Everyday San Jose

Young Bay Area artist Wayne Jiang was born in Guangzhou, China, and came to the United States at age 15. He earned his degree in illustration at SJSU and works as a fine artist and graphic designer. He now lives in Pacifica, but his period of residence in San Jose has resulted in a group of loving images of the city that are now on display at the Leonard and David McKay Gallery at Pasetta House in History Park.

In his work showing in the exhibition Everyday San Jose: Paintings by Wayne Jiang, the artist successfully channels the influence of his beloved 17th-century Dutch Masters into two dozen or so portraits of contemporary life in our city. The pictures are also imbued with the spirit of Jiang’s native China’s heritage and visual aesthetic. In short, Jiang is a thinking-person’s painter with an abundance of talent, which makes the trek out to History San Jose’s headquarters well worthwhile.

The combining of a classical Chinese aesthetic with the style and techniques of the Dutch Masters might seem an odd juxtaposition at first, but, in fact, it makes perfect sense when you see it through Jiang’s eyes. If, for instance, you consider the very small extant body of work by Johannes Vermeer, the majority of his 30-plus masterpieces evoke a Zen-like stillness, as if a small, insignificant, single gesture were to be infinitely slowed to a blink-of-the-eye split-second of midmotion frozen in time forever. This, in effect, is what one sees in a myriad of Chinese and other Asian artworks going back for centuries. Then there is the matter of how seemingly insignificant objects from daily life become emblems of importance in both traditions. These interesting convergences, and others like them, are what I see in every one of Jiang’s paintings.

The exhibition also displays the range of Jiang’s work, which is quite impressive for such a young artist. He employs many of the major traditional “art groups,” from portrait and still life to cityscape. Like Rembrandt, he also loves to explore the chiaroscuro netherworld between light and shadow. Interestingly, in employing this technique to his outside portraits of suburban homes, he gives his pictures a twist that reminds me of some of Edward Hopper’s landmark works. (In fact, I have since noted that Jiang acknowledges the importance of American Realist painters as well as documentary photographers to his work.)

However, to me, the painter that Jiang evokes more than any other is Vermeer’s more prolific contemporary, Pieter de Hooch, one of my personal favorites. For instance, observe Jiang’s camera-obscura-style depiction of the corner of San Carlos and Bascom, looking south toward Babyland in the center of the picture, but fanning out 180 degrees to east and west along the horizontal axis on a panoramic canvas. (There are a few similar and very absorbing horizontally extreme pictures in the exhibition.) If you look at some of de Hooch’s paintings and drawings of the streets of Delft, Leiden or The Hague, you see this same “stretching” of two-dimensional space, as if the artist were trying to reach a mythical third dimension out there somewhere on the edge of infinity. You also get the same “frozen time” effect with de Hooch’s work as you do with Vermeer, and in Jiang’s work you can easily see this in his intimate pictures of restaurant interiors, for instance.

One unusual item at the exhibition that was most interesting to me was a graphic description in full color of Jiang’s working method, which is to build up layers of paint by serially placing individual hues of color from across the spectrum over the entire surface of the canvas one at a time. To me it seemed almost like the way printers work when they prepare individual printing plates of each basic color and black for a four-color printing press. Jiang explained that this method works well for him because he uses quick-drying acrylic paints on canvas, which allows him to move rapidly from one layer to the next until completion. This technique can readily be detected in his finished pictures once you know about it, and I assume that this is how the artist develops his chiaroscuro effects.

Once again CEO Alida Bray, curator Sarah Puckitt and the staff at History San Jose have produced an extremely interesting exhibition that should win the admiration of everyone who goes to see it. The exhibition continues until May 30, 2010, and the details of opening times and other information can be accessed at: http://www.historysanjose.org.

For more information about Wayne Jiang, go to: http://www.waynejiang.com.

5 Comments

  1. Jack, you wrote an excellent review, and I have to be the first to also say that the artwork and your presentation of it was well worth the post.  Excellent.

  2. Excellent review!  I’ve seen and been impressed by Wayne’s paintings myself, but was never able to articulate all of the things about them that had grabbed my attention.  I urge your readers to experience the paintings themselves up close and live!

  3. Jack Van Zandt’s likening Wayne Jiang’s paintings to those of Vermeer and Rembrandt got me to wondering.
    Did those 16th century Dutch masters have the luxury of being able to snap a photograph, then take that photo to their studio and paint a copy of the photograph? The painting of “Babyland” looked like the guy was copying a photo taken with a fisheye lens. Did Vermeer have a fisheye lens? Seems to me that any comparisons of modern painters who have access to modern technology, with painters who had only the direct subject to work from, are a little unfair and ultimately pretty meaningless.
    Not that I didn’t like Jiang’s paintings. I saw the exhibit. Fine paintings as far as I could tell, but a more apt comparison might be to a modern contemporary such as Thomas Kincaid.

    • John

      I am glad you enjoyed the exhibition.

      The Dutch Masters might not have had photography but they had just as effective an optical aid available to them, namely the camera obscura. There is still much controversy in the art history world as to who used it and who didn’t, and when, but it seems certain that it was widely used. This has been shown very effectively by British painter David Hockney in his book and TV program on the subject, and others. de Hooch certainly used it and it is speculated that Vermeer did as well as many of his pictures contain the slight distortions that can only be caused by the lens of the camera obscura. It was considered rather unremarkable at the time that a painter should use an optical device; indeed, it was pretty much an everyday tool of the trade for many artists, although not for all.

      Artists working today have a multitude of devices and aids, including photography and computers. That Jiang obviously puts modern technology to use is just as normal and acceptable a practice today as the camera obscura and other devices utilizing lenses were in the 17th Century and beyond. That was my point in my comparison of the apparent working methods of Jiang and those of the Dutch Masters who are his models. The perceptual results bear a certain similarity to my eye, and I believe that this is deliberate on the part of Jiang. It gives his pictures another layer of meaning and interest.

      Thomas Kincaid is not an apt comparison by any means.

  4. Jack,
    I realize Kincaid is considered a mass production commercial hack, but I guess what brought him to mind was the character of the lights in Jiang’s dusk and nighttime scenes. It almost appears as though the canvas is translucent and there are little lights shining through from behind.
    I had completely missed your point about the camera obscura idea. Makes sense, I guess. I’d always assumed that great artists COULD portray anything in realistic and minute detail, but usually choose not to. The camera obscura hypothesis reminds me of an exhibit they used to have at the Exploratorium. On an easel there was mounted a sheet of plexiglass standing vertically- with a grease pencil. The “artist” would stand and look through the class at the “subject”, then just “trace” exactly what he sees. It was amazing how even someone like myself, who can’t draw at all, was able to produce a very realistic likeness of the person on the other side.

    But there IS a lot more to admire about these artist’s work than just the detail. As described in the exhibit, the line drawing is just the first of about 7 or 8 steps in Jiang’s process. 
    Also, there’s the added satisfaction of seeing artwork that portrays scenes of our hometown. My own familiarity with the subjects of his cityscapes make them quite endearing.