Chinese artist Dawei Wang envisions social distancing and life in Greenpoint
Greenpoint artist Dawei Wang’s work was ahead of its time in a pre-COVID world. That is, his magnificent landscape paintings have long depicted lonely people in vast fields and desolate towns. In January 2020, he presented several of these works at the YUI Gallery on the Lower East Side. The exhibit was oddly poignant, ending just weeks before the lockdown.
The artist’s lush work resonates differently a year later. Soft hues of blues, greens and yellows permeate expansive compositions, intensifying the intimacy of his tiny subjects in solitude – a recurring theme in his work since moving to Greenpoint from Shanghai. Every New Yorker now experiences the feeling of isolation in a once bustling place. But as Wang’s sense of loneliness stemmed from his travels around the world, this long period of social distancing allowed him to think about the future with a renewed sense of community.
In a recent conversation at McCarren Park, Wang told me all about his boating experience over the past year, the changing perceptions of time and alienation, and the art he made in quarantine. .
Billy Anania: Can you tell me about your background, your childhood in China and your first influences as an artist?
Dawei Wang: I was born in Shanghai, where I lived my entire life before moving to the United States. Around the age of five, I started drawing and painting on all the walls in the family home, pretty much anywhere I could. Growing up, my parents and my grandmother decided to send me to an art school to learn a technique. As a child, I didn’t know much about artists; I was just interested in picture books, with figures that are very easy to trace and draw. Everything I saw became a subject: cars, plants, trees and people.
BA: When did you first move to the United States? And how would you compare your experiences as an artist in China and the United States?
DW: I was represented by a gallery in Shanghai called FQ Projects, so I did exhibitions and sold my paintings while working in an art school. My wife attended the University of Maryland and I went with her as a wife in 2018. We moved to Greenpoint after graduating, so it’s been about three and a half years in Brooklyn.
Shanghai is a very modernized city like New York. There are a lot of residents from different provinces. Even though it is located in the east, people come from all over the west, north and south of China to visit and live. But here in New York, the city is much more cosmopolitan. I really like being able to meet people from all over the world.
BA: Your paintings have been a great source of comfort throughout 2020 as they made me feel a little better to exist on my own and find peace in the midst of uncertainty. I wonder, what do you think of the isolation and distance in New York recently?
DW: When I arrived here I felt really isolated. The biggest problem was the language barrier. In China, we learn a little English but we lack context, and there are few possibilities to train. It all seemed so new and unfamiliar here, but not necessarily in a negative sense.
In art museums – and you might have this experience too – people sometimes have a hard time understanding the meaning of a work of art, so they have to read the explanatory cards. Even if you know every word, you still might not understand. For me, this is a good thing, because my understanding is totally dependent on intuition. So it’s easy for me to make a choice between what I like and what I don’t like. You can understand all the complex terminology but still don’t have a clear understanding, which I think applies to art and life in general.
I also want to say that I don’t feel alone anymore. I really enjoy this city.
BA: I certainly understand. When I write about art, I try to make it understandable to everyone, because art as an industry and as a discourse can sometimes be too obscure or alienating for the audience.
DW: Yeah, so if I don’t get it right away, that’s fine. I don’t have to worry about confusion as I focus only on what pushes me and I adapt to it very quickly. It’s also a great process for my job. Without reading too deeply, I can totally rely on my intuition to interpret works of art and translate them into my painting, and I can learn faster – no need to waste time on something too out of reach.
BA: Are you saying that when you look at artwork you are responding only to what you see in the artwork, and that influences your own process? I think it definitely shines through in your painting, in terms of intuition. Just by looking at your paintings, it’s so easy to have an immediate emotional response.
DW: Yes, this is the first step, but now I am working to make some differences. I want to integrate the social element of this city now. I knew almost nothing about this country before living there. All of my memories were about Shanghai and China more generally. Often times, I recognize my existence by remembering the past. This was clearly reflected in my previous works. Now I realize that I have been living in the United States for quite some time now and that I am fully integrated into the social environment. It made me seek new experiences and think differently, as opposed to my intuitive method of creation. Of course, this process is constantly evolving.
BA: Much of your work looks so huge when you watch it online, perhaps due to the composition – you paint large public spaces with lots of pedestrians and workers – but, in person, the works themselves are much smaller. Is it intentional?
DW: I see what you mean. I think maybe this is the power of what appears in the picture.
In something small, you can still have a great feeling. It is part of my goal, to transmit this power.
BA: What are your inspirations as artists?
DW: In Brooklyn, I’m drawn to a lot of diverse artists, more than in China. But most of my favorites are from the past, like Edward Hopper. Standing in front of his paintings, I remember my own life memory. It sounds familiar and emotional. All my memories come back to me, not just those of America. It’s not that I don’t like contemporary art, but painting is my preference and maybe my bias. Visiting the Met is always my favorite experience in the city.
BA: Tell me about art education. How do you like it?
DW: I teach children aged 12-17 at Queens Art Education Center and can use Chinese in class as they are mostly Asian students. I feel very lucky to teach basic techniques like drawing, watercolor and acrylic painting. Teaching creation is much more difficult because everyone has their own life experiences. I don’t really think you can teach style.
BA: What types of art have you been working on lately?
DW: The last year has changed a lot for me. I want to change my mindset, and part of my style. I still check for daily COVID-19 deaths every day, and it’s still really hard to come to terms with this situation. I want to bring some of that pain to my job. Recently, I like to illustrate scenes from dystopian fiction, so it could become something bigger in the future. I adapted images that materialize in my head while reading Thomas Pynchon’s book V. and the son of jesus by Denis Johnson.
BA: Do you still have family in China and stay connected to the culture?
DW: Half and half, I would say. I still love Chinese food, of course. I think I’m slowly accepting American culture but will never give up Chinese culture. I think if I say “culture” that is not correct, however. I prefer to say “memory”. The memory of my departure from China is always very important to me. However, if you want to create high-level works of art, you need to have more experience of life outside of home memories, traveling and studying. All of this matters to me as an artist. I lived in China until my early thirties, and now I’m here in Greenpoint. These are two totally different experiences that I can sometimes combine to create another new piece of art, but mostly it feels like a new stage in life and in my art.