Xie Nanxing's approach to painting is one of reversals. Working between the two poles of figuration and abstraction as grounded in Western art history, he reverses their traditional use—figurative elements produce abstract images while abstract gestures are manipulated to portray recognisable forms—as a means of furthering the medium of painting.Read More
Many of Xie's early paintings from the 1990s depict young men, rendered in a photographic style and often semi-dressed with allusions to bodily harm. Family (No. 3) (1993), for example—created when he was studying at Sichuan Art Academy—shows a young man with a bruised face holding up a bloody chicken. The artist appears against an ambiguous background of blue in Ten-Self Portraits (No. 2) (1997), surrounded by flying objects that resemble severed ears. White gauze is wrapped around his face, evoking Vincent van Gogh's Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889). Xie received critical attention for such artworks at the 48th Venice Biennale in 1999, in which he exhibited paintings showing nude and pained young men. His creations became associated with the term 'Youth Cruelty Painting', used to refer to works by young Chinese artists of the 1990s—notably Yin Zhaoyang—known for portraying injured human bodies to convey a sense of tragedy and oppression. However, in an interview with the Art Museum of Nanjing University of the Arts in 2015, the artist said that he did not intend to make a connection between youth and cruelty in his paintings, and was only seeking to elicit an emotional reaction from his audience.
In the early 2000s, Xie began exploring the language of abstraction while continuing to portray subjects from real life. This shift developed from the artist's desire to curb his figurative images and their narrative potential; removal of stories from his artwork allowed him to focus more closely on the process of painting itself. He produced a number of paintings that capture moments of daily life, such as a close-up of gas stove flames in untitled (Flame) (2000) or droplets on windows in the triptych untitled (Picture of Voice II) (2001). Often out of focus, these paintings are on the verge of becoming unrecognisable, fluidly oscillating between figuration and abstraction. Others paintings from this period are rendered in a more ambiguous manner. For example, the three untitled paintings that the artist presented in documenta 12 in Kassel in 2007 portray gardens at night through foliage-like forms. Yet the images were not made by painting gardens, but by blackening a canvas and filming its surface under different lighting and from different perspectives to produce impressions of trees and leaves in the dark. The artist then played the video on a television and photographed it to use as the basis for his paintings.
Whether figurative or abstract, many of Xie's works present only parts of their original process or subject. One technique the artist frequently uses involves printing images through a canvas; first painting on the top of two layers of canvas, he then removes the upper fabric after the pigments have seeped through it. Untitled (no. 2) (2009), the second in a series of three untitled paintings that reimagine the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, was his first work made using this method. In the work, an almost-blank rectangle is spotted with dabs of colour where the paint bled through. Opaque paint in mostly green, red, and yellow frames the void space, while shapes such as a raised hand and the tip of a red cap suggest that there might have been figures in the original image the artist painted.
Xie adopts a similar approach to portraits, alluding to someone's character through his opinion of them rather than their physical features. Portrait No. 1 (2012), which was included in his solo exhibition untitled: 3x at Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing, in 2015, is a portrait of his girlfriend seen through her style of driving—a car halts before a frightened dog, presumably having almost hit it.
Xie's conscious concealment of full narratives in his work continues with 'Spices' (2016–2017), a series of seven oil paintings in which the artist skews motifs of well-known Western paintings with limited colour palettes and a combination of amorphous forms and graffiti-like emphases. The series derives its title from an anecdote about Christopher Columbus, who mistook a Caribbean tree bark for a new spice. Xie's mis-readings, however, are deliberate. Spice No. 3 (2016), for example, depicts a group of women coming down a set of stairs, and is reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912). Unlike Duchamp's highly abstracted figuration in a colour scheme of brown and black, Xie's women are in shades of pink and red and hold parrots, with one of the birds painted in the black lines evocative of Chinese ink painting. Through the incongruity between the styles of the parrot and the rest of the oil painting—a medium with origins in Europe—the artist alludes to Chinese art's complex relationship with Western art, including Western art's influence on contemporary Chinese art.
Xie's recent solo exhibitions include A Gift Like Kung Pao Chicken at Thomas Dane Gallery, London (2019)—the artist's first solo presentation in the city—and Spices at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing (2018). Notable group exhibitions include Chinese Whispers, MAK, Vienna (2019); Permanent Abstraction, Red Brick Art Museum, Beijing (2016); and Nonfigurative, Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum (2015).
Sherry Paik | Ocula | 2019
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