Strange faces and wormy books

Xiaoze Xie, April 2004, T.P.

Brace yourself for this news, dear readers (get it, news?). That stack of old papers is not a photograph. “I just want to know how he did the typography,” said my boss Debbie Williamson, squinting at the perfect, slightly curving font that Xiaoze Xie meticulously painted. The work is a (nearly) photo realistic representation of a photograph Xie took in the newspaper archives of a library.

The painting gives us tiny glimpses of faces and news bites from days past, hinting at the momentary importance and swift obsolescence of the newspaper as a cultural product. Some of the headlines are ominous, some are funny, and some are frustratingly cut off. Happy faces, strange blobs of flesh and eerie eyes poke out at us. Who do they belong to? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Why look back when you can crack open today’s paper and distract yourself with the funnies?

Xiaoze Xie, Chinese Library No. 41

The rest of Xie’s Amplified Moments exhibition, which is at the Jordan Schnitzer until December 31st, explores similar ideas about the life, significance and slow decay of works on paper. There are paintings of tattered and neglected library books, a grainy fly-on-the-wall view of a George W. Bush era cabinet meeting, and even an ominous black-and-white portrait of Dick Cheney. I interviewed the prominent Chinese contemporary artist by email about his influences and inspirations:

Me geeking out: Your father was a school principal who was charged with censoring and destroying banned books. How did this affect your view on books and information as a child?

Famous artist that I’m geeking out about:
It was probably towards the end of the Cultural Revolution when I was around 10. I remember once seeing piles of old books accumulated in my father’s office at school – at that time, people were urged to turn in books deemed “poisonous”: feudalist, reactionary, subversive, etc. (In rural China, a school often also functioned as a kind of political institution with tasks such as propaganda.) In my mind, old, thread-bound Chinese books always carry something mysterious and forbidden. I would not say that the experience directly compelled me to paint books; but it stays in the back of my mind and might have had some influences on me unconsciously.

Me: The works in Amplified Moments seem tied together, but they were created over more than a decade. How have the themes and ideas behind your works changed over time? How have they remained the same?

Xie: One theme leads to another, ideas and styles shift; but I hope the bodies of works over the years are linked by conceptual threads. All the works in the show are tied together by an interest in time, memory and history.

Me: In the description of Amplified Moments on the JSMA website, your exhibition is described as evoking “the tenuous nature of history.” Is that an accurate description? What is the nature of history?

Xie: To me, memory and history are fragmentary, constructed, malleable, fragile, and yes, “tenuous.”

Me: There are elements of realism in your works, but there is also a sense of separation from the events and information portrayed. How did you walk that line, and for what reason?

Xie: Painting from source photographs, I want my paintings to have a matter-of-fact look and want to maintain a reference to photography; I am also interested in the subtle dialogue between painting and photography. I do not want to be a classic “photorealist.” The events and information portrayed are mediated several times – the newspaper paintings are not about direct experience, but more about the way we perceive the real world through the media.

Me: What was it like for you mentally to paint such a dark and foreboding portrait of Dick Cheney?

Xie: I was compelled by what he (or the Bush administration) did. It wasn’t a pleasant subject but it gave some relief to be able to say something about it.

Did I mention there’s a wall of books in the exhibit that forms a crazy, textured video screen? You should probably go see this thing!

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2 comments
  1. Kraig said:

    Your site actually drew me in because I thought it was a cool photograph of newspapers. Then I find out it is actually a painting, incredible. Thanks for opening me up to Xie’s artwork and a little bit of who he is with your great interview.

    • Thanks, Kraig! Xie really is pretty awesome… as is your gorgeous blog. I LOVE the shot of the lion- so intimate and soft

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