Understanding an Artist II: David of Shanghai by M. Pitter


张军伟 or David is a Chinese painter currently living and working in Shanghai.

***

Among the tree-lined avenues of west Shanghai’s old French Concession, lives an artist who goes by the name of David. Surrounded by his paintings, his jars of tea and soft music fitting within the qualitative confines of soft and delightful, he composes mainly impressionistic landscapes along with some portraits and realist compositions of flowers in vases. His past and his evolution into the present provide more insight into who he is as a creator. I proceeded to ask him a series of questions to further understand him as a creator and a person.

(Note: The following interview is based on questions and answers exchanged across a language barrier. Thankfully, one of his students, Jun, a fluent English speaker, helped to facilitate the interview. So, most of what he meant to convey is recorded here.)

Me and Jun, David's protegé. credit: David/In Parentheses
Jun, David’s protegé (right) and I. credit: David/In Parentheses

I see that you focus your talents on portraying landscapes. However, these landscapes come with a sort of visual distortion. What do you distort a natural landscape to become?

I aim for a convergence of colors through their reflection upon water or their dispersion through fog. Through this method, I (can) create new colors from already existing colors. While I portray landscapes, I actually do not; I draw my mental activity, the feeling in the heart. Of course.

A Painting of a Waterfall by David. credit: M. Pitter/In Parentheses
A Painting of a Waterfall by David. credit: M. Pitter/In Parentheses

Why landscapes?

I started painting landscapes as a youth. My first career in painting took place on film sets. I drew the backgrounds. They had to be realistic portrayals of nature.

credit: M.Pitter/In Parentheses
Paintings by David. credit: M.Pitter/In Parentheses

Why flowers in vases?

They sell.

How do you commodify your work?

If a piece is introduced in a magazine or made public in any way, I can demand a higher price for it. And, of course, the amount of time and energy put into producing the work is reflected in the price as well.

How has your style evolved and why?

I have been painting independently since the early 1970s. I taught myself by mimicking Soviet realism. Then I began mimicking the French realism. In the 1970s, when Mao was in power, artists were generally encouraged to draw realistic paintings of scenes from nature. I was then attracted to French realism and so I mimicked this style to continue teaching myself. Eventually, I switched into the impressionistic and abstract styles specifically under the influence of Kandinsky. After the reforms (the opening of the doors) of the late 1970s/early 1980s, more Western styles spread into China and so I was influenced by these different styles.

Are you interested in experimenting through the merging of different styles?

I believe that I have passed my experimentation phase. I did this when I was younger. At the moment, I am interested in continuing my impressionism.

A painting by David. credit: David/In Parentheses
A painting by David. credit: David/In Parentheses

Is this woman in red meant to be aligned with the romantic image of the famously desired ‘Woman in the Red Dress’?

No, not exactly. The red here is Chinese symbolism. In China, red generally represents all things good and fortunate. This piece is an installment from a series of paintings of females in scenes with a somewhat ambiguous light source. This comes from some of my more recent work.

A painting by David. credit: M.Pitter/In Parentheses
A painting by David. credit: M.Pitter/In Parentheses

***

After the questioning, I remained in the studio, had some tea and conversed with David and his protégé, Jun, a young painter who, one day, walked through his doors curious as to whether he would take students under his wing. He told her that he usually does not but because she showed promise, he will make an exception. David does not speak a word of English. I communicated with him through a translation application on my iPhone before Jun, who speaks flawless English, joined us to facilitate the questions and conversation.

David. credit: David/In Parentheses
David. credit: David/In Parentheses
Jun (left), David (right) and I (center). credit: David/In Parentheses
Jun (left), David (right) and I (center). credit: David/In Parentheses

I found it particularly interesting the effect of politics on his work during the Mao years. Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, in his Quotations, found that art had to fit within the design of a politically revolutionary society. Artists must not forget to serve the working class. Specifically, he states that:

 “What we demand is the unity of politics and art, the unity of content and form, the unity of revolutionary political content and the highest possible perfection of artistic form.”

A necessary purpose in the arts is evident here. He begins this chapter, entitled Culture and Art, with: “There is in fact no such thing as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics.”

With these cultural restrictions in place, David reckoned that on behalf of his countrymen and his creative restlessness, realism would be an outlet through which he could and would develop into the artist that he is today and the artist that he will be tomorrow.

The day before I left Shanghai for the United States, I caught a quick and final glimpse of David weaving in between pedestrians on the busy Yongkang Lu (road) directing his bicycle with one hand and holding three canvasses with the other. Seeing this confirmed to me the extent of his hard work: a steadfast matching of his natural tendencies to create with the necessary discipline to develop into the iridescent artist he spent his life striving to become.

David's Studio. credit: M.Pitter/In Parentheses
David’s Studio. credit: M.Pitter/In Parentheses

 

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