Victor Wang: Sunflower Sutra

Tenya Mastoras
Jun 3, 2016 6:12PM

By Gary Michael Dault

To the degree that it brings together, in one work, many of the themes and preoccupations of his recent paintings, the forceful, hieratically-composed Arrowed Sunflower can serve usefully as emblematic of Victor Wang’s work.

An exemplary painting within the Wang canon, Arrowed Sunflower releases — like a fragrance—a golden, roseate sadness that pervades the painting, despite the enigmatic smile of the girl in the sunflower hat, the disposition of her jaunty breasts, and the lay of the rich, nut-brown land, stretched out under a theatrical, emerald-turquoise sky.

Sunflowers are everywhere in Wang’s oeuvre, and while they are insistent images of a certain fecundity (all those spiralling, close-packed seeds!) that persists beyond the waning of the harvest season, they are also poignant symbols of closure, of summer’s race well run. Looking at Wang’s sensuous paintings, it’s difficult not to recall William Blake’s exquisite, plangent poem, Ah! Sun-Flower, from his Songs of Experience, 1794. Here is the first of the poem’s two stanzas:

                          Ah Sunflower, weary of time, 
                         Who countest the steps of the sun; 
                         Seeking after that sweet golden clime
                         Where the traveller’s journey is done;

And there is this kind of affecting world-weariness in Wang’s paintings, a diligent search for emotional and spiritual resolution (“that sweet golden clime”) evoked by the authoritative morphological power of plant’s beautiful, giant blossoms.

But for Victor Wang, the sunflower is even more about a searching kind of rumination—about memory and being—than it is about botany and delectation. “I grew up amongst sunflower fields in northern China in my childhood years,” he writes in a recent artist’s statement (see Every day, he says, he played with his brothers “under the bright yellow sunflowers.”

This is the stuff of golden, pastoral memory, and it is a delight to hear about. But with the coming of Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the innocent sunflower of childhood darkens into what Wang refers to as the stuff of political allegory. Now, the sunflower is to be seen as a symbol for the “depiction of how citizens of China should follow Mao who represented the sun since sunflowers follow the sun’s movements.”

During those difficult, trying years, Wang was sent to a labour camp, after high school, for “reeducation.” Often, he writes. “I worked in corn and sunflower fields from sunrise to sunset. Thus, for me,” he continues, “sunflowers evoke both personal joy and sadness.” 

That dual response to the sunflower and its myriad meanings is admirably focused in Arrowed Sunflower, where the big blossom is both a celebrational hat and the locus of victimization, as shot through with arrows as St. Sebastian was.

The sunflower has now lost considerable innocence. Its role in Wang’s work bridges the distressing distance between Blake’s Ah! Sun-Flower and Allen Ginsberg’s Sunflower Sutra from 1955, where the poet, asked to observe the flower’s beauty, can only see “the gray Sunflower poised against the sunset, crackly bleak and dusty with the smut and smog and smoke of olden locomotives in its eye….”

This doubleness is evident in such paintings as the psychologically delicate Season of Harvest, for example, where, against the prow of an eerily landlocked vessel, pierced by arrows (a powerful delineation of an aborted journey or trajectory or aspiration), a woman holds in her lap an anticlimactic “harvest” only of shriveled, desiccated sunflower blossoms. In both Migration and in the luridly lit The Night Light, the female protagonists of each painting wear talismanic necklaces of sunflowers—which seem to function as assurances of protection and guidance.

There are boats in some of Wang’s paintings, and they appear to perform as entities adjacent to or extensions of the woman-of-the-painting. Boats are means both of deliverance and escape, and in a painting like The Green Boat (BC), it is a matter of lyric ambiguity as to whether the boat has just brought the woman to the shore, or is waiting to take her away from it. The two directions are melded in the handsome Floating Sunflowers where the woman, the boat and the sunflower-water through which she travels are one, a unified field.

There are two of Victor Wang’s paintings in this exhibition that seem to work effectively—and movingly—as a pair, or as a call-and-response, one to the other. One of them is the hieratically-organized Staring at the Horizon, where the site of the woman’s rumination is somewhere Out There (or within us, which is where the stare is directed). The other—and its intimate energies flow in a different direction entirely—is the lovely Talking, where the sunflower, dried and drooping, is still potent enough to hear the woman’s confidences—or receive her silent queries—about the meaning of time and change and fate. We are not different from nature, Wang seems to be saying. “We’re not our skin of grime,” wrote Allen Ginsberg in his Sunflower Sutra, “we’re not our dread bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we’re all beautiful golden sunflowers inside….”

Tenya Mastoras