“Apollo Bangs Dionysus: Qiu Xiaofei Solo Exhibition”
Pace Beijing, 8th May 2014 – 21st June 2014
“Painting is a choice” Qiu Xiaofei remarked during a conversation in his studio in the lead up to Nanke Jie Cheng. This is a truth of which the artist has sought to remind himself in a new series of works. The nature of his decision pivots around form – the way in which shape and structure come about in his work and the mental action, technique and media he employs in a mode of indulgence, avoidance or negotiation; realistic or representational subject matter has all but vanished from this current approach. Apollo and Dionysus are loosely invoked as symbolic of the dream of formal order and restraint held in natural tension with – or overcoming – liquid, abstract impulses.
Whilst the act of painting entails a universal choice, it is one which becomes truly engaging only in the context of an artist’s individual development, and when split and extended therein. As argued in a recent article, the medium of painting needs no defence in China. Tradition and the weight of formal training ensure its support and continuing accomplishment. If anything can be said to be at stake for contemporary painting, it could be content in the face of such skilled execution. But this kind of pure formalist bias is not something of which Qiu has been guilty to date. Alongside the strength of his painterly ability is an increasingly wilful awareness of what he is doing. That a conscious address to form – whether to provoke or avoid it – is happening now in Qiu Xiaofei’s practice is clearly symptomatic of his individual progress, and it is tempting to anticipate the importance of these paintings in terms of a necessary and productive phase – perhaps not extended, but strong.
The early painting for which Qiu Xiaofei became known, though in its effect not purely nostalgic, is based on a clear set of (once) tangible sources – family photographs and their related sites; expired scenes and actual locations that were being overcome by time and socio-economic development. For the exhibition “Heilongjiang Box” in 2006, marbles roll against the pages of the catalogue in its cardboard container; inside, a series of written monologues recount ephemeral memories of childhood. An intensely earnest and autobiographical atmosphere pervades this period of work: “I really wish that by painting every single day I am able to manifest the whole world I know with the real memories and history of my life…I hope that my paintings can help people…and give them hope”(sic), Qiu wrote in the foreword to the book.
These are sensations worth recounting in relation to his current stage. Powerfully conveyed before was a sense of the oscillating, mutual containment of memory and the individual – of the way in which so much is accountable for inside a broad passage of personal history and recollection; at the same time, this is emotional property in relation to which one feels a degree of volition, expecting choices about what is retained and recalled. In this way might one understand simply the objects Qiu recreated then in painted fibreglass – toy cars, TV sets, a desk and beer bottles – as if wanting somehow to grasp them; this, too, in the formal fortitude of his brushwork, which at times appears like plastic braille summoning the subject matter. The individual and their memory, then, are at once part of and larger than each other, marking another tense balance within range of Qiu Xiaofei’s work. This dynamic has perhaps also bled into his attitude to the painted field, and where it stands in relation to everything else.
In these terms, recollection and its attendant artistic action have always had a certain status – a linked validity and underlying safety. These qualities lie for the artist not so much in the finished product as in the action of rendering it, as if this were a form of discovery: Qiu is quoted as saying “[The past] is deep in my soul and brings me long-lost tranquillity and bliss when I work.” Broadly speaking, given the difficulty for artists (and others alike) of putting words to their art, why it is done and what it is, it is more productive to speak about how the work serves them. Qiu Xiaofei is one who affirms the importance of process; he hangs none of his paintings in his home – their function is as a procedure which is helpful to him.
Against the backdrop of his early career, furnished heavily with personal memory and introspection, the exhibition “Point of no Return” in 2010 presented works that were larger and less intimate – reflections on a more expansive field of human conduct through history, ideology, social interaction and sensations, and possibly-symbolic objects. At the same time, there intruded into these works definite formal speculation; odd compositional gestures and inconsistencies – for example in perspective, scale or subject matter – ruptured the expected integrity of the depiction. Picture planes were upset; pattern and detail suffuse or are absent in unexpected zones. In short, the internal environment of the canvas (once its own coherent realm) is destabilised, and the logic of its internal forces – gravity, normality – partly overturned. The feeling achieved collectively by these paintings is richly uncanny, though one still senses tight control and consideration in the hand holding the brush.
As such, the reach of Qiu Xiaofei’s work before 2011 remains in tune with origins in introspection, longing and doubt – in short, forms of distrust of the present and its appearances. This is by no means to say that the paintings fall short. But from the point of view of the artist, in hindsight this approach was insufficient for the long term. Qiu describes its effect with a likeness to sleeping pills: “I needed to find new solutions”. A paradigm shift in his work is visible in new exhibitions last year, following a period from 2011-12 during which he did not produce any work. The catalyst for this change he attributes to his Mother’s illness around 2006-2007, an episode which made the artist realise he had a painful or difficult relationship with childhood memories and to his work, in turn, as a self-healing process. “Perhaps I, too, was ill”, he says “…too attached to the past…I realised this was not a positive thing… I needed to find a new way of working to avoid this predicament and preoccupation.”
