A first encounter with the paintings of Wei Dong includes a few double takes. You feel an odd displacement, as if you've stumbled into an art-history dream where time- traveling European masters, eager to shuck off age-old propriety, are checking out the erotic possibilities of 21st-century China. Half-naked Asian women with rock-star attitudes slip on the heroic mantle of Delacroix or Rubens, stuffed animals comically hide crotches in a Botticelli tableau, the earthy joy of socialist realism rubs (bare) shoulders with girlish, Balthus–like displays of private urges. The heady mixes aren't so much acts of experimentation as they are reflections of everything Wei, 39, has absorbed during a single-minded journey—from Inner Mongolia to Hoboken, from army brat to rising art star, from the cult of Mao to the Manhattan culture of Me.
Though born in the year of the monkey—a sign, the Chinese zodiac tells us, of creative genius—Wei grew up in a time when art was dangerous. Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region but under the rule of China, didn't escape Mao's Cultural Revolution, a massive purge of artists and intellectuals intended to rid the country of bourgeois influence. "Mao hated Western art," Wei says, "and especially hated traditional Chinese landscapes." His grandfather, a collector of the form, feared arrest by the bullying Red Guards and burned almost everything. "Just a few pieces left," Wei says with sadness.
The political pressure was particularly intense at a military academy in the city of Wuhan, where Wei's father instructed young cadets in tactical skills, and where the family lived for 15 years. But Wei's father, never an enthusiastic officer and an occasional painter of landscapes himself, encouraged his son's interest in painting, secretly showing him art books in their home behind locked doors, and later arranging tutors. Wei's early study had lasting effects. The Chinese landscape—delicate strokes of ink layered on rice paper to create muted but often sensual scenes of nature—would form the basis for many of his first serious efforts. Mountains and rivers might seem a little stodgy for a painter of sexually charged women, but Wei displays immense pride in having mastered the brushwork, embracing it as an element of national identity and lamenting its gradual disappearance. "Young people in China," he says, "no one knows how to use ink on paper. It's terrible. But I think it's very important. You are Chinese. You must know this."
In all of his work, but particularly in the paintings-—now on display at the Stux Gallery—Wei seems to suggest that the modern Chinese identity is a colorful and sometimes confused jumble—influenced by the rancorous past and free-for-all present, by East and West, and, above all, by long-suppressed desires. Though Wei denies making any overt statements or associations ("I don't try hard to mix things up, they just happen"), the Mao years often appear in the paintings, satirically juxtaposed with sex and the surreal. His women sport the period's green and blue tunics (army and government) like lingerie. The red of the Chinese flag colors garter belts and sashes. In a painting called May, a woman with a wooden frame around her neck labeled "Sexual Desire"—Wei's version of an old Chinese punishment—crawls on all fours before a crowd of onlookers, which includes a uniformed man cradling a large dog and a woman without pants passionately reading from the Little Red Book, Mao's famous collection of Marxist thought. Wei remembers the book in his childhood as being a kind of cultish prayer volume. "You read something before breakfast," he says. "Then before lunch you must be reading something, and before dinner. Everybody."
His work also dishes out memories, as well as a little mockery, of Soviet-style realism, a significant part of the art curriculum in Wei's high school, even in the post-Mao era. Like a worker's bedroom fantasy of the collective farm, his rapturous women clutch loaves of bread, carry eggs and milk, cavort in fields, and nuzzle sheep. Livestock and dogs appear in many of the artist's paintings, mostly, he says, because he likes animals. He fondly remembers feeding them, as a child, at the military academy.
There's an old-master precision to the orchestration of all these elements, as sophisticated as Christian symbols of the Renaissance, and made more striking by Wei's expert mimicry of numerous styles and textures—learned during his years at Beijing's Capital Normal University painting models and copying the drawings of Da Vinci. The artist, trim but sturdy, and looking much younger than his age, conveys a quiet, matter-of-fact confidence in his abilities. "I have the technique to express whatever I want," Wei states, believing it gives him an advantage over artists in the U.S., who, he says, "have a lot of ideas" but sometimes lack the training to get them down.
Wei's career took off a decade ago with work that combined those landscapes with frank sexual imagery, mostly of young Asian women revealing pale and wrinkled skin, their bodies clearly influenced by the work of Lucian Freud. But there was something of a turning point in Wei's style at one show in Beijing. "Some lady said she liked my work," Wei recalls, "but then told me, 'I don't understand why your women are so ugly. Do you hate women?' " Now, he says, "I want to make the body very fresh, like an egg, like glass . . . sometimes Freud is very scary. I want my people to make me comfortable."
The artist's international stature grew with solo exhibitions in New York, London, and Tokyo at the same time the market for modern Chinese art was hitching wild rides on the country's hurtling economy. In Beijing, Wei watched artist friends become successful and wealthy, but he became increasingly disappointed that their discussions, once about new ideas, had turned to money. There was still occasional political trouble—despite the avant-garde's popularity, the government hadn't abandoned its role as authoritative judge. "You think it's OK," Wei says, speaking of a gallery opening, "then the second day they close your show. It's still happening." In 2001, eager to join his wife-to-be Daisy who'd moved to the U.S., Wei left China, eventually settling with Daisy in a small apartment in Hoboken. "The best environment for an artist to go forward," Wei says, "is a new place. No one really knows your style."
These days, his style has returned to that first love, the rice-paper landscape, which he has overlaid with pink, cloudlike images of women, naked, voluptuous, and seductive. They appear above dainty trees like forbidden dreams, all of them Asian, except for one—Marilyn Monroe. "I like her face," Wei explains. "I think she was one of the most beautiful women in the world." Then, as if to emphasize the cultural blend of East and West in his work, he adds, "Her face looks Asian, don't you think?
Wei Dong's exhibit "Springtime" runs through April 21 at the Stux Gallery, 530 West 25th Street, 212-352-1600.