Academic History and Exhibitions


Peng Wei was born in Chengdu, China in 1974, into a family of painters. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Chinese Painting, Oriental Cultural Art from Nankai University (1997), followed by a Master’s degree in Philosophy from the same institution (2000). From 2000 to 2006, she served as editor of ART Magazine in Beijing. She is currently a senior member at the Beijing Fine Art Academy and member of the China Fine Arts Association.


Her dexterous, patient wielding of the ink brush and her holistic craftsmanship have won huge acclaim and a devoted collector base. Her treatment of the riddle of time itself lies at the heart of her success: “I attempt to separate myself from tradition using the most traditional means possible.” She surprises, delights and fascinates in equal measure.


Peng Wei has exhibited in many major group exhibitions, including the Venice Biennale (2017), Cha-Na—Contemporary Ink Show, Art Basel Hong Kong, Galerie Ora-Ora, Two Generations: Ink Art by Peng Xiancheng & Peng Wei, Sotheby’s Hong Kong Gallery, START Art Fair in London and Real Life Stories: the Chinese Contemporary Art Exhibition at The Bergen Art Museum in Norway. Other group exhibitions since 2003 took place in cities as diverse as Berlin, Bern, Copenhagen, Guangzhou, Suzhou and Yokahama.


Prior to Volta13, other solo exhibitions included: I thought of You, Suzhou Museum, Contemporary Art Gallery in 2016, Coming Full Circle: Peng Wei Solo Exhibition at National Museum of History in Taipei (2015), Letters from a Distance atArt Basel Hong Kong, Galerie Ora-Ora in 2014. Solo exhibitions in Beijing include: Peng Wei's Painting Installation Exhibition, Opposite House, Beijing, China and Paper Skin, Artside Gallery, Beijing, China, both in 2009.  


Her works have been collected by the National Art Museum of China, the Hong Kong Museum of Art, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the Guangdong Art Museum, the He Xiangning Art Museum, the M+ Museum, the Uli Sigg Collection, the DSL Collection and many more.


Nothing but the Now


Peng Wei embraces past and present as a single entity. Reaching across the ages, as if only the Now exists, Peng Wei is able to combine classical Chinese motifs with unexpected contexts and historical situations, producing an output which is somehow ancient and timeless.


Peng Wei’s early art education that was dominated by the western tradition. Her father, also a painter, most admired the impressionist school. As she noted in a 2016 conversation with Uli Sigg: “…When I went to university and started to see classical Chinese painting, it was strange, fresh and curious. I discovered that old Chinese  painting was newer and more worthy than post 1949 Chinese painting, because it was more accessible. The view of history expressed by ancient painting has no agenda  or doctrine. It makes history living, present and one with me.”


Commenting on her relationship with the artists of ancient times, Peng Wei’s words are enigmatic: “From the Chinese perspective, “the ancients” and “I” are two dots on the same timeline. Whether they meet or not is what matters.” The sentence underlines the impression she gives that time, as we narrowly define it, may be an illusion, and that communion with the past is possible in a more real, vital way than the current stage of human advancement may imagine.


This understanding of time may be a uniquely Chinese perspective. When challenged on whether she would describe her works as contemporary, she had this to say: “I do not want to prove my contemporaneity, because the concept of “contemporary art” came from the west. However, I do want to prove that Chinese ink paintings are games with established rules. In particular, I want to show how the Chinese concepts of time, the past and the present are different from those of the west.”


Unusually, Peng Wei uses the analogy of a wall. Unusual because she is not describing breaking walls down, but that the artist seeks to build a wall. The artist creates, builds, and next generations either add to that wall or tear it down. Dealing with the wall, building it, bumping against it, climbing over it or tunnelling through it, is Peng Wei’s life work. “There is a high wall between the contemporary and the traditional, as between the east and the west…. Some people can naturally pass through this wall, but some run into it until they are bruised and bloody.”


As Peng Wei says of her own works, “I admire all artists who can skillfully and faithfully fuse the influence of thought and reality. I admire artists who listen attentively to themselves… Like Susan Sontag said, “Be serious. Never be cynical. But this doesn’t preclude being funny.”


It may ultimately be fruitless to classify Peng Wei, place her on a timeline, or to investigate her works with dry, historical or academic phraseology – her works may be intellectually and technically rigorous, but they are grounded in humour, wry wit and personal vivacity which, to some extent, defies scholastic debate.


The Lost Stones


One of the classical subjects she first employed were the scholars rocks, examples of which were acquired by leading Swiss collector, Uli Sigg. As the artist notes, “The Lost Stones was truly the beginning of my artistic path… Stones, a traditional Chinese motif of countless artists, when rendered by my paintbrush, become something very personal, very present.”


In discussion with Peng Wei about her Lost Stones output, Sigg remarked: “Your work has a certain position… as an enlargement or enrichment of my collection… your paintings are beautiful and full of personality.”


Scrolls, Landscapes and Letters from a Distance


Peng Wei’s depictions of classical Chinese landscapes in scroll form re-ignites the language of shan shui, in constructions staying true to the flow of energy, use of moving perspective, and architectural motifs from the past.


