Snakes, suns, moons, shells, sea urchins, arrows and stars speckle Faye Wei Wei’s towering new painting series, Aristotle’s Latern. Working from collected treasures, torn out book pages, memory and her imagination, Wei Wei combines a hungry fascination for the dreamlike fragmentation of poetry and compositional devices from early Renaissance fresco painters such as Piero della Francesca and Fra Angelico. With titles extracted from old books and tweaked to her own ends and purposes, the artist traverses themes that range from the sinister to the sanguine.
The first of the four paintings, ‘In the night she saw owers of velvet with black hearts and gold eyes’, Wei Wei freezes the precise moment prior to the wounding of a young man. Stood vulnerable in the centre of a stage framed with yellow curtains, ve arrows elegantly hover before his torso, ready to pierce. A painting that assures the importance of vulnerability, the anticipation of contact between arrows and breast precludes the gentle connection between object and gure in the following work. In ‘The effect of moon baths was unknown’, a pink ower gently kisses the shoulder of a boy surrounded by three suspended celestial orbs, either suns or moons. With the ower guring as an allegory for the feminine, here Wei Wei considers the shyness behind irtation and the nuanced manifestations of desire. By contrast, ‘To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet’ constitutes a darker re ection on self-image and the presentation of our external selves to the world. A painting ecked with allusions to wounds, masks and more sinister symbology, the protagonist kneels before a ve pointed star, an offering of love. The nal painting in the series, ‘I want to see the stars with my own handmade telescope’, represents an ode to the process of painting and its materiality. Incorporating three depictions of the same person, Wei Wei posits that we each comprise multiple versions of ourself.
At almost double her typical canvas height, the artist treated the paintings as frescos or murals in their own right both compositionally and in terms of process. To ensure bold yet seductive images at this scale, Wei Wei reaches back into her archive of repeated motifs and symbols. The series borrows its title, Aristotle’s Lantern, from the name that illustrates the mouth of a sea urchin, discovered for the first time by the ancient Greek philosopher. These underwater creatures, the stars of the sea, boast special metaphorical signi cance for the artist. Despite their spiked armour, their centres are soft and sensual and, just like us, their mouths converge all of life’s most vital faculties: eating, breathing and loving. In contrast to these sharp forms, soft snakes appear, curled up in hushed conversation with her gures. With vivid red tongues protruding, painted with a sole stroke of her brush, Wei Wei’s snakes store or share secrets and hidden desires. Marked onto the canvas with a similar single gesture, arrows prick or pierce, skimming her canvas laden either with poison or an amorous spell. Meanwhile owers, a majestic sphinx, suns and moons loom suspended in space in a constellation of symbols scattered across a backdrop woven from dreams and desires. Aristotle’s Lantern describes love, lust and vulnerability no less, and consequently comprise the artist’s most ambitious works to date.