How did Xu Hongxiang become so good in such a short amount of time?
Up until now, there was not much to see from the 1984-born painter, except for a few exhibitions in Beijing and an interesting group show at Guangdong Art Museum in 2017. Judging by the installation views, the artist managed to realise a perfect presentation of his works each time – signalling that his focus comes from a more complex understanding of his work and its development in each painting. When I saw his paintings for the first time at an art fair in Shanghai, they attracted my attention because they strongly distinguish themselves from those of other artists. Xu Hongxiang obviously developed his highly personal approach to his métier as a painter since his degree at the printmaking department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 2011.
Why is the work of Xu Hongxiang overwhelming to the viewer?
Considering the image formation of his paintings, a very particular view is being presentedthrough the artist. However, it is not a technical aspect, which is why it attracts the viewer’s attention – the specific characteristics of his works come from another angle. The visible results at the booth of a gallery during an art fair, or in an exhibition, are the single paintings by themselves.But for Xu Hongxiang, these paintings are somewhat actively related to their process of formation: a working and thinking process, which, in the case of Xu Hongxiang, clearly exceeds the studio walls and which remains comprehensive in the works.
The exhibition ‘Not Dark Yet’ atTriumph Gallery has been built up around a series of landscape paintings from 2017. To cope with them, and to do them justice through an explanation, three aspects in Xu Hongxiang’s work should be analysed: first, the development of the perspective that Xu Hongxiang takes; second, the plasticity that the artist is searching for in his images and third, the special light that he applies, mainly in his recent works of the past two years, which led to the title of the exhibition.
A specific perspective
Since 2012, the subject of landscapes has regularly been reappearing in Xu Hongxiang’s paintings. There are often scenes with branches of trees, light-flooded forest glades or waterfalls, which have been transferred in a special atmosphere. However, there is never a whole landscape visible in one painting: each time, Xu selects particular moments, similar to a view that has been limited through a small window. Although it is only possible to see a limited part of a landscape, the painter masterfully succeeds in conveying a certain feeling with it, combined with his distinctive handwriting, which makes his paintings recognisable at first sight.
Did a whole image exist before, from which the artist cut out his favourite part? Or is the image nothing more than just this specific view? When asking the question of where Xu Hongxiang’s landscape parts originate, the second question arises.
The plasticity most likely results from the strong contrasts that Xu creates and accelerates in his paintings. When it comes to the origin of his images, the artist negates that it is a matter of real, existing landscapes. The sceneries themselves do not primarily interest him. What do interest him are the formal aspects that can be found in certain branches of trees and how their shapes and physiognomies accrue in the background.
Furthermore, it is precisely by isolating such moments, which Xu Hongxiang found in nature or in photographs, that he achieves this high level of plasticity. He has a talent for choosing exactly the right detail and transferring it onto his image by cutting it out from the total image.
A group of works inTriumph Gallery carries the simple title ‘Good Landscape’ (there are 11 of them in total). Xu does not provide any information about the place or his relation to the context of the image. Good Landscape No. 1 until No. 11 simply show the painter’s approach to his definition of a good landscape.
The use of light
What is probably most remarkable about Xu Hongxiang’s paintings is the specific atmosphere he sets as a companion to every image. Similar to a camera obscura, the painter casts light only from one direction onto a few parts of the image, leaving the rest in shadow. What western people would clearly interpret as a melancholic keynote in his paintings might be defined as an ambiguous significance in the Chinese tradition. The feeling that Xu Hongxiang conveys can be interpreted from different perspectives.
His paintings from 2017 achieved a larger three dimensionality; the viewer’s attention is led in the work and automatically guided to a dark space, which contrasts with the few spots of indirect light. The painter succeeds in expressing a specialambiance of putting the viewer under their spell. Xu Hongxiang manages to create a feeling of enigmatic mystery.
There is usually no direct light in Xu’ scenarios, and the use of light has played an important role from the beginning. In comparison with his works between 2012 and 2016, the mood of his recent works from the exhibition atTriumph Gallery increased to maximum tension with a mixture of dramatic moments and beauty.
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I've still got the scars that the sun didn't let me heal
In one exceptional painting, ‘Sun’, Xu Hongxiang uses direct light, transmitting the feeling of being blinded by strong sunlight. The man in the painting is only visible in his shape, and the work has a strong presence, different from the rest of his works in darker colours. ‘Black Dog at Night’ is the exact contrast to this work, where Xu paints a friendly looking dog against a dark background, masterfully intensifying the animal’s contrasts.
Se promener dans la trace (Wandering around in one’s own track)
When Jean Luc Godard talks about the possibility of being able to walk around in one’s own path, he is referring to the track that has been formed through one’s own experience and personal development. The track leads to the profession: le cinéma (the cinema) for Godard and painting for Xu Hongxiang.
