Wei Dong comes from a context of Socialist Realism, and his painting, while far more elegant, still has the casual accuracy and discreet lean toward mannerism of a propaganda poster. But his subject matter ascends to modes of reality unlikely to be recognized by materialist critics. His “New Paintings” at Nicholas Robinson are full of naked women in states of capture or torture that they don’t seem to mind; older people in Mao jackets and no pants; crowns of thorns; dense, motley crowds; politically denatured People’s Liberation Army paraphernalia; and strangely knowing animals.
Let’s start, as Mr. Wei does, with the women–say the woman in Hearing 2. With her hair and her arms pulled tightly back, pinioned as if for bondage porn, she stands naked in front of a wooden stake on which are written her name and crime. Three men in communist drab stand behind her, one announcing, one watching and laughing and one, with red bars on his collar, crouching and reaching forward to grab. Her expression is peaceful, too dark to be called serene but too much alive to be resigned, and despite the pinions and her severe angle, she is firmly on her feet. So is this sex-positive pornography? Compared to the silly naked legs under Mao-jacket costumes in the other pictures, the nudity here seems more like innocence or liberation. A picture of blessed martyrdom? Not really, although the heroine’s self possession would be more appropriate to a martyr than to a real woman tied to a stake. But this is not quite fantasy, either.
In Story 1, another naked woman with eyes shut hangs on a low cross made from repurposed two-by-fours enjoying a brief postcoital doze. She isn’t nailed to it–her arms twine back behind the arms of the cross, as if it were a chair or bed frame. And she isn’t completely naked–she wears one white glove on her left hand, the hand that holds the cigarette. Crowded around her feet, so thickly that we can’t see anything behind her but faces and sky, are the characters that were waiting below the surface in her dreams: a sneering, balding Englishman out of a Qing Dynasty nationalist cartoon; a middle-aged woman tourist in sunglasses; a soldier in a black tunic and earring watching with professional concentration; a white archbishop with Native American braids and a miter made out of newspaper.
In Mahjong 1, three old women in Mao jackets and no pants sit around a small worktable on which lies a naked younger woman, upon whom they are playing mahjong. Two old men in work aprons stand watching, and an IV bottle hangs from a stand in the background. The woman on the table has her head turned to watch the next move, but whether it’s because she’s frightened or because she’s following the game is hard to say. One of the players wears a discreet crown of thorns; another wears roses.
In Girl with the Ducks 3, the luscious, buttery flesh is not only the girl’s–she stands wearily but happily, in a chef’s hat and jacket and white underwear, amid dozens of plucked, decapitated ducks hanging on hooks. The placement of her naked legs among the naked ducks, ready to be consumed, is unmistakable–but she’s also the one holding the knife. So the girl as subject and the girl as object can both be seen here, but it’s not because they’ve been added together. Instead, they nearly cancel each other out.
Mr. Wei has found the small area where these opposites overlap and carved everything else away, and the same applies, mutatis mutandis, to all the other symbols he stacks up. The red flags aren’t really red flags; the costumes aren’t quite costumes; the people aren’t whole people; and the sex is quite real but it isn’t really sex. Moral questions are raised, but if you try to see the answers, they slip away. It’s not easy to be so honest. This is evasion as investigation, denial as affirmation, what the Taoists call wu wei, action through inaction.
In The Sacrifice of Isaac, a fat old Abraham, bald on his crown but with long gray hair at the sides, stands smiling over naked, kneeling Isaac, who’s also bald on the crown but looks like a girl. He holds one of Isaac’s black braids in his left hand and a dagger in his right, ready to strike; Isaac looks unconcerned. A combative cherub floats over Abraham, mimicking his posture, and a goat in the bottom corner looks out with a twinkle of irony. “Everything is sex,” as a character says in the David Ives play Ancient History. “Except sex, which is money. Which is actually feces. But everything else is sex.”