top of page
Night with You 1, 2022.JPG

A Solo Exhibition by Wang Xiaolin
Curated by Lexing Zhang

Future Is a Journey to the Past

4 July – 15 August 2024

Porcelain is an unforgiving material. Unlike with other clays, when working with porcelain, any sloppiness or inattention will be punished. The slightest miscalculation can cause textural changes, deformations, delayed curvatures, or even cracks in the porcelain surface during cooling—a process referred to as “dunting.”

Add color into the mix, and it gets even trickier. Since the paints are exposed to temperatures of up to 1,500°C, and undergo repeated firing rounds, the porcelain painter must exercise expert control over every step of the process to ensure the colors adhere to the base material. If the kiln temperature is too high, the pigment application will be uneven, causing staining or color aberrations; if too low, the clay may not fully vitrify, or the colors may appear dull or muted. Suffice to say, porcelain painting is a fiddly endeavor.

None of this worries Chinese multidisciplinary artist Wang Xiaolin, who combines traditional painting methods with overglaze techniques to create one-of-a-kind porcelain paintings that interrogate, among other things, the distorted relationship between man and nature, the performative nature of identity in a technology-mediated age, and the value of creativity in a world where productivity is upheld at all costs. Porcelain painting, in Wang’s estimation, “always lingers on the boundary” of uncertainty. “The uncontrollable factors are its charm.”

 

 

Most of Wang’s pieces use a technique called five-color (ancient color) painting, which originated in the late Ming Dynasty and burgeoned during the Kangxi period. Porcelain wares created during this period are notable for their vibrant colors and elaborate brushwork, often featuring complex floral or calligraphic patterns, or intricate designs depicting traditional court scenes. But while Wang’s porcelain works are crafted using this nearly obsolete technique, the themes that surface in his creations stray far from the traditional motifs popular in 17th century Chinese porcelain-painting, reflecting more contemporary concerns.

These concerns are apparent in the pieces showcased as part of Wang’s first exhibition in Singapore, “Future is the Journey to the Past,” spanning from his earlier works to his more recent series “Suspended Space.” Though he employs a playful and slightly surreal narrative style, Wang’s work often has dark undertones. His series “Nocturne Journeys,” for instance, questions the limits of freedom—highlighting not only political anxieties but also concerns about the pervasiveness of social media and the continuous deluge of (mis)information. One of the finest examples from the series, Nocturne Journeys No.8, depicts several men standing in front of a prominent scholar’s rock holding an object that could either be a mobile phone or Mao’s Little Red Book – some are gazing listlessly into space, while others are engrossed in their devices.

Night Walk, 2022.JPG
The Weight of Night 2, 2023.JPG

In another piece, titled Night Walk, three faceless figures with bowed heads carry a torn tree trunk atop their shoulders with a solemnity. Wang’s use of vivid iridescent colors against stark backdrops conjures almost dystopic fairytales, yet the distinct physicality of the porcelain medium, with its smooth surface, allows for intricate detailing and a luminous finish that enriches the visual narrative of his works.

The natural world serves as a constant source of inspiration for Wang—gnarled branches are a recurring motif, intertwining with and around human bodies, creating a sense of both intimacy and entrapment—but Wang also taps into imagery deriving from the subconscious and from the dreams he records meticulously in his writings and sketches. The colors, compositions, and textures of these dreamscapes serve as visual reference boards for his porcelain canvasses, coalescing into a distinct visual language that draws influences from both Taoist philosophy and Western psychology, classic Chinese literature, Jorge Luis Borges’ poetry, the surrealist paintings of René Magritte, as well as the landscape design and rock formations typical of the Suzhou scholar’s gardens.

To develop his idiosyncratic style, Wang had to dive deep into the past. He is what is popularly referred to as a “Jing Drifter” (景飘), i.e. a young artisan who migrated to the ancient town of Jingdezhen—the Mecca of porcelain—in order to hone his craft.

 

 

 

Doing so makes him part of a centuries-old tradition. In the 16th century, at the height of Europe’s Porzellankrankheit, or “porcelain sickness,” merchants from the world over flocked to Jingdezhen in the hopes of securing samples of kaolin—a crucial mineral in porcelain manufacture. European imperial courts spared no expense in their attempt to unravel the mysteries of Chinese porcelain-making. But it was not until the 18th century that they would succeed, due in no small part to the efforts of two German alchemists—Böttger and Tschirnhaus—who managed to refine the clay compositions and perfect the firing techniques necessary for porcelain production.

Due to his mastery of this complex craft and his innovative experimentation with paints and materials, Wang, too, has been heralded as a “modern-day alchemist.” The label is fitting in more ways than one. Despite the enduring conception of alchemy as either deluded mysticism or unscrupulous quackery, more recent scholarly re-evaluations recognize it as a protoscience that required both craftsmanship, scientific knowledge and philosophical reflection. Much like Wang, the alchemist was a sort of jack of all trades, a chemist-cum-artisan-cum-philosopher, and developing his craft was seen as a tool for moral and spiritual development. This is also in line with the tenets of Confucianism, a major influence in Wang Xiaolin’s work.

Wang’s earliest series, “Becoming a Sage,” revolves around Confucius' notion of self-cultivation, an endlessly transformative practice that, in many ways, parallels Wang’s creative process: a continual experimentation with colors, textures, humidity levels, and firing points that has marked him as a trailblazer in contemporary porcelain-painting. Seen in this way, Wang’s methodical exploration of the creative potential of porcelain is not so much an insistence on the famous adage that the medium is the message, but more of an assertion that the process is the message. The artist, according to Wang, is “a modern-day Sisyphus, rolling up a boulder for an eternity.”

Yet despite the philosophical depth and scientific rigor he brings to his craft, Wang’s delicate painted creations are fundamentally an expression of his need to satisfy his “greed for the details of life” and remain grounded in the everyday. “I want it to be natural,” Wang says about his art, “like the four seasons of the year, like flowers blooming and falling.”

Porcelain has been embedded in Singapore's history for hundreds of years, tracing back to her origins as a thriving trading settlement between the east and the west. It’s only appropriate for our Singapore public to welcome Wang Xiaolin, the rising star of the new generation of porcelain painters and makers.”

—Dennis Ouyang, founder and owner of LOY Contemporary Art Gallery

 

The exhibition “Future is the Journey to the Past” will showcase Wang Xiaolin’s porcelain works alongside a selection of his poetry, writings, and sketches. It will run from July 4th until August 15th at the LOY Contemporary Art Gallery.

bottom of page