America Through Chinese Eyes: The Art of Xu Xi

Dennis Wepman

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There is always a peculiar fascination in seeing one's own country through the eyes of an artist with a different cultural and aesthetic focus, both in the discovery of what attracts and moves others and in the rediscovery of what familiarity has caused the native to cease noticing. Such national icons as the Statue of Liberty, Seattle's Space Needle, the White House, and the Empire State Building become cliches to the American eye until their impact is renewed by the hand of one to whom they are still fresh. When that hand is guided by a genuine creative force--one that has escaped the bounds of its cultural sources and found a personal idiom of its own--the work provides something more than a renewal of a forgotten impression and rejoices the eye in a wholly new way. Rooted in the familiarity of the image and nourished by the distinctive perception of an artist coming from another visual tradition than that of its own country, such a work permits the viewer to share in an authentic act of creation. Xu Xi is one of the most original voices of contemporary Chinese art. Displaying a technical virtuosity which bespeaks a thorough mastery of the classical techniques of his own country but free of slavish obedience to them, he brings an exciting cross-cultural vision to work at once elegantly poised and intensely dynamic. Fascinated as a student by European art, he was in time to enrich his own by incorporating the bold freedom of contemporary Western art into the refined technical discipline of the East.

The events of Xu Xi's life are now well known to the art community, but something of his background is necessary to understand how he has arrived at the remarkable fusion of manner and material which he has achieved. The expectations with which he began his life in Shaoxing were to enter a scientific profession, and his early education was in mathematics, physics, and chemistry- -perhaps no bad thing for an artist, giving him as it did a precise grasp of both physical relationships and the materials in embody them. Advised by an insightful teacher to apply to the Middle School of the prestigious Zhejiang Institute of Fine Arts, he was, at the age of 16, one of 40 students accepted form the 4,000 hopefuls competing for admission. So successful were his studies there that after 4 years he received the Middle School's highest award and was permitted to enter the Institute.

Xu devoured what Zhejiang offered, mastering the graphic arts of wood block printing, copperplate etching, and lithography as well as the more traditional Chinese techniques of ink and wash painting. A woodcut done when he was 22 received wide publication both inside China and beyond its borders. Perhaps more important, Xu received his first exposure to Western techniques of water color and saw the potential for an art which might fuse its chromatic vigor and compositional dynamism with the subtle tones and harmonious balance of Chinese ink painting.

Working cautiously within the system during the cultural evolution, Xu became proficient at turning out portraits in the officially correct style and served as an editor of the People's Art Publishing House in Beijing. Xu traveled widely during the 1980s, broadening both his technical range and his thematic repertoire. Synthesizing the sensitive, somewhat fragile manner of his native South with the more assertive Northern school of painting, he began to evolve a style with a distinct character of its own, realizing a personal aesthetic which grew beyond his sources without severing its roots in them.

Visits to Tibet, Siberia, Western Europe, and Canada further enriched his work and enhanced his international reputation. In 1980 he received solo exhibition in Singapore and in 1981 was awarded first prize by the Hong Kong Artists' Publishing House. The following year brought him another first prize in the International Art Exhibition in Yugoslavia, and he has received awards in Japan (1985) and Turkey (1987). His art was presented at the United Nations Headquarters in Vienna in 1986 and three solo shows of his work were held in New York City in 1986 and 1987. In 1987 the National Gallery in Beijing mounted a major solo exhibition, and the next year he was ranked a Painter of the First Class by the Chinese Ministry of Culture. In 1990 he was selected to create the art for the of ficial calendar for the Asian Games in Beijing. Three years later Xu Xi was granted a Life Achievement Award by the American Biography Institute and included in the Dictionary of International Biography, published in Cambridge, England, and the International Who's Who of Intellectuals. More than ten books and monographs have been published on his work, in Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Taiwan as well as in his native China. His paintings are in public and private collections throughout the world.

The present collection records Xu Xi's travels through the United States, where he has made his home since 1989, and reflects perhaps his supreme achievement to date. retaining his characteristic sensitivity of touch and liquid spontaneity of vision--as well as his trademark motif of rain and snow, so fitting to his aqueous medium--he has added a new muscularity in these haunting and powerful images. Water color is usually associated with delicate or transient effects in the West, but Xu uses it with extraordinary power and weight without sacrificing its unique properties of directness and vigor. Like France's Monet and America's Winslow Homer, he is concerned with the effects of outdoor light, which he represents with the same exuberance and economy as the earlier masters. His forms are suggested with a few telling lines, given substance with planes of subtle blues, greens, and violets. He sacrifices nothing of his medium's transparency and fluidity, and yet his combinations of varying densities of pigment, clear and smooth or heavy and opaque, give his work the rich texture of oil.

Xu ranged widely across his new country, depicting its infinite variety in a rich panorama, but it is not as documentation that this collection merits our admiration. The Statue of Liberty, barely perceived through the mists of dawn in "Morning Song" (Plate I) is not depicted as a great national symbol or a standard tourist sight, but as a ghostly figure, almost an abstract element of the composition. "Village Snow" (48) and "Islet" (39) are in fact scenes in Long Island, N.Y., but could well be villages in New England, and the snowclad mountain in "Alaska in Summer" (7) might have been painted in China a thousand years ago. While some of these paintings are very "site- specific"Äthe U.S. Capitol and the White House in Washington, D.C. (2, 3), Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California (38), the Space Needle from the 1962 World's Fair in Seattle, Washington (5)Äothers can be identified only from the artist's titles. While a New Yorker can easily locate "Manhattan Mist" (31) because of the position of the Empire State Building, "New York City Street" (35) is deliberately ambiguous in both title and subject and might be any thoroughfare in Manhattan. In some, the locations are not even identified, though an American would guess that "American Village" (16) is placed in the Southwest, "Village Snow" (26) is in New England, and "Fertile Land" (28) and "Mountain Village" (44) are in the Midwest.

But the 18 specified locales represented here--including examples from every region of the country--have points in common that have little to do with either society or geography. In many, from the lively John Marin-like "Seattle in Spring" (14) to the imposing "Alaska Village" (36), from the powerful "Utah Sunset" (10) to the lyrical "On the Mississippi" (12), the natural dwarfs the human; man or his artifacts are reduced to a thin strip of foreground detail, while mountain or sky or seas tower above, putting humankind in its proper perspective. The stunning emotional impact of these paintings does not derive from the associations implicit in their content. Xu's work is not about Americans, or even America as a nation. It has a larger aesthetic and philosophical subject.

What elevates this majestic portfolio from a visual log of a journey to an assemblage of works of art is the singular pictorial depth with which Xu Xi has infused his compositions and the masterful technique with which he has executed them. In his art he transcends not only the boundaries of his cultural background but the material itself. It is not the information conveyed in these paintings that we value, but the aesthetic vision that informs them. The colorful umbrellas of the Miami Beach, Florida, waterfront (21) and the somber symmetry of a seemingly unpeopled Manhattan. its threatening architecture softened and made poetic by the fog (24) are both less and more than records of places; they are powerful compositions whose abstract values of form and volume tell us something about the world we live in. Xu originally intended modestly to entitle the series "Portraits of America," but he has created something greater than portraiture, something more valuable than a documentary chronicle of his travels, and something a good deal more visually satisfying than either. The 45 paintings in "An American Cycle" are unique and deeply moving expressions of human experience. No higher claim than that can be made for any work of art.

As a most important America art critic Dennis Wepman has published 14 volumes of criticism, biography, and history.

About Xu Xi Home