There are hundreds of possibilities of finding his own way and through this, personal style, in order to approach perfection. However, the only thing that counts in the end, is cognition from this path, which leads to the recognisable style of an artist.
Godard speaks of the pleasure of being able to look back and find answers and inspiration from the insights that have been gained before.
By showing a 17-meter long and 6.7-meter high wall of 87 paintings from the years 2008 until 2015, Xu Hongxiang expresses that this specific way of passing through matters to him. His own development brought him to today’s paintings and to those that will come in the next years. Apart from a beautiful installation in 2017 at Guangdong Art Museum, works like these describe Xu’s development, which is constantly moving on, at different levels. The process of finding and developing the subjects for his paintings often happens through photographs or other images that the artist has found. He adapts these images, draws on them, cuts them out and documents them just as he does in his paintings.Seeing those sketches on paper or directly on the photographs, some trains of thought become visible. It is fascinating to be able to observe how the artist transfers those steps onto his paintings.
Xu Hongxiang recently realised three different projects, which successfully brought his work as a painter out of its usual context, and as a distinctive (absolutely positive) feature, they even confused people who were accustomed to seeing his paintings on studio or gallery walls.
As the artist explained, the following project from the autumn of 2016 originated from one step that led to another, when he painted the portrait of Li Qiang, his childhood friend. After offering him the painting, Xu Hongxiang had the idea to create the same portrait in a larger size. He set up a temporary studio in his hometown to paint it in nine by six meters, and he placed it next to Li Qiang’s house to see how it would work out. All single steps have been documented precisely from his friend’s house with the original portrait, the working process in the temporary studio, until the oversize installation in the countryside of Hunan Province.
Regarding the reason this was done, Xu answered, “I just do it for painting practice”.
Chinese people are usually strongly rooted to their places of birth. While this may not be the case for western people, the native place does play a crucial role for Chinese nationals.
The hometown signifies cultural habits, and it structures one’s personality, strongly remaining in the people’s system, no matter where they live in the future.
A few months earlier, in 2016, Xu Hongxiang worked on another interesting project: for a half-day presentation, he brought a series of paintings to his hometown and showed them on the outside walls of houses, and he placed one painting in-between the branches of a large tree. Again, this project has been documented perfectly with photographs taken at the spot, showing a village that probably looksdifferent while Xu was growing up there. Apart from Xu Hongxiang’s friends, who helped him to carry and fix the paintings, there were no other people around.
Looking at those installation views from that sunny day, it becomes obvious that there is a connection between the artist, his paintings and the place of his childhood. The painting that was placed in the tree was clearly inspired by a similar tree, and the colours of the houses and the ambiance of the place are reflected in Xu’s works.
I was born here and I'll die here, against my will
I know it looks like I'm movin' but I'm standin' still
The third project, which had been presented as a 10-meter long wall of different media, including canvas, works on paper, written notes and drawings, originates from material that the artist made for educational reasons for his little daughter. As it seems to be normal for a painter, he expresses his stories and certain rules through his own media.
The result is a narrative work about the story of a fictive Mr. Wang, who became increasingly real through the course of situations, when Xu had been telling his daughter to go to bed, eat her food and tidy up her toys.
When thinking of these projects, it quickly becomes evident that none of them were set up as concepts by themselves. They all came out of the process of working and reflecting on his work:(怎么画, 画什么) ‘How to paint and what to paint’, as the artist puts it in simple words. These are two elementary questions that the artist raises every day, never getting tired of exploring and reflecting.
Looking at Xu Hongxiang, his trace is not the pure approach of painting in the studio; instead, it includes different experiments that brought him to the stage he is in now. He is leading a highly independentresearch, and he is not afraid of, nor does he shy away from, the effort it will take.
Similar to Bob Dylan’s lyrics for ‘Not Dark Yet’, Xu Hongxiang’s paintings can be read in two different ways. There is a melancholic interpretation, but there is also a beautiful interpretation of forms that Xu clarifies with his rays of light and elegant waterfalls coming down his almost surrealistic landscapes – the same as Bob Dylan does when playing with the words in his songs. The magnificent thing about looking at a painting by Xu Hongxiang, as well as about listening to Dylan’s songs, is that their interpretation is open to us. The term of ‘Not Dark Yet’ may evoke a calm and soft feeling of the moment after the sun has set, or it can refer to dramatic moments before the approaching night.
Well my sense of humanity is going down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing, there's been some kind of pain
There are parts that remind us of happy feelings, which are always also related to sadness.
When Xu Hongxiang dips his paintings into a romantic sea of beautiful, calming, dark and blue colours, they can be perceived as harmonious reflections when the day is done, waiting to continue the next morning with new energy, or they can evoke a feeling of something slowly dawning until a long darkness.As with the chorus in Bob Dylan’s song, Xu Hongxiang’s paintings do not offer any information about how long the dark night is going to last.