Perrotin Paris is pleased to present Xiyao Wang's first exhibition at the gallery. The young, Berlin-based Chinese artist creates large- scale, immersive paintings in which gestural lines evoke echoes of landscapes, bodies, movements, thoughts. In the process, she develops a kind of hybrid abstract painting that combines various influences and inspirations: Taoism and post-structuralism, ancient Chinese pictorial traditions, bodywork, dance, martial arts, and the canon of Western art history. In her work, mythologies and the lyrical, hermetic painting of Cy Twombly merge with global mass culture, electronic music, with the networked, media-influenced thinking of millennials and Gen Z. Xiyao's paintings explore inner visions, bodily perceptions, sensations, feelings, interrogating her East-West biography.
Xiyao, who studied with Werner Büttner and Anselm Reyle, is interested besides Twombly in German painters such as Günther Förg and Albert Oehlen. In the practice of all these painters the line plays a crucial role, through the 'eccentric,' in some cases calligraphic ductus, the tension between reduced clarity and affect-laden chaos. But Xiyao Wang is not concerned with picking up where lyrical abstraction and Abstract Expressionism left off, nor with a female remake of the German, male-dominated painting of the 1980s and 1990s. Rather, she deals with the question of how to create abstract and bold pictorial spaces today with similarly reduced means. The Crystalline Moon Palace, the title of her exhibition, borrowed from a series of paintings in the show, refers to an ancient Chinese myth around the moon goddess Chang'e. The latter was immortalised in her present form in a fourth-century poem.
Many of the depictions from different periods, such as the Buddhist frescoes from the cave temples near Dunhuang dating back to the fourth century, which the artist studied in detail, show flying female deities rising gracefully into the sky, surrounded by floating fabric and ribbons. The motif of the female figure flying weightlessly through the air, defying the laws of gravity and all physical limitations, entered global mass culture through kung fu and martial arts films such as Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). The myth of the moon princess Chang'e inspired not only the world-famous manga series Sailor Moon, but also the names of various Chinese moon probes.
The vision of flying, of intense physical and emotional states, of weightlessness, liberation, and dissolution of boundaries is the essential starting point for the construction of Xiyao Wang's expressive pictorial spaces, reduced to colour, gesture, and lines. Although nonrepresentational, they conjure up abstract landscapes, neural pathways, fragmented afterimages of flowering or dying plants, animal or human bodies, traces of dance, struggle, search and thought processes. The experience they convey is paradoxical: disembodied and transcendent, yet at the same time exhilaratingly sensual, material, almost tangible. Again and again, Xiyao, who practices kickboxing, ballet, tango, and all manner of sports, has emphasised the physical aspect of her painting. In her gigantic, over 6,8 meter wide polyptych River, River, Could You Tell Me The Story Of My Hometown (2022), one can see how the artist relates physically, with her entire body, to the canvas. The techniques she chooses, the priming of the background with quick-drying acrylic paints, the use of oil pencils that react almost like drawings or calligraphy to painting executed with a brush, require speed and spontaneity, intuitive, even risky painterly decisions. Of course, connections can be seen in Xiyao's painting to Abstract Expressionism, and there are references to Action Painting, Informel, and Tachism.
Xiyao's paintings are influenced by her profound knowledge of Eastern and Western painting history, as well as by the digital, hybrid image culture of the twenty-first century. There is no landscape they want to reproduce. On the contrary, they speak of placelessness and timelessness, boundless openness and bottomlessness. There are no certainties, no 'grand narratives,' no political or religious systems left to cling to. Especially in view of the current geopolitical crises, this loss triggers existential fears and longings, the desire for a sort of return to an earlier, orderly state in which conditions were still 'normal.' But Xiyao finds freedom in her painting in the exact opposite—in an acceptance of this longing for myths, for authenticity, yet with the simultaneous certainty that there is no way back. Her paintings are akin to echo chambers in which voices and times overlap: They reflect reflections on painting, convey perceptions of perceptions.
It is not necessarily a conscious act that Xiyao's pictorial backgrounds are reminiscent of baroque paintings in terms of their colourfulness, that the artist, like Tiepolo, applies large areas of color with the brush, and only subsequently adds definition. When Xiyao echoes the lyrical abstraction of Cy Twombly, his painterly examination of the mythologies of antiquity, that includes classicism and baroque, as well as her own experiences resonate.
Culture and art have literally inscribed themselves in Xiyao's body, like trauma or the internalised movements of a high-performance athlete. The fleeting, affect-laden gestural traces that might suggest body fragments, movements, or limbs in her paintings often emerge from such physical memory. In China, before applying to the art academy, one must paint nude models for at least half a year, but often for several years, making head, chest, and full-body portraits over and over again. A special discipline is the creation of a sketch, capturing muscles, calves, and wrinkles as quickly as possible. Xiyao still uses this internalised technique, but performatively, without depicting, without an aim or a meaning, similar to automatic writing that allows for completely new associations.
Press release courtesy Perrotin. Text: Oliver Koerner von Gustorf.