Viewpoint | Fu Wenjun's Digital Pictorial Photography

Independent & Image Art Space
Apr 22, 2020 3:26AM

By Florian Knothe, art historian and museum professional. He directs the University Museum and Art Gallery at Hong Kong University, and teaches art history and museum studies.

The visual quality of Master Fu Wenjun’s Digital Pictorial Photography is apparent in terms of both its composition and presentation. As artists make reference to the past and its continuous development, Fu has related his own painting-like presentations to the painterly quality of Louis-Jacques Daguerre's (1787–1851) photographs from the early 1820s. Beyond this reference and lineage, his contemporary work is neither technically limited in the way that Daguerre's was, nor is it merely pictorial. In both mono- and polychrome applications, Fu has developed a language that is indicative of a rapport with deeply engrained layers of Chinese culture.

Fu's digital work has been described as poetic. Poetry is a text-based medium that describes in words and evokes the readers’ fantasy to think of images to illustrate the verbal dialogue. In Fu's form of digital photography, the image comes first and the pictorial content suggests a narrative. Rather than a story in pictures, Fu’s viewer engages more philosophically with the visual content. Text and image become one and provoke each other to complete, in a viewer's mind, the historical or cultural connotations being displayed.

Figure 1. Fu Wenjun Solo Exhibition, The University of Hong Kong, 2019

Exhibitions of Fu’s work (Figure 1), such as the recent display at the University of Hong Kong, demonstrate how his creative output can be summed up through the concept of ‘Digital Pictorial Photography’, which is his reworked term for the traditions found at the core of the photographic arts. By blending elements of other modes of fine art into the photographic process, he has created a new form of aesthetic pleasure that embraces a range of artistic media.

Fu’s technique puts forward cultural references on both a technical and historical level, as his pictorial compositions relate to Chinese ink painting in both technique and subject matter, as they depict Chinese art and architecture or include symbolic elements. By demonstrating the complementary relationship of photographs and other modes of fine art, Fu is able to transform a seemingly inaccessible message into a highly approachable idea that then can trigger critical thought about history, society and humanity.

Figure 2. After Fresh Rain in the Mountains

Figure 3. East Wind Blew Again Last Night

Artworks such as After Fresh Rain in the Mountains, East Wind Blew Again Last Night and Where the Water Ends (Figures 2–4; digital pictorial photography, 100 x 100 cm, 2017–2018) showcase Fu’s lavish use of ink, which here forms a set of squares that reflects both shadow and space, further expanding the inked image. The effect of layering found in much of his art is a prime example of how he strives to break photographic norms. For Fu, a photograph can be dissected and expanded so as to interact with space and light in the creation of new artistic perspectives. The differing shades of grey and gradation to a deep black are juxtaposed within the same three-dimensional presentation of light and dark.

Figure 4. Where the Water Ends

As in traditional black-and-white photography, contrast brings liveliness to the images. The visual relationship with ink painting further reminds the viewer that the saturation of the black and the (brush) flow’s darker and lighter traces are of consequence. For centuries, painters trained the handling of the brush to master the application of solid to diluted watery ink. The culture of applying the traditional ‘five ink tones’ (dark dry ink, dark heavy ink, heavy ink, light ink and bland ink)—as well as the nuances found in dry and wet ink, or the blurred spread in ink-wash paintings—are eluded to in Fu’s interplay of light and shadow.

Figure 5. The One and Only Way

Figure 6. Precious Horse

Images such as The One and Only Way and Precious Horse (Figures 5–6; digital pictorial photography, 100 x 100 cm, 2017–2018) combine the abstract composition with depictions of a Buddha and Tang era horse. Both images are not straight forward depictions, but instead illustrate artworks that appear as if they are being seen through a veil, reminiscent of the dreamy representation of the brush. The traditional aspects of Fu’s work reach beyond technical skill and incorporate an iconography that relates these contemporary photographs to ancient Chinese art forms, especially to sculptures—objects in the round—that, like the earlier shadow play, return to a dialogue about two and three dimensions.

Figure 7. Come and Go

Figure 8. Nobody to Talk With

In the photographs Come and Go and Nobody to Talk With (Figures 7–8; digital pictorial photography, 100 x 100 cm, 2017–2018), the master photographer expands his theme by employing colour. Whereas his monochrome images are strongly related to ink painting, his colour photography resembles the characteristics of Chinese woodblock printing. The seemingly subtle application of blue to represent the pagoda suggests a uniform image created by the inked impression of a printing block. This quality, together with the overlaying ring motif, creates another illusion of three-dimensionality; or, put differently, a curtain or emotional veil.

In Nobody to Talk With, this ‘veil’ is composed of a string of Chinese characters; a traditional aphorism which proposes that painting and calligraphy are related, as they both arrive with the brush and ink. Whether deliberate or not, Fu’s photography extends this theme, as his modern medium relates to and extends these traditional techniques of image transfer.

Figure 9. Dancing Notes

Figure 10. Stay More in Spring

A further development is the introduction of patches of colour, an element in Fu’s work that is reminiscent of compositions from the New Ink Painting Movement. In Dancing Notes and Stay More in Spring (Figures 9–10; digital pictorial photography, 100 x 100 cm, 2017–2018) an inky quality prevails through the seemingly simple application of colour in adjacent, though separate, individual areas. A depth and interesting form of juxtaposition are created by working within these discrete areas, rather than by simply mixing the colours. As with the layering of elements, the representation of three-dimensional objects and the interplay of light and shadow, the association of contrasting colours evokes a deep and multi-layered composition.

The quality of Fu’s artistic production lies in its multiple connotations: his photography creates a link between conventional painting styles and techniques, between traditional iconography and a less defined expression that may seem like a veil but, actually helps to bind together the media. While the ostensibly fluid ink is entirely Chinese, his wood block print-related images may relate to Eastern as well as Western forms of culture, as they contain stylistic precedents that are also found in the work of Man Ray (18901976) and Andy Warhol (19281987). However, the incorporation of sculptural and architectural topics, as well as Chinese characters in contemporary photography with abstract painterly tones, is the trademark of Fu’s innovative art form.

The analytical focus on this series further highlights a number of additional facts that are neither particular to Fu’s work nor to photography in general. His project presents images of identical technique and size. All of the photographs are large squares (100 x 100 cm) that incorporate nine smaller squares to achieve this layered effect. In so doing, Fu displays a highly regular structure in which the effect is repeated—and intensified—while only the subject matter differs. The contents of individual photos do not necessarily relate to one another, as only certain pairs or small groups within the larger project adhere to similar themes. The artist presents a unity via technique rather than a traditional graphic composition. Viewers come to realize that Fu’s photography introduces a way to print and mount photographs that is an art in itself, which prevails as an application that leads the visual presentation independently from the depicted subject matter.

With such an array of varied cultural and artistic connotations, visual relationships and mounting techniques, Fu’s photography challenges viewers and presents something quite unexpected. His images are neither predominantly abstract nor documentary in nature. The combination and interpretation of his photographic influences offers a new employment of a form that was originally introduced—in Daguerre's days—for the reproduction of nature. These various elements realign in his visual work by incorporating texts so as to stimulate a fantasy that leads viewers beyond conventional forms of digital photography.

Florian Knothe, May 2019

Independent & Image Art Space