- An Interpretation of Xu Hongxiang's Recent Works
By Li Gengkun, PhD, Academy of Arts & Design, Tsinghua University/ Young Art History Scholar
Written in October 2016
Recently, painting ontology has become a hot topic in the field of painting practice and theoretical criticism. Some people believe that “painting” is neither aboutobject nor idea (or concept), but a distinctive “cognition”, a self-signified or consciously practiced meta-painting different from that of knowledge/right. Some evenaggressivelyagree that the ontological painting is neither an object nor a concept, but they also deny its imagery, formality and materiality, even modernity. In this era crying “art is dead”, these discussions about painting ontology have prompted people to re-examine the meaning and uniqueness of painting. However, there are also flaws in these two viewpoints. By identifying painting as “cognition” and “mid-level structure”, the former overlooks the relationship between the daily experience of individual artists and the society and times in which they live. In the second one, the string of denials seems to demarcate the scope of ontological paintings, but will ultimately push painting to mysticism, just as Plato’s recording of Socrates’ take on beauty in Alcibiades I.
Xu Hongxiang's recent paintings and his subsequent project of “In the Field” have to some extent echoed the discussion of painting ontology. Not only has he given a second thought to painting through his practice, but also pulled painting back from the precipice into mysticism to his ordinary experience, historical context and social interaction.
Graduated from the printmaking department at Central Academy of Fine Arts, Xu Hongxiang benefitted from its fine academic education and was enabled to master the skills of image processing and conceptual expression, which have also been the subject of painting since his graduation. However, in his recent works, these aspects serve as his starting point to reflect on the painting itself and the realities of life.
Before this, Xu Hongxiang used to base his creation on his reflection of the paintings under the academic education system. He would process and write on ready-made images printed on canvas by a variety of media such as dissolving agent, oil paint, markers and the like, resulting in the destruction of the definitive image, while the processing/fabrication dissolve the meaning of painting as a finished result. As his dug deeper into the ontology of painting, Xu Hongxiang began to reflect on the “images” and the process of paintings. Painting should not be the drawing of images; the prevailing “image painting” in recent years has led to the alienation between the image that artists choose and their real life. In this light, the choice of image has become a kind of taste. Sometimes the image would evolve and develop according to its own logic, diminishing the artist’s subjectivity in the process.What’smore, the emphasis on processing/fabrication bears no benefit to the pursuit of ontological painting, and would only lead to conceptual and performance art.
Therefore, Xu Hongxiang started to recognize painting in the form of painting and started tobuild a painting genealogy of his own. Unlike Wang Xingwei, Wang Yin and other painters, Xu Hongxiang's paintings are not a response to the history of painting or one certain painter, but a challenge, questioning and criticism of his own paintings. It is worth noting that after completing individual pieces, he would juxtapose all the paintings on the wall and re-create them in a collective manner to avoid the accidental ofthe image and taste, so as to realize the innate relationship between paintings and between man and painting. This kind of juxtaposition and collective creation forms a synchronic visual genealogy in space, and a genealogyof self-reflection, self-reference and self-generation in time, realizing the self-cognition of painting and something about “painting of painting”.
As for how to understand the painting itself and how to prevent painting from becoming a metaphysical concept or the artist's mystical experience, the best way is not through textual or theoretical expounding but through the actual viewing of the audience.
