Greenpoint artist Dawei Wang’s work was ahead of its time in a pre-COVID world. That is, his gorgeous landscape paintings have long portrayed solitary people in sweeping fields and desolate cities. In January 2020, he presented many of these works at YUI Gallery on the Lower East Side. The exhibition was eerily poignant, closing mere weeks before lockdown.
The artist’s lush oeuvre resonates differently just one year later. Soft blue, green, and yellow hues permeate expansive compositions, heightening the intimacy of his tiny subjects in solitude — a recurring theme in his work since moving to Greenpoint from Shanghai. Every New Yorker now knows the feeling of isolation in a place once bustling. But while Wang’s sense of loneliness came from moving across the world, this long period of social distancing has allowed him to reflect on the future with a renewed sense of community.
In a recent conversation at McCarren Park, Wang told me all about his experience navigating the last year, shifting perceptions of time and alienation, and the art he’s made in quarantine.
Billy Anania: Can you tell me about your background, where you grew up in China, and early influences as an artist?
Dawei Wang: I was born in Shanghai, where I lived my whole life before moving to the United States. At about five years old, I started drawing and painting all over the walls of my family’s home, pretty much anywhere I could. As I grew up, my parents and grandmother decided to send me to an art school to learn some technique. As a child, I didn’t know much about artists; I was just interested in picture books, with very simple figures to trace and draw. Everything I saw became a subject — cars, plants, trees, and people.
BA: When did you first move to the states? And how would you compare your experiences as an artist in China and the US?
DW: I was represented by a Shanghai gallery called FQ Projects, so I would do exhibitions and sell my paintings while working at an art school. My wife attended university in Maryland, and I accompanied her as a spouse in 2018. We moved to Greenpoint after she graduated, so it’s been about three and a half years in Brooklyn.
Shanghai is a highly modernized city like New York. There are a lot of residents originally from different provinces. Even though it is located in the east, people come from all over the west, north, and south of China to visit and live. But here in New York, the city is much more cosmopolitan. I really love that I can meet people from all over the world.
BA: Your paintings were a great source of comfort throughout 2020, because they made me feel a little better about just existing alone and finding tranquility amidst uncertainty. I wonder, what do you make of isolation and distance in New York recently?
DW: When I first came here, I felt really isolated. The biggest problem was the language barrier. In China, we learn some English but lack the context, and there are few opportunities for practice. Everything felt so new and unfamiliar here, but not necessarily in a negative sense.
At art museums — and you might also have this experience — sometimes people struggle to understand an artwork’s meaning, so they need to read the explanation cards. Even if you know every word, you still might not understand. For me, this is a good thing, because my understanding depends totally on intuition. It’s easy for me, therefore, to make a choice about what I enjoy and what I do not. You can understand all the complex terminology but still not have a clear understanding, which I think applies to art and life in general.
I also want to say that I don’t feel lonely anymore. I really enjoy this city.
BA: I definitely get that. When I write about art, I try to make it understandable for everyone, because art as an industry and discourse can sometimes be too obscure or alienating to the public.
DW: Yes, so if I do not understand immediately, that’s okay. I don’t have to worry about confusion, as I only focus on what compels me and then adapt to it very quickly. This is a great process for my work as well. Without reading too deeply, I can totally depend on my intuition to interpret artworks and translate them into my painting, and I can learn faster — no need to waste time on anything too out of reach.
BA: Do you mean that when you look at works of art, you respond purely to what you see in the work, and that influences your own process? I think that definitely comes through in your painting, in terms of intuition. Just looking at your paintings, it’s so easy to have an immediate emotional response.
DW: Yes, that is the first step, but now I’m working to make some differences. I want to integrate the social element of this city now. I barely knew anything about this country before living here. All of my memories involved Shanghai and China more generally. Oftentimes, I recognize my existence by recalling the past. This was reflected clearly in my previous artworks. Now, I am realizing that I’ve lived in the US for a while now and am fully integrated into the social environment. It’s made me seek out newer experiences and think differently, as opposed to my intuitive creation method. Naturally, this process is always changing.
BA: Much of your work seems so enormous when looking at it online, perhaps due to the composition — you paint vast public spaces with lots of pedestrians and workers — but then, in person, the works themselves are much smaller. Is that intentional?
DW: I know what you mean. I think it’s maybe the power of what appears in the image.
In something small, you can still get a big feeling. That is part of my goal, to convey that power.
BA: Who are some of your artist inspirations?
DW: In Brooklyn, I’m drawn to lots of diverse artists, more so than in China. But most of my favorites are from the past, like Edward Hopper. Standing in front of his paintings makes me recall my own life memory. It feels familiar and emotional. All of my memories come back to me, not just ones from America. It’s not that I do not enjoy contemporary art, though, but painting is my preference and perhaps my bias. Visiting the Met is still my favorite experience in the city.
BA: Tell me about teaching art. How do you like it?
DW: I teach kids ages 12 to 17 at Queens Art Education Center, and I can use Chinese in class since it’s mostly Asian students. I feel very lucky to teach basic techniques like drawing, watercolors, and acrylic painting. Teaching creation is much more difficult, since everyone has their own life experiences. I don’t really think you can teach style.
BA: What kinds of art have you been working on lately?
DW: The last year or so has changed a lot of things for me. I want to alter my state of mind, and some of my style. I still check the daily deaths from COVID-19 every day, and it remains really hard to accept this situation. I want to bring some of that pain into my work. Recently, I’m enjoying illustrating scenes from works of dystopian fiction, so that might become something bigger in the future. I’ve been adapting images that materialize in my mind while reading Thomas Pynchon’s V. and Jesus’s Son by Denis Johnson.
BA: Do you still have family in China and stay connected to the culture?
DW: Half and half, I’d say. I still love Chinese food, of course. I think I am accepting American culture slowly but will never give up Chinese culture. I think if I say “culture” it’s not accurate, though. I prefer to say “memory.” The memory of leaving China is still very important to me. If you want to create high-level artworks, however, you must have more life experience apart from memories of home, through traveling and studying. That all factors in for me as an artist. I lived in China until my early 30s, and now I’m here in Greenpoint. These are two totally different experiences that I can sometimes combine to make another new artwork, but mostly it feels like a new stage in life and my art.