The Art of Xu Xi

Dennis Wepman

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When an artist trained in the cultural and stylistic traditions of his own land undertakes to incorporate those of another into his work, the results are usually self-conscious and mannered. More often than not, these hybrids prove sterile, like those in biology, degenerating into deliberate eccentricity or mere stylized quaintness. Only very rarely does a viable graft occur, the sap of one tradition flowing freely through the branch of the other to nourish a fruit which truly partakes of both, and a wholly original creation emerges, one which defies the facile taxonomy of the art critic and which must be viewed as something transcending cultural and stylistic boundaries. Such a universal sensibility may be seen in the haunting work of the Chinese-born and educated Xu Xi. Setting himeself the challenge of finding a personal voice which remained true to the principles of Chinese art without being bound to or limited by them, he has triumphantly achieved a visual identity uniquely his own.

Xu Xi arrived at his remarkable synthesis of traditional and modern, Eastern and Western, through a life experience in many ways different from that of most contemporary Oriental artists. Born in 1940 in Shaoxing, in Southeastern china, he began his eduation with mathematics, physics, and chemistry, intending a career in science, and though he abandoned that ambition at the age of 20, the discipline his early studies in natural science gave him remains visible in his work. Xu Xi's painting has always reflected the control instilled in him by his scientific training.

A teacher urged him to apply to the Attached High School of the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, an ambitious idea since that prestigious school normally accepted only 1% of its applicants. One of 40 students admitted out of 4,000 hopefuls, Xu was among the youngest in his class, but received the Middle School's highest award and was accepted by the Academy in the same year. He concentrated at first on the study of graphics and quickly mastered the demanding techniques of woodblock printing, copperplate etching, and lithography. At 22 he published a bold woodcut in the Chinese newspaper People's Daily, which created a sensation and was widely reprinted in China and beyond. His thirst for technical mastery led him to make private trips to a local hospital to study anatomy, and to make repeated expeditions into the countryside to perfect his sketching. The discipline of his strong background in graphic art, with its powerful contrasts of black and white, its emphasis on strong structural composition, and its clarity of design, have left its mark on the artist's later, more subtle work, and strengthened both the formal control of his technique and the pictorial sensitivity of his execution.

Xu Xi was not content with the mastery of graphic art, and the pull of his cultural heritage soon drew him to the study of traditional Chinese ink and wash painting. But the Western approach had planted the seed of a new, more complex aesthetic in his mind. Fascinated by French, British and Russian water colors, with their very different visual dynamic from that of the classical Chinese, he began to experiment with a fusion of the two approaches while still a student. Out of this blend of contemporary Western water color and traditional oriental ink painting techniques was to grow something highly personal, containing elements of abstraction with features of both the classic Chinese and the modern European. The vital quality in the Chinese rendering of static objects-landscapes, still lifes, and interiors-historically depends on a rhythmic abstraction of the form, and generally results from a dynamic tension between the elements; Western abstraction relies on the purity of form without that resolution of opposites which underlies Oriental design. In the work of Xu Xi, especially in his mature land and cityscapes, the two pictorial objectives become one.

The ten years of the Cultural Revolution interruped Xu Xi's career, but it did not interrupt his work. Although painting official portraits of Mao to survive, he continued his inner growth and the refinement of both his eye and his hand. He worked as an art editor for the People's Fine Arts Publishing House in Beijing, and when the Cultural Revolution came to an end in 1976 he was prepared to take his place among the fully fledged artists of the new China. In 1978 he received and assignment to the Creative Workshop of the Publishing House for which he worked and began to build a reputation for traditional paintings which already showed signs of a broader and deeper technical range and a more universal perception. Thoroughly grounded in the classical techniques of Chinese art, he was not bound by tradition but used color in the French fashion to break up the conventional Chinese pattern of shaded monochrome ink. The powerful contrasts, reminding us of his background in graphic art, continued to provide a structural balance to his art, while the delicacy of his shading reflected the inner discipline and control of his traditional training.

Xu Xi's artistic growth flourished in those heady days of cultural freedom in China. Brought up in the South, with its tradition of misty water and refined pastoral scenes, he discovered the vigorous boldness and simplicity of the Northern school of traditional painting and struck a balance-so characteristc of the Chinese ideal in art-between the two. Vitalizing the Fragile, sometimes overly delicate style of the South, he added a balancing sensitivity to that of the North, producing remarkable images of almost unearthly poise and avoiding both the sterility and the cliches of what had sometimes become mere artistic coventions. Xu Xi dates the beginning of his mature style as a landscape artist from the period.

