Faye Wei Wei’s Intimate New Book Captures Friends and Lovers

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Portals by Faye Wei Wei Artist
Faye Wei Wei, The Guild Cinema in Albuquerque , 3405 Central Ave NE, 87106, United States, 2022© kunst.dokumentation.com/Manuel Careon Lopez. © 2024 Faye Wei Wei, courtesy of Kandlhofer gallery

Ahead of the publication of her debut monograph, the artist talks about how poetry inspires her work, and why paintings are like portals into another world

In I Tangled Your Legs in Mine. We Were a Knot in the Grain of the World, a seemingly straightforward pencil drawing from 2019 that introduces Faye Wei Wei’s debut monograph, two figures appear entwined, their limbs and long hair cocooned together as the world outside is obscured. “I liked the idea of starting Portals with a really delicate pencil drawing because it reveals a lot,” says Wei Wei, reflecting on the self-portrait, which depicts the artist with a former lover. “It feels like a really vulnerable thing; there’s no room for error when drawing with pencil.” 

A fat, rectangular object, as per the artist’s own estimation, Portals overflows with these kinds of precious, wildly intimate moments collected from Wei Wei’s real world. Friends and lovers are her favourite subjects, frequently but not routinely reimagined in oil paint, melded together with a secondary episode procured from a poem or some other mythic scenario she has stored away in her memory. In I bit him in places where his skin was exposed, so that his mother would know that he had a lover (2017), two human tongues are swapped out for serpent organs, lace-like and cast in bright red, with a forked end that wriggles far beyond the lips. 

A product of friendship, much like her pictures, Wei Wei worked on the project with French publisher Manon Lutanie, with whom she released 2020’s Hooker’s Green Lake. “I love the way Manon has this relationship to the weight of a book, the paper, the surface, even the binding,” she enthuses, awed by Lutanie’s commitment. Dedicated to her mother 秋雲 (Autumn Cloud), the book’s 280 pages mark a sizable increase from 2020’s offering, bound with a sherbet lemon exterior that reads in contrast to the abundance of romance it holds. “I just wanted the cover to be simple,” says Wei Wei. “A hardy object with this beautiful quality to it.”

Below, in her own words, Faye Wei Wei tells AnOther about her love of poetry and how it influenced Portals

“When I was little, my siblings would play video games and I would just sit there, like a ‘drawing factory’, my mum said. I had really encouraging art teachers in sixth form, and we were allowed to do whatever we wanted. We’d do late nights in the studio on Tuesdays and heat up doughnuts on the etching plates. I would look at nature – skulls and flowers and things – and paint the crevices, trying to get deeper into the presence and spirit of things. Even now, when I’m painting, it feels really connected to the initial interest I had when I was 16.

“I was always interested in poetry, and my work is still based around this; there are some poems I’ve known by heart for half my lifetime. And the titles for my work act like poems, there are little hints of the people I’ve loved in the past or friends that I really adore. Poetry exists in this beautiful way where it’s very visual, but there’s no actual image. It’s all in the mind, these really vivid poems. It’s like I’m trying to make the things that are imaginary real.

“There’s a real coherence [in my work] that I didn’t realise until we lined the paintings up. Certain themes come out – you start to notice your own obsessions. I definitely have certain muses, and I’m obviously interested in figuration and how things interlink. The real connection is just a lot of love and curiosity for the world – all of the work is just me with my eyes super open – and trying to find the beauty within things. I need to absorb it all and find a way to encapsulate it.

“The book is not chronological, it flows through a feeling of undulating lulls and waves. One of the first pages has a painting I made when I was 16, and we liked the idea of sunsets closing the book. I was on a boat in Greece last year and the sun was like an egg yolk dipping into the sea, my best friend and I both got out our pastels. So it has this quiet beginning, then these intense paintings, and ends with softness, like an orchestra. I think materiality is really important too, and I wanted the book to show how intertwined drawing and painting are to me – they’re not differentiated by hierarchy, they’re both as important and as potent as each other.  

“I called the book Portals because I often think about paintings as portals; when you’re making them, they reveal an inner world, and I think of painting as trying to push through into this other portal with your paintbrush. You can’t actually inhabit that space, but you can create it. A lot of people say it, but I do think painting is this infinite thing. It’s really alive, almost with its own skin, and you’re just trying to reach that somehow. I often paint portraits of people I love, which become part of this world I’m building. When I miss a friend I send them a painting or drawing, it’s as if a part of them is always in it. It feels really precious, like treasure, because painting isn’t just an image-making thing, it’s about imbuing something with a presence, reaching into another world.” 

Portals by Faye Wei Wei is published by Éditions Lutanie. It is available for pre-order now, and is out on 8 July 2024.