They are often paired with letters from composers, writers and thinkers from the west. Sometimes these juxtapositions serve to accentuate the differences between the decorous behavioral values of the Confucian coda and the reckless effusiveness of the westerners. Private, revealing dialogues of renowned historical figures are laid bare before the viewer: ardent letters from Lord Byron to Countess Teresa Guiccioli, pure longings  from La Porte Étroite by André Gide or unrequited passions from Maria Tsvetaeva to Rainer Maria Rilke, have all been recreated in lavish scroll form. Peng Wei’s calligraphic transcripts and detailed illustrations pair Chinese themes, images or philosophical contexts with the text to occasionally amusing, insightful or unsettling effect.


Just as Gide’s La Porte Étroite may be considered a philosophical counterpoint to his Les Nourritures Terrestres, so too does Peng Wei juxtapose individuals of different viewpoints, perspectives and messages. Each correspondent, like birds of ancient legend, has flown far and wide in spirit and reputation if not in deed, and Peng Wei’s work gleefully continues this adventurous journey that each is making.


Humour is one of the emotions Peng Wei joyously evokes, enjoying the revelation of unsuspected frailties in the writer, such as Ludwig van Beethoven’s writing to a friend angrily demanding the return of a spoon, or Mozart’s exhorting his wife to be less familiar with his friends.


The creation doesn’t end with words and chosen image, however. In her Letters from a Distance collection, Peng Wei creates entire, independent, 

holistic scrolls of landscape, calligraphy and design, which, when rolled up, present their decorative patterns externally, paintstakingly architected by the artist. Demonstrating a conscious solidarity with the craftsmen of previous generations, she creates the entirety of the object, from scroll to mountings, inscription and the box.


Titans of thought from Dostoevsky and Kafka to Tschaikovsky and Shostakovich are freely exposed to posthumous biographical investigation in a riotous autopsy of colour and craftsmanship. Subtle, gentle, yet wickedly subversive, these works are sources of simultaneously intellectual, emotional and visual splendour for the visitor. Somehow, both time-specific and eternal, mixing classical motifs, contemporary candour, western thoughts and Chinese re-interpretations, these works are among Peng Wei’s most sought-after.


Patient decoding of the text draws the viewer closer and intensifies the closed-off, confessional atmosphere of the letter experience. Misunderstandings, misreadings are part of life now as then. As Peng Wei remarked in a 2015 interview with Rudy Tseng of Taipei’s National Museum of History: “I intentionally made the densely written text difficult to read. Misplaced or aligned, truth or falsehood – it is a game of text.”


The Nakedness of Clothing


The depiction of clothing has been a thread running through Peng Wei’s work, beginning with a series of individual shoes, separated from their twin and from the owner. They seem to underscore the lonely futility of existence, and yet the colourful details point to the tenacious assertiveness of life itself.


As Xu Lei wrote of Peng Wei’s embroidered shoes: “The shoes in Peng Wei’s painting embody a certain theatrical expression, unpredictable and dazzling…”

The shoes were to be re-born in Peng Wei’s Good Things Come in Pairs series from 2011, in which the soles of shoes are decorated with romantic, sensual imagery of the classical past. Here the shoes, bereft of feet, become enchanting treasure boxes, and a lens into the private couplings of yesterday. A nod to the erotic associations of the feet in Chinese history, and a subtle implication that each of us is carrying secrets just out of reach of those around us.


Peng Wei illuminates clothing, re-interpreting clothes as naked objects, devoid of human association and yet resolutely possessed of intrinsic and personal life force. From shoes, she developed her theme into robes – arms outspread as an embrace. Given the historical nature and significance of these vestments, Peng Wei’s commentary of the past may be here called to mind: “it isn’t we who embrace tradition, but rather tradition itself is an eternally open embrace.”


The nakedness of the clothing, the vulnerability of an object stripped of its partner and function, brought Peng Wei closer into the intimate realm of the human body and skin, hinted at by Feng Boyi, when he wrote of her robes: “Rather than saying Peng Wei is painting clothing, perhaps it would be more apt to say that she is “painting skin.”


It was a short mental leap from here to the Taking off the Shell series: extending the readymade ideas of Marcel Duchamp into the human arena. Human bodies, plastic mannequins with overtones of Graeco-Roman sculpture, become the backdrop for art, swaddled in xuan paper and illustrated with delicate paintings of bird and flower, hunting and classical architecture.


In a further development, painting on traditional Song dynasty Chinese tuan shan (moon-shaped fans) allowed Peng Wei to playfully undermine expectations of what it means to be Chinese and an artist, and which of our history is universal or uniquely Chinese. In her fan paintings, Peng Wei combined east and west through depicting western faces, clothing and scenes from Europe of the middle ages. Demonstrating her characteristically mischievous humour which shines through her work, she feigned surprise when one commentator suggested that these works no long seemed Chinese: “If we paint western faces, do the paintings become western?”


The Meaning of it All


A candid, beautiful message is at the heart of Peng Wei’s work, revealed when she spoke about her own artistic journey: “I always strive to create a more perfect work. We need  perfection, but the meaning of life lies not in perfection, but in love.”


In this context, her artwork, which so often harnesses the traditions of painting or the personal stories of others, may be viewed as a testament to humanity and its power to persist, persevere and re-generate. It seeks not to judge, but to point out the beauty of life through landscape, history and (on occasion) a wry smile at our own follies.