Installation view of HE WEI‘s "Lost Into a Nurse’s Dream" at Primo Marella Gallery, Milan, 2017. Courtesy Primo Marella Gallery.

Lost Into a Nurse’s Dream

He Wei

Primo Marella Gallery
China Italy

He Wei’s first solo show at Primo Marella Gallery in Milan was titled “Lost Into a Nurse’s dream,” and showcased paintings and mixed-media installations in which the artist explored the skin-deep deceptions, discharging his dark vision of what might lie beneath glossy surfaces.

Born in Anhui province 30 years ago, He Wei lives, studies and works between Italy and China. After completing art training in his home country, the artist moved to Florence to study painting at the Academy of Fine Arts. Later, he furthered his practice at the Academy of Fine Arts in Brera, Milan.

The title of his show at Primo Marella linked up with the artist’s chosen subject in his recent visual repertoire, which draws from contemporary stereotypes of feminine beauty, as well as characters in Hollywood movies made in the 1940s and ’50s, including nurses and femme fatales.

Such characters featured in paintings that were produced for the exhibition, consisting of photorealistic, black-and-white portraits that the artist overlays with generous patches of paint, primitive-style masks, cryptic symbols and inserts of small, colored shapes. At first glance, the paintings’ chaotic and expressionist composition recalled the creative modes of Art Brut, but a closer inspection made it clear that He’s combination of abstraction and figuration is methodically planned and executed, as was the network of visual and conceptual links that run throughout the show.

HE WEI, Silent Desire, 2017, oil and oily ink on canvas, 180 × 150 cm. Coutesy Primo Marella Gallery, Milan.

HE WEI, The Mayhem Under the Skin, 2017, oil and oily ink on canvas, 150 × 225 cm. Courtesy Primo Marella Gallery, Milan.

Some paintings portrayed anonymous contemporary characters, such as in The Mayhem Under the Skinand Silent Desire (both 2017), showing naked beauties in come-hither poses, but disfigured and vandalized with patches of paint and graffiti-like marks. In these paintings, as art historian and critic Jacqueline Ceresoli wrote in a text produced for the exhibition, the artist proposes that behind the trap of apparent beauty, “there is an ugly, monstrous and irritating element in ambush, irrational but authentic.”

Other pieces were infused with cultural references. Gnossienne N. 1, (2017), named after a highly experimental music composition by 19th-century French composer Erik Satie, was a half-length portrait of a girl or woman in a 1950s air-hostess uniform. Her features are nearly completely painted over by broad, white brushstrokes, and replaced with an oddly disquieting mask recalling Pablo Picasso’s Primitive-style paintings. At Primo Marella Gallery, the painting was installed beside a small wall sculpture consisting of a tangle of iron wire that nests a yellow plastic ball, visually recalling a scribble in the painting’s upper left corner. A black rope hung from the lower left side of the canvas, draping onto the floor. Ropes, chains and snarled wires were recurrences throughout the show, conjuring the idea of a dark sensuality.

HE WEI, Gnossienne N.1, 2017, oil and oily ink on canvas, 180 × 162 cm. Courtesy Primo Marella Gallery, Milan.

HE WEI, Inside, But inside. . . But Inside Doesn’t Matter, 2017, varnish on wood, textile, chain, 200 × 200 × 70 cm. Courtesy Primo Marella Gallery, Milan.
HE WEI, Inside, But inside. . . But Inside Doesn’t Matter, 2017, varnish on wood, textile, chain, 200 × 200 × 70 cm. Courtesy Primo Marella Gallery, Milan.

Inside, But Inside. . . But Inside Doesn’t Matter’ (2017) consists of a white-painted wooden structure resembling a partition wall, on which hangs a coquettish pink raincoat. The side surface is decorated with an ink pattern similar to a mess of fallen hair, and a black metal chain is nailed to the construction’s surface. The installation’s title is a quote from Mary Harron’s 2000 movie American Psycho (based on Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 novel of the same name), which follows a hedonistic Wall Street investment banker who hides a ferocious, psychotic ego. In the film, a scene of particular graphic violence involves a raincoat; with this association, the artist seems to further underscore the idea of a dysfunctional self that is camouflaged by picture-perfect appearances.

By contrast, an abstract painting titled Psycho 411 (2016) offers visual calmness and respite from He’s universe of obscured women and dark moods. A large rectangular canvas, framed by a thick black line, was overlaid with thin, vertical, black marker lines, resembling an old television screen that hasn’t been tuned to a specific channel. Behind the grid of lines, delicate bands of pinkish-gray and light blue seamlessly merge into each other on a white background, almost appearing as the reflection of a video monitor placed on the floor nearby. Part of a minimalist-looking installation titled Destroying and Be Destroyed II (2017), the monitor featured a slow-motion sequence of a female nude, blown up to the point of becoming an abstract, mesmerizing sequence of pink hues. Mirroring each other, these two pieces quietly but effectively elicited thoughts about sensuality and voyeurism.

HE WEI, Psycho 411, 2016, oil and marker on canvas, 150 × 210 cm. Courtesy Primo Marella Gallery, Milan.

“Lost Into a Nurse’s Dream” successfully bound together artworks in different mediums with a matrix of visual and conceptual links. This resulted in a cohesive presentation, where the artist’s themes were legible—though perhaps overly so. A touch of subtlety might have been more effective than He Wei’s graphic and boisterous show.

He Wei’s “Lost Into a Nurse’s Dream” is on view at Primo Marella Gallery, Milan, until October 27, 2017.

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