It was also in those years that he first began to specialize in what was to become a signature motif, the beauty of rain. Rain has always been a popular element in Chinese landscape art, and its differences according to season, time of day, and region have been clearly differentiated over the centuries. Xu was to carry the refinement of these distinctions still further, discovering and eloquently conveying the musical quality of the rains of Vienna and the brilliant jewel-like fragmentation of ligh in the rains of New York City as well as the quiet poetry of those of his own country. The art establishment of China was quick to recognize and appreciate Xu's special contribution to the range of this staple subject in Oriental art, traditionally an element of wistful atmosphere but in Xu's work endowed with a positive and substantial character of its own. The noted traditional Chinese painter Lee Shan wrote enthusiastically of one of Xu's New York paintings that the turns "drizzling Central Park" into a grand ballroom and invites the viewer to join the party.

The next ten years were to take Xu far, in both technique and theme as well as in his career, adding an impressive range of media to his repertoire and snow and night scenes to his recurring subject. Snow, like rain, has long been a popular motif with Oriental artisits, who have distinguished Northern and Southern, early and late, light and heavy snows; Xu Xi has drawn from his travels in the Alps, Canada, and Siberia for the unique quality of their wintry beauty, and his elegant, almost abstract evocation of the grandeur of the snow-capped peaks of Alaska brings a unique eye and hand to new world landscape painting.

Not limited to these themes, Xu Xi has ranged widely in both technique and subject. His travels in Tibet generated a gallery of brilliant ink and water color portraits of natives and their temples. Uninterested in the pursuit of mere "local color," his Tibetan paintings capture the innate character of the people and the universal pictorial values of their (to us) exotic setting. In these as in all his work, the artist celebrates life, never the formal posture of official scenes but the earthy beauty and natural rhythms of the commonplace. Always open to new impressions and new modes of expression, he has utilized whatever he has found, using collage, oil, acrylic, and gouache, and painting on cotton, silk, or wool, as he has taken elements of pigment diffusion from water color and vivid contrasts of black and white from graphic art, When it has served his aesthetic purpose. The freshness, spontaneity, and apparent ease of his figuration, his rare command of negative space, the vitality of his composition, the subtle flexibility of his shading, and the vigor of his brushwork give his art an unmistakably personal identity which places him apart from and above all of the traditional techniques which he has absorbed and made.

Xu Xi's professional reputation grew faster outside his country than at home. In 1980 he had a solo exhibition in singapore, and the next year received a first prize from the Hong Kong Artists' Publishing House. In 1982 has was awarded another first in the International Art Exhibition in Yugoslavia, and he has won prizes in Japan (1985) and Turkey (1987). A major solo exhibition of his work was presented at the United Nations head-quaters in Vienna in 1986. He presented three solo shows in Now York City in 1986 and 1987, and in 1987 has was paid the signal honor of a large solo exhibition at the Chinese National Gallery in Beijing. The next year Xu Xi was named a Painter of the First Class by the Chinese Ministry of Culture. Ten books and monographs have been published on his work, in Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan, and China, and he has been commissioned to do several portfolios and posters. In 1990 Xu Xi was selected to create the art of the official national calendar for the Asian Games in Beijing.

Xu Xi moved to the United States in 1989 and lives in New York City with his wife, the classical singer Chen Hongyu. Now at the height of his powers, he continues to express his personal vision of reality in lyrical images that continue the techniques of centuries. His color and ink paintings of New York, of which he is preparing a portfolio of prints, afford a unique view of that often-depicted city and capture at once its teeming vitality and its secret, serene composures no other artist, of East or West, has done. Another portfolio, of scenes from the artist's travels throughout America, has met with a like success. Eagerly sought by private collectors from all over the world, Xu Xi's work is in collections in England, Austria, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and China as well as in the United States.

The personal vision of both the philosophical reality and the physical form of nature which has in formed Chinese art for a thousand years lies in the fusion of opposites. Western dualities of spirit and matter, ideal and natural, spontaneous and controlled, calssical and romantic, traditional and contemporary, and even local and foreign, have histroically found a middleground in the art of the Celestial Kingdom. As the principle of yang and yin sets up a dynamic tension in th universe-the essence of that philosophical principle they call the Tao-Chinese art, in its pursuit of the wedding of spirit and matter, seeks expression by the marriage of extremes. With his uniquely fluid technique, his profound perception of the eternal flux of nature, and his harmonious resolution of opposites, Xu Xi has powerfully and movingly realized the cosmic Chinese ideal in art, and in doing so has brought it with dazzling force to Western eyes.

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