pictorial photography, Fu Wenjun attempts to evoke people’s keen perception. In these works, both abstraction and representation are not final purposes but means. What lies behind the lively surface is always the artist’s reflection on the status quo of people, history and culture. As such, his artworks show a dialectical unity of multiple and one: even if the forms and techniques of Fu’s digital pictorial photography are different, they all present an image of the artist as a thinker.
Thus we may safely conclude that whether abstraction is abstract is not a formal question, but a cognitive issue. People’s disagreements over abstraction is not so much due to the ambiguity of the artistic forms as to people’s different “interpretation community”, a term borrowed from Stanley Fish. To recognize the viewer’s subjectivity in the construction of meaning is not only a prerequisite for the rational interpretation of abstract artworks, but also a prerequisite for initiating all interpretations. People’s understanding and appreciation of abstract elements in artworks are deeply rooted in their basic cognitive abilities, and abstraction is not too high to be popular.
Of course, our appreciation of digital pictorial photography is not like reading. Our cognition changes as the pages of the book are flipped through, while when we look at Fu Wenjun’s works, we experience a “comprehensive loss of visual recognition”. In other words, our eyes are not at rest, but in the process of constantly changing focus. Thus, various contradictory forces occur, including tensions between the center and the edge, gravity versus upward force, and so on. The artist tests our ability to capture information through different contrasts. His digital pictorial photography challenges people’s color perception and shape perception with complex colors and lines.
Many of Fu Wenjun’s digital pictorial photography use a soft color transition at the boundary of objects and the contour line of the characters, so that people feel the challenge to distinguish between the figure and the ground. By contrast, in works such as Red Cherry, Ask Tea and April, the artist applies a cubist approach to divide the surface of the photograph into separate small units, using bright colors and strong contrast, so the images in the center become more prominent.
Fu Wenjun, Chinese contemporary artist, was graduated from Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. He creates principally through the art media of conceptual photography, installation, sculpture and oil painting, and has put forward the concept of “Digital Pictorial Photography”.
With his Digital Pictorial Photography, Fu Wenjun intends to explore to place photography art in dialogue with other art media, like Chinese painting, oil painting, sculpture etc, as a result to extend the border of photography art in the current digital age.
His works embody his thinking and reflection on many issues related to the Eastern and Western history, culture and humanity, including the relationship between different cultures in the age of globalization, the heritage of traditional Chinese culture in a rapidly changing society, industrialization and urbanization in Chinese cities.