Feetish first on silk route
Wei Peng's sensuous ink paintings meld art and fashion but are they actually a metaphor for sex, asks Alonzo Emery
Sex, shoes and silk might seem a reductionist description of Beijing-based artist Wei Peng's work, but these three words encapsulate the qualities that make her paintings so timely.
For her first exhibition in Hong Kong, opening at Plum Blossom gallery on Friday, Peng will present a series of more than 30 ink paintings of silk robes and shoes under the title Embroidered. Although Peng's renderings of imperial court costumes seem like a throwback to traditional Chinese motifs of serpentine dragons and cherub-like monks, her paintings haven't escaped nuanced and even psycho-sexual readings.
'A friend of mine saw my paintings and instantly thought the shoes were connected to sex,' says Peng. 'While this wasn't my original intention, shoes and feet have long been connected to sex and seductiveness.'
Some of the standout pieces in Embroidered are paintings of small, singular shoes, like those worn by Chinese women into the 20th century to encase their bound feet. The diminutive bound foot was a focal point of sexual desire, unrivalled by even a woman's decolletage.
Comparing how these silk shoes displayed a woman's status and how the modern stiletto invites certain sexual connotations, it's little wonder some viewers of Peng's shoe paintings might find their thoughts drifting towards sex. Peng says she doesn't want to force an easy, albeit provocative, interpretation. 'I'm not trying to tell them anything in particular,' she says. Women's art invariably elicits sexualised interpretations, she says. 'If a woman decides to paint shoes, people come up with this interpretation. But if a man paints them, they won't.'
Plum Blossoms has its own take on Peng's art. The press release for the show reads: 'By making a contrast between modernism and traditionalism, Peng is trying to search for the loss of our cultural identity in today's society.'
Peng doesn't seem like a social crusader searching to recover China's lost identity. She readily admits she doesn't wear the traditional garments she paints, preferring fashionable, modern clothes. She might more readily be seen as a documentarian using her art as a record of social shifts in China's tastes in fashion.
This nexus of art and fashion isn't new, and is increasingly becoming the preserve of gallery owners and curators interested in cashing in on society's reawakened appreciation for the art of fashion. In New York, some of the Metropolitan Museum's hottest-ticket exhibits are hosted by its Costume Institute, where shows such as Extreme Beauty and Goddess paid homage to our fashion-obsessed culture, by opening costume archives. Painters such as Anh Duong and Hope Atherton have become muses of designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier - while designers have become artists' subjects.
Peng's paintings of high-heeled shoes invoke the London Design Museum's recent retrospective of Manolo Blahnik, whose fanciful sketches of towering heels stand as objects of art in their own right. These are the shoes made famous by Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City, which Peng admits watching.
Although Peng draws inspiration from pop culture and the street, she's a trained artist. She began painting at three, under the guidance of her father, a well-regarded painter in their home town of Chengdu, Sichuan. Before moving to Beijing in 2000, Peng studied at Tianjin's Nanxia University, earning a bachelors and masters of Philosophy in Art. Despite an aesthetic rooted in classical Chinese ink paintings, Peng says she's most swayed by western sources. 'Many of my ideas and thoughts were influenced by western painters, from Velasquez to Warhol,' she says. Her interest in painting silk garments may well derive from Velasquez's paintings of the Spanish royal family, which similarly showcase the art and beauty of the cloth.
Peng's paintings of seemingly discarded, well-worn period clothing not only inspire thoughts of the time from which they come, but also of the history of the garment's owner. An entire imaginary world can be created simply by thinking of who wore the clothes and how they used them - to hold court, display status or seduce. Perhaps this ability of clothes to relate a story explains how garments from Princess Diana or Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis can sell for large amounts, despite lacking functionality or ready ability for display. As with Peng's paintings, the impact and interest lies not in the beauty of the clothes themselves, but in the innumerable narratives they conjure, and in how much can be read in a simple shoe.
Embroidered - Recent Paintings by Peng Wei, Thu, 5.30-8pm, opening reception and meet-the-artist session; Mon-Sat, 10am- 6.30pm, Plum Blossoms Gallery, G6 ChinaChem Hollywood Centre, 1 Hollywood Rd, Central. Inquiries: 2521 2189. Ends July 3.