In May 2016, Xu Hongxiang started his art project called “In the Field”. He carried his works to a small village on the outskirts of Changsha, the place where he lived during his childhood, hung the pictures where he thought relevant to them, such as on the rubbles or on a tree, and recorded what happened with photography and videos. In addition, he also brought together local classmates and friends in the name of seeing the paintings, chatting about the old days on sitting cross-legged on the grass, a Changsha version of the Woodstock Festival. In my opinion, the project is intended to address two issues. Firstly, in terms of the more specific exhibition space, the artist believes that the painting should not be hung on the wall of the “white box”, appearing to be superior tothe audience and non-artist.Instead, they should be placed in a more diverse public space so that art can be more accessible to the public. Secondly, painting is not a form of metaphysics, because art is closely linked with the experiences, emotions and real life of the artist. It is true that the project of “In the Field” is more than a simple form of Ex-Situ or the alternative space; it is attempting to integrate the cognition of painting and reflection on it into real life by way of going “in the field”. According to the artist's own explanation, “In the Field” aims at exploring two “basic questions that plague the artist”— “what to paint” and “how to paint”. The artist made an effort to fit the works into their environment; at the same time, the materiality of the paintings marked themselves out from the place where they were placed. While the participating audience knew the artist while the activity went on in an atmosphere of equality and harmony, such a strange and unnatural way of exhibition cause the audience to question the art they understood. It is in this paradoxical tension that artists and audience began to re-examine their relationships, and through the act of viewing, the audience also began to examine and observe this special exhibition space, which is familiar and strange, as well as the society and times they live in.
In addition, the photographs Xu Hongxiang filmed of the exhibition were made into paintings within paintings. In these photographs, the artist creates a space for viewing in the name of painting, and ordinary viewers and works meet under a non-oppressive condition, where equal viewing takes place. The boundaries between the paintings—images, color relations, the brush strokes and the traces of the flowing colors, and the physical scene and natural landscape begin to blur and signify each other, but the materiality of the painting emphasizes its own existence. These paintings within paintings not only record the relationship between the paintings and the surrounding environment, but also the viewing of the audience at the exhibition. As a result, they create “viewing within viewing”.
The work of Li Qiang can be seen as the continuation and promotion of the project of “In the Field”. Li Qiang is one of Xu Hongxiang’s childhood friends. He is honest and generous, but he did not receive any education. Endowed with the bold character of Changsha folks, he was even jailed on several occasions, and now lives in a resettlement district on the outskirts of Changsha. He is now married with children and sells betelnuts for a living. Due to years of estrangement and differentliving environment, they are only able to see pictures of each other on Wechat “moments” (the Chinese version of Twitter), and there is less and less for Xu Hongxiang and Li Qiang to engage each other. Xu Hongxiang would save pictures that he considered interesting to be used asmaterial for painting because this is very much in line with his idea of the painting accuracy. He painted a portrait of Li Qiang and gave the picture to him as a gift, hoping that painting was capable of transcending the limits of reality, andto convey the complicated experience in his heart. However, for Li Qiang, he does not know what the artist is doing or what “contemporary art" means. He only knows that Xu Hongxiang is a good friend ofhim who lives on drawing pictures, and this painting is given to him by his friend as a gift, just like the betel nuts he gave Xu Hongxiang in return. Some people call this form of interfering in social reality through paintings and behaviors as “intervention”, but I prefer to see it as a kind of interaction. While the word of intervention is imbued with a sense of elitism and pride in the artist identity, lending superiority to art over the audience, “interaction” reflects the efforts to establish an equal and non-oppressive mechanism with the audience and the abandonment of the pride and the power to interpret art. Throughout the process of creation, Xu Hongxiang builds an equal relationship with the creationobject/audience and uses painting to reflect on the interaction between friends. In this sense, painting and interaction function as the purpose and result of each other.
In September 2016, Xu Hongxiang returned to Changsha. He enlarged Li Qiang to a six by nine-meter giant work and put it on the rubbles of the demolished village where Li Qiang and he used to live. In order to see this picture properly, people have to put more distance between themselves and the painting, and even flying machines were applied. Against the backdrop of the resettlement quarters under construction in the middle of nowhere, the picture is both obtrusive and harmonious with the surrounding environment. It is obtrusive because of its unexpected appearance in a milieu of numbness. But it’s also harmonious because of the echo between the experience of the young people from the outskirts in the painting and the various landscapes in the process of urbanization.
This big picture was removed a day later. The construction goes on, so does Li Qiang’s life. Although this art project cannot change his living conditions, he now has a gift from his painter friend to remind him of his friend, to reflect on their friendship and himself. On the other hand, his friend Xu Hongxiang rethinks about himself and his paintings through this project, and continues to bring painting closer to what he considers true and accurate.