Xu Lei (b.1963)
China Guardian HK 2016 Autumn Auctions
20th Century and Contemporary Chinese Art
55.5 x 116.5 cm
People's Republic of China (1949-)Estimate:
Painted in 2003;Ink and colours on paper;Signed in Chinese on lower right;Literature:Jiangsu Art Museum,Nanjing, China, Chuan Shen Zao Jing, Vividly Paint from Life, Scenic Writing from heart, 2004, p.41;Xi Zhi Tang,Taipei, Taiwan, New Classic Five Artists Exhibition, 2006;Library of Congress, Washington, USA, Xu Lei,2008, p.53;Culture Art Publishing House, Beijing, China, Xu Lei, 2013, P.172-173.Exhibited:Jiangsu Art Museum,Nanjing, China, Chuan Shen Zao Jing 「Vividly Paint from Life, Scenic Writing from heart」, 2004;National Dr. Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall,Taipei, Taiwan, New Classic Five Artists Exhibition, 2006;Today Art Museum, Beijing, China, Veneer of the World-- Solo Exhibition of Xu Lei, 2013.Provenance:Asian Contemporary Art Sale, Christie's Hong Kong, May 26th, 2013, Lot 113.Private Collection, Asia;XU LEI(b.1963)Xu Lei was a participant of and witness to the ‘85 New Wave movement’; he created conceptual works, such as Normal Heart and Lungs and Fission which were symbolic of the times, in an attempt to break with tradition. However, since then he had gone down a rather different path than the others. Compared to the works of his realist or abstract contemporaries, there is an added aloofness and sobriety to his works. At the time, he had grown tired of the political concept of avant-garde art, and even eschewed it on purpose: “From that time on, I wanted to withdraw from the attention of the loud crowds. I don’t care about being present or absent anymore.”Dream of a HermitHaving mastered classical Chinese paintings and woodcut illustrations, undertaken photography, and developed an obsession with Ming furniture, Xu has a penchant for art that goes beyond paintings; gongbi, or fine-line style painting, is only a form of art in which he could most aptly express himself. He takes delight in juxtaposing and lumping different subjects together. His ingenious arrangement on the canvas sets a mysterious and classic mood for the piece. On his own works, he thinks they are “neither an avant-garde tenet nor the so-called traditional model...From an anti-realistic perspective, I want to turn around to see how long a shadow my past has cast.” Inspired by a photograph of Puyi reading a book, Xu painted Read based on that image, which also led to his later work Green Mist. While the lush curtains are peppered with dramatic scenes: fights, acrobatics, sex...the reader is found quietly sitting in the centre, cross-legged, face covered by the book in hand, looking like a hermit secluded from the mundane world. He thinks he can relate to the reading Puyi, making the same dream and having the same reflection in their pursuit of solitude. Xu calls it the first “word” of his works, from which it expands into a subject that feeds his interest. Further down the road, he discovered and liberally employed elements like folding screens, 45-degree angle and ancient maps in his works. In Flitting, a lone bird flew past in silence while the layout of the folding screens reveals its hiding place, invoking a sense of loneliness. However beautiful the scenery is outside those screens, it has no relevance here.Xu’s sentimental rhetoric:Folding screensThe Chinese title serves as a prologue of the oeuvre. The word 掠 (lüè)is a pictophonetic character:扌is the graphic element; 京 is the phonetic element. It means plunder or raid and has a derived meaning as whisk, denoting a flash of image. The word虛 (Xū), meaning virtual or surreal, bewilders the viewers with that flash of image. The various bird-form fabricated characters on both the folding screens act as topographical features, cohering one another and endowing mystery at the same time. The labyrinth path configured by the screens leads its viewers to probe a secluded and enchanting place. “Folding screens are like theatre drapes, shielding the most important thing from the well-staged scene, as well as from the viewers’ eyes. Concealment is a kind of static” Xu explains.Flying bird and 45-degree angleChinese have a unique perspective of manifesting time and space. It is an aerial view, keeping aloof from the humanities and has been hovering drearily for centuries as in the Elevation of the tomb and shrine of Zhu Wei at Jinxiang, Shandong, dated Eastern Han (circa 2nd century); the “Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies” by Gu Kaizhi (circa 4th century), as well as the “Night Revels of the Minister Han Xizai” (circa 10th century). While all things are transient and ephemeral, this aerial view is always angled at 45 degrees maintaining the same height.45-degree angle is a familiar mode of Xu’s compositions. Among the quintessential theories of Chinese painting, the 45-degree angle perspective is a classic rendition of spatial awareness. The artist got the inspiration from the woodcut illustrations of plays and novels in late Ming - the Chinese renaissance. He employs 45-degree angle to try staging the vicissitudes of life, evoking a dramatic tension to the calm and confined pictorial space. The turnings of the folding screens and the flight direction of the bird are angled in 45 degrees, indicating the disengagement of these elements though they are visible to the viewers.Ancient MapsIn this work, a mystical ancient map is printed on the folding screens fanned out at 45 degrees. Ancient maps are another motif of Xu, yet everything on them are completely the artist’s imagined creations: names of places or species of butterflies that never existed, guqin notation and other similar personal rhetorics stand in lieu of the original natural sceneries. Xu’s integration of ancient maps in paintings was inspired by 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, who offered him a new perspective of seeing things: What is shown is an enclosed indoor space, but the ancient map on the wall projects an external world. This shares the same empiricist basis as René Descartes’ philosophy and is another inimitable, notable signature of Xu in his artistic career.Yan Shan (Scholar’s Rock)Apart from flying birds, maps, and the 45-degree angle, the scholar’s rock is another motif that is also present in the lot. The scholar’s rock is a classic case study in Chinese art history. Stone enthusiast Yu Yang once said that it is unlocatable and imaginary. Hence, Xu hopes to take part in this visual game from the perspective of a modern man by visioning the rock and the part that is out of sight. The unseen part, as if it has vanished into the elusive black hole of history, leaves only a textual image to the naked eyes. And this is the element in the paintings of the Song Dynasty, especially the techniques and methods of realistic court paintings, that intrigues Xu.A glimpse of the literatiXu is more like a literati than a painter. “To be frank, I am not so ardent about painting itself. What appeals to me most is not how to paint, but how to manouevre the relationships and rhetoric among images,” said the literati. His concerns include not only colours and composition, but also how to bring out the three-dimensional space in oil paintings, alienation effect of Brechtian staging, and Magritte’s objects flowing freely in illusory space through a combination of fine-line techniques (gongbi)and structural lines. His works transcend the activity of painting, and , like conceptual fiction, put together clusters of mixed images in an artful manner. In Flitting, the real is divided guilefully from the illusive by folding screens and mountain ranges, but the two remain interdependent and mobile. Classic motifs such as the map and 45-degree angle, like dangling phrases in poems, are seemingly casual and ornamental, but are in fact skillfully and precisely crafted. All these delicate elements conspire to strike a chord with the viewer, giving them a glimpse of the painter’s anticipation and spiritual practice, the literati’s dream of becoming a hermit, the introspection and solitude hiding behind the screens... Like thin curls of smoke, they flit over the world like thin curls of smoke, hesitant to speak.