Following the speculative and semiotic tendencies which culminated in 2010, two solo exhibitions during 2013 by Qiu Xiaofei at Minsheng Art Museum and at Beijing Commune, respectively, mark the new incorporation of staging and overt critical reference. As part of both shows, it was as if the artist performed a newly active disdain for the space of the picture frame. Exterior light sources on stands mimicked the internal illumination and colour in certain pieces, overcoming that which was painted; objects placed near the works or affixed directly to them acted as if to defy the canvas as a membrane or division between real and pictorial space – pulling things out of it or pushing them into its very surface. Robert Rauschenberg was invoked, too, in support of an expanded view of what a painting could be and what it could reach out and grab beyond two dimensions. The sense of “consciousness” through which these experiments were articulated might apply as much to the artist’s thinking as to the life of the paintings, which might newly associate with other objects, break the boundaries of their context and influences or lean on outside supports.
The new exhibition at Pace Beijing has three parts. The point of departure is a large painting of an old computer – a residue of the earlier period when Qiu was still depicting recognisable objects. Its own starting point was the cutting out of the top right hand corner of the canvas as a deliberate, arbitrary ploy to affect the chosen subject matter – in the words of the artist, “Shapes influencing other shapes…” Where the works stood about in the studio, an adjacent, large canvas offered itself in deep black (“Black”, 2014). Over this pool-like ground play off-white and bluish paths of paint pulled down with the side of a palate knife in uneven, steadily-traveling strokes. Drips and the occasional splash complete the dance of the top layers of acrylic, which convenes slightly in the central portion of the canvas – yet for no representational reason one can discern.
The other paintings – a number of large, fairly evenly-sized canvases – share the same unrealistic, free-falling aura. These are paintings for which form is not pre-meditated, but in which the artist deigns to allow what may unfold; anticipating new and free markings, they are in striking contrast to the early works which come across increasingly as secondary images, born of mechanical predecessors and brought to canvas as if materialising again, immersed in the liquid of retrospection. Yet the new paintings are not completely without shape. Rising sometimes amongst the wide pushings, daubs and twists of acrylic pigment and against occasional semblances of a background float, perhaps, a triangle – still, and flat (in the painting “Jie Tai”, 2014) – or a striped white shape to the left of a composition looking not unlike an urban block; thick progressions of deep green advance like a broken, hill-like outline next to it, indifferent and disproportionate – though not threatening – to its presence (“Green and Ropes”, 2013). In the painting “Sand Mountain ” (2013), an apparent horizon line lies low beneath a beautiful upper portion of the canvas, wherein light blue laps against milky whites and slight brown as if to express sky. A phallic or figurative object sticks up in faint pink from the bottom area, and nearby the base of it, orange flecks move as if towards a rough green pavilion that has been set down there.
The artist emphasises that these works come about in a manner more than purely aesthetic; he describes wanting what is inside the painted area to return to some kind of concrete status; the shape this take needn’t be something he has seen or imagined before. Instead, it could be a “more subconscious” object or creature. He mentions “Imagined landscapes I have never been to”, and doesn’t assume knowledge of what he has painted. In short, Qiu seems to pursue an exercise – perhaps long overdue – in relinquishing personal consideration (if not full responsibility) for the evolving action and affect of his brushwork. The driving force behind these paintings and their exhibition is instead pinned to the daily selection of a first colour and an instrument – laid about are palate knives, a spray gun and brushes. This then “dictates” the development of a painting, for which Qiu invokes an analogy with music – free jazz – as spontaneous and improvised. There are two kinds of canvas; the surface of one kind is very minutely smooth, which he likens to a mirror (the sense of lightness or collage projected by some of the works can be attributed, in part, to this); the other is far contrastingly coarse.
There is thus a sense that the artist is prepared to establish the basis for these paintings – their surface and core notes – and to permit the stuff of his unconscious to enter their environments towards the end of the process. In between, he claims he backs away from anything too clear. It is a frame which can extend also to his feeling for his studio practice in the run-up to an exhibition: a period of time at the beginning and end of which he knows what he must do. The question of a boundary to be met or transgressed in the making of these works is a question he finds pertinent to himself, and to which he lacks an answer, as yet. From a new position, under a new kind of motivation, Qiu says “My previous approach drained away quite quickly.”
One imagines that for Qiu Xiaofei, working this way to generate such different art works from those that went before is a powerful sensation. Looking at the application in these paintings – long, wide strokes and piqued spreading, brief, glancing lines, drips, light blocks and laden, floating rounds giving unusual combinations of tone or pure colour – constitutes a completely different relationship between the physical body of the painter and the waiting surface; it is dynamic, as if addressing the canvas on more equal terms. “It is more exciting”, he agrees, with greater risk. “It is as if I have dug and dug and arrived at this level, which is very broad.” These are vastly impressive paintings produced in a spirit not of loyalty, but of conscious openness. It would be inadequate to interpret this imperative as a simple act of letting go.
Liang Shuhan, “Painting Does Not Need to be Defended,” Randian magazine, 4 Apr. 2014, http://www.randian-online.com/np_review/painting-does-not-need-to-be-defended/(accessed 12 Apr. 2014).