Making an Asian Form Universal

The Chinese traditional arts are not only monumental achievements in their own right, but are also a part of a global heritage. Efforts of non-Chinese artists, however, to integrate the Chinese tradition can be problematic, however, and can often result in pastiche or mediocre imitation. Dan Wirén’s approach is very different, and makes an important contribution to Western understanding of Chinese art.

Over the last decade, Dan has moved from his initial work in oil painting, and has developed a personal language which depends on Chinese materials—ink-wash painting, Xuanzhi paper, Chinese inkstones—to convey ideas and images which are not drawn from that tradition, but which rather shift between figurative and geometric images, creating black-and-white compositions which propose rather than declare interpretations. They are, however, emphatically not the galloping horses and misty mountains and shrimp and blooms of Chinese tradition. This fits with a central conviction of mine: that Chinese materials can be separated from their themes and traditions, and be used respectfully to explore any manner of artistic vision.

In his own discussions of his artistic process, Dan talks about ink-wash painting as a way of escaping the heavy-handed, rather arrogant focus on “great works” that is a constant of the Western art world. Ink-wash painting is more easily evocative than fixed, blurring the lines between figurative and abstract, and—consisting of monochrome lines on thin paper—is flexible and seemingly insubstantial. Dan’s focus on such material also fits with his character, which is modest and quiet to a fault, despite his considerable success as an artist (during my visit this year, reproductions of his work were being exhibited on the walls of Fridemsplan subway station). There is a quietness about the material which moves the process of art from assertion into suggestion.

Josh Stenberg, Nanjing
Lecturer at Nanjing Normal University,
Writer of fiction,poetry and theater