Learning from Artist Peng Wei

Dec. 8, 2023

Beijing-based artist Peng Wei visited Princeton in late November 2023 to present her work in three contexts: as a lecture in the course ART 389/GSS 390/EAS 389 “Women and Gender in Chinese Art “ co-taught by Professor Cheng-hua Wang and A&A graduate student Yutong Li, as a painting workshop for the Visual Arts program, and in conversation with Princeton University Art Museum curator Zoe Kwok.  Across all of the venues, Wei spoke with gracious and disarming honesty about her approach, inspiration, reservations, and triumphs.

Wang first encountered Wei’s works in 2015 at her solo exhibition “Come Full Circle” in Taipei. “I was impressed by her creative ways of referencing traditional Chinese painting and literature,” said Wang. “Even though the brushwork system and some of the motifs and scenes in her works exhibited there looked familiar to me as a scholar of Chinese art, they gained new life and were given fresh meaning beyond what I could have imagined.”  

A sculpture of the back of a torso is covered ina Chinese painting of a tree and rider on horseback

Peng Wei, Autumn of Tang Dynasty (唐人秋色), 2008, Princeton University Art Museum 

Wei’s focus on the lived experience of daily life especially resonated with Wang, who saw in them “the quality, poetics, and incremental sense of what life is about,” how the body is embedded in these.  

Wang sees Wei's paintings as exploring the body and gender in multi-layered and temporal-spatial units. “The qualities of sensuality and allegorical enigma are what make Peng Wei’s recent works so riveting,” said Wang.

Discussing her work with students

Wei’s presentation was ideally suited to the theme of Wang’s and Li’s course, which aimed “to highlight ‘Women and Gender’ not only as a valuable academic framework but also as lived experiences, disciplinary tools, and enduring poetics that shape a significant part of Chinese art,” as Li put it.

Peng Wei sits in foreground with her work projected on screen.

Peng Wei discusses her work with students of ART 389 (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

"When I look back at my work, some of the paintings tell me 'you did it! you are an artist.'"

– Peng Wei 

Now a globally-known artist, Wei learned her craft from her father beginning at the age of two. Her father’s extraordinary mastery of painting, she says, equipped her with a rich set of skills that afford her the versatility to switch between methods based on the feeling or subject matter that she is rendering. Her inspiration stems from her daily life and ranges from ancient painting or Italian frescos to conversations with friends, American TV shows, or window shopping.

Peng Wei deomsntrates black brush strokes on white paper

Peng Wei demonstrates her brushwork technique (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Rather than painting with a specific agenda or concept in mind, Peng Wei explained that she has always simply painted what she likes from her everyday experiences. She points to her love of lingering in shopping malls, for example, as the impetus for painting on shoes. She compared a mall to a museum “because everything is displayed very beautifully.  They make an atmosphere and attract you to look.”  

More recently, after discovering two mannequins in the garbage, Wei turned to painting on three-dimensional torsos. She draws on ancient paintings for her motifs, as exhibited in the work included in the Princeton University Art Museum collection, Autumn of Tang Dynasty (唐人秋色), 2008.

A&A graduate student Zhuolun Xie, who translated for Wei during the conversation at Art on Hulfish, said “When she makes the mannequin sculptures, she uses two kinds of readily available materials—ancient Chinese paintings and discarded mannequins—to tell her own story." "To her, curatorial work is exactly like art making in this respect,” said Xie. “I find the analogy an apt and lovely one.”

Cathleen Weng paints in foreground with Peng Wei in background

Cathleen Weng paints in the foreground, with Peng Wei working behind her (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Cathleen Weng ’24 wrote her midterm for Wang and Li’s course about this work. ”I find her work incredibly evocative and fascinating, and I love the way that she thinks about bridging the gap between what's old and new, what's ancient and modern,” she said.

“Her art is so evocative in the way that it fits the modern and the ancient together, and I like that she's conscious about changing our perceptions of ancient artworks and making us recognize them as simply pieces of art, which perhaps we are not so distant from as we might think.”

Rendering her contemporary experiences following traditional styles and techniques comes naturally to Wei; she admires the work of the ancient masters and references it as she renders what moves her in the present.  Wei incorporated her experience of COVID, for example, in the form of two figures knocking on doors representing agents patrolling neighborhoods during lock-down.

Demonstrating her brushwork technique

At 185 Nassau, Wei led a workshop to illustrate her brushwork technique. She introduced the ink, pigments, paper types, and brushes, but above all, she spoke about her visceral, rooted approach. “I put my brain outside of the room,” she said, focusing on her breath and following her brush.

"You need a long breath to make a beautiful long line." – Peng Wei

“What struck me most is the image of the artist’s tiny figure powerfully wielding the brush against the paper to create a rock structurally intriguing and spatially complicated,” said Wang. “Gradually, the barely recognizable universe of monochrome strokes was starting to take form as a rock. I recalled an ancient text from Zhuangzi that describes how skillful professionals who understand the Dao are able to accomplish their work in a state between consciousness and unconsciousness and leave no trace of their artistry. Their naturalness and power come with daily practice over the long term.”

Cary Moore tries out painting technique

Cary Moore '24 puts Peng Wei's lessons into practice (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Cary Moore ’24, herself a painter, found Wei’s demonstration very impactful. “I was sitting right in front of Peng Wei as she painted and felt a palpable charge as soon as she began her brushwork. It was very real,” said Moore. “Her process differs completely from that which is expected of Western painting - each painting is made quickly in one sitting, because the ink she deals with must be applied to paper in a single layer. I think the resulting energy has to do with the speed and necessary presentness of her approach.”

“Her presence was so dynamic,” Weng agreed. “In attempting the practice of ink painting myself and finding that I had no idea where to start or how to paint anything with the form of ink painting,” said Weng, “seeing the confidence of Peng Wei's movements was incredible when contrasted with what I was able to create.”

Xie also participated in the workshop. She was impressed by Wei’s commitment to the traditional Chinese ink painting practices that emphasize breath and brush movement. “She mentioned she would devote an entire month each year just to practice painting rocks—a motif important to both her own art and traditional Chinese painting in general—to keep refining her techniques,” said Xie.

“I hope students at the VIS workshop can see how the body, including the rhythm of breath, is embedded in the creation of Chinese ink painting and how daily practice becomes a ritualized act of wielding the brush that leads to the creation of art, which is not only about the burst of ideas and creativity.”  —Cheng-hua Wang

The class surrounds a table with the rock painting on it

Participants of the workshop crowd around Peng Wei and her demonstration work (Photo/Kirstin)