Play on the Beach - Guan Wei

A new exhibition by renowned artist Guan Wei at Martin Browne Contemporary celebrates the Tao of the beach: mark it down as a joyful, significant moment in Australian art history, says Susie Burge

Play on the Beach No.12, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 130 x 162 cm (triptych)

Play on the Beach No. 12, 2011 by Guan Wei

Guan Wei lives between two cultures, two countries, two hemispheres … two worlds. His art has a keen morality. It is often luminous. Quirky. Clever. Humorous. Philosophical. Environmental. Socio-politically aware. Symbolic, referential, with strong elements of fable. Exhibitions of his work in Australia and China have included multi-panel paintings that meditate on rising sea levels, colonialism, the concept of home, and even the art of idleness. He’s had numerous solo shows, been included in important international biennials (and triennials), has won several awards and is represented in major public, corporate and private collections, including the National Gallery of Australia and the collection of actress Cate Blanchett who opened his current exhibition at Martin Browne Contemporary, “Play on the Beach”.

Born and raised in Beijing, Guan Wei came to Australia in 1989 as artist in residence at the Tasmanian School of Art and stayed, completing other residencies and taking up a number of grants and fellowships. In 2008 he returned to Beijing to set up a studio there. He now divides his time between Sydney and Beijing. China’s recent turbo-charged growth and expanding urbanisation has had a big impact on him, with compulsory relocation of his studio twice, the second time in May this year where he was forced to pack up and move in just two days. He says in his artist’s catalogue statement:

“It was very hectic. These two incidents no only led to significant economic loss to me, but also had a large impact on my heart. Reflecting on my situation, I missed the peaceful life in Australia, with its sunshine, white clouds, sea and beaches.”


Top: Water View No. 13, 2011 by Guan Wei. Above: Guan Wei photographed by Linglin Zhu

What’s so wonderful about “Play on the Beach” is the sense of uncomplicated happiness in the 32 paintings hung across two gallery spaces. Not hedonism, nor simple pleasure only, but a sense of pure-hearted joy in the depiction of near-naked people swimming and playing and lounging, of dogs, horses, butterflies, kangaroos, emus on the sand, of water and boats, signposts and curly oriental clouds. There are miniature Chinese mountains too, floating over the sand, their names inscribed on small tablets. In one painting, there is the hand of Buddha holding a pearl. This is not just the playful, relaxed, free, democratic world of the beach; it is the harmonious “Way” of the beach, complete with Australian iconography, gentle irony and humour.

The exhibition is presented with flair in Martin Browne’s spacious new Paddington gallery. The large front room is given over to three, two and single panel paintings plus a display case holding sketches and working drawings, and the second gallery houses the smaller “Water View” canvases. In a delicious gesture, sand covers the floor of the second gallery, bringing the beach to life. At the packed-to-the-rafters opening famous Cate spoke beautifully, kids were building sandcastles, and one well-heeled punter was apparently so taken up in the mood of it all that she stalked off into the night still wearing the blue disposable covers provided over her designer statement shoes.


Above: Play on the Beach No. 5, 2011 by Guan Wei

Unfortunately I missed Guan Wei’s gallery talk. I’ll make do with another eloquent quote from his catalogue essay that goes to bear on the departure in style as well as subject, a loosening up, a freshness:

“When I was making these works in my Sydney studio, my mind and body felt totally relaxed. Sadness and worries seem to have left me, and only peace and joy remained. This experience was unique, and has never before occurred to me during my previous 30 years of art practice.”

Returning after a period of turbulence and uneasiness, he speaks of Australia as “this pure land in my heart” and seeks to convey this experience through his work.

Go to ATL: Images - Guan Wei

- Susie Burge, all rights reserved. Images courtesy of the artist (photos of artworks by Jenni Carter / Guan Wei portrait by Linglin Zhu)