The artist Xiao Se (b.1970) is best known for his richly detailed paintings that skillfully merge a realist portrayal of commoners and their complex feelings of living in contemporary China with the figures and religious symbols in the early Renaissance masterpieces. What lies behind the seemingly surrealist expression, however, are extraordinary experiences and lessons from life. ESCAPEMENT ART is pleased to announce Xiao Se’s mid-career retrospective solo exhibition “Flying Over the Cotton Field,” featuring 21 stunning oil paintings ranging from his trademarks to new art experiments.
XIAO SE / 萧瑟 grew up in Beijing in the second half of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). He experienced the tumultuous socio-political and cultural climate during the 1978 liberalist economic reform and the late ’80s student movements. He is best known for his surrealist paintings, which skillfully fuse religious motifs in the early Renaissance masterpieces into realistic portrayals of individuals’ living conditions in postsocialist China. From 1986 to 1991, Xiao studied in Beijing’s School of Fine Arts, the PRC. In 1995, he graduated from the Environment Art Design Center at the Central Academy of Fine Arts and Design. In 2000, Xiao Se was nominated as one of the Emerging Talents in Chinese Oil Paintings in the official art magazine Art Research.
XIAO SE / 萧瑟
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Xiao grew up in Beijing in the second half of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). He lived the tumultuous socio-political and cultural climate during the 1978 liberalist economic reform and the late ’80s student movements.
The artist Xiao Se (b.1970) is best known for his richly detailed paintings that skillfully combine the realist portrayal of commoners’ lived experiences in contemporary China and the figures and religious symbols from the early Renaissance masterpieces. What lies behind the seemingly surrealist expression, however, are the artist’s extraordinary experiences and lessons from life. Xiao grew up in Beijing in the second half of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). He lived the tumultuous socio-political and cultural climate during the 1978 liberalist economic reform and the late ’80s student movements. His extensive travels in the Chinese border cities and hinterland cultivated his critical insight into the diverse living conditions of humans and their desire for a good life. After recovering from a serious illness in 2019, Xiao realized that a desire for material gain, the illiberal political system, and cyber governance have turned cultural diversity into an emergency of our time. ESCAPEMENT ART is pleased to present 21 oil paintings by Xiao, covering his Classicist-style paintings and new surrealist paintings.
A Sunless Midday Xiao painted Gray series during 2020-2021, which explores various shades of a creamy grayish-blue tint. The artist transforms a stream of sorrowful undercurrents into thousands of swaying, fruiting cotton branches in the shadow of a scythe. By the Seaside, a half-asleep person lies inert on a vast wasteland below a gloomy sky. Life is slowly eroded by an air of lethargy. The extensive distance between an exhausted body and a bleak, barren field evokes questions about the existence of the intangibles. In Tibetan Buddhism, goldfish is a metaphor for a strong-willed practitioner who has transcended the material world and reached spiritual fulfillment. A pair of goldfish indicates a restored vitality, eternality, and reincarnation. They partly overlap philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s (1958) conception of “negative liberty” – namely, a sphere “within which the subject […] is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons”. This makes the sight of a cheerful jump of the boys and a boundless pool almost like a flashback of some carefree days of men before they are soaked in the dreary and forgetful adulthood. As if flying fish, the young boys fully stretched their arms to the sky. Could this be the last gasp of free air before diving into a mysterious tranquil pool?
Yellowish Memoirs The Yellow series was created after Xiao had recovered from a severe illness in 2019. The artist created the imageries such as the religious figures Adam and Eve, a fashionable woman of Republican China and a member of the Young Pioneers of China. These figures and their attire help to actualize Xiao’s visions in his near-death experience.
His painting Mother & Daughter takes a retrospective look at the dramatic history of China from the early 20th century to date, which started with the anti-colonial and anti-imperial nationalist movements and has morphed into a neoliberal restructured reality. Hello, Motherland shows a morning salute that is still practiced by today’s Chinese pupils, which also helps these children to reinforce a Communist subjectivity. During an Afternoon Tea break, children can still be themselves—the girls seem relaxed about the “red” tradition and the future. But teatime is a pause after all. Like lotus blossoms, these girls will become women. A Friend’s Daughter is uptight about our gaze at her boudoir, which is perhaps the last place to free her body from complying with social doctrines. Behind these red curtains, are younger generations ready for upcoming challenges?
Fetishism and Human Salvation This section gathers four Classicist-style paintings. Xiao illustrates an instinctive reality with delicate brushstrokes: a lama (i.e., Tibetan Buddhist monk) lends the frail Christ a hand in darkness; a Chinese madam weighs a heart with steelyard beside a Catholic pope; a half-naked lean Asian man attends the “sacrament” (a marriage ring is missing, however) in A Goldsmith in His Shop (c.1449) by Petrus Christus. Compared to Mannerist artists, Xiao does not strive for fabricating a sophisticated elegance. He almost avoids using chiaroscuro and ambient color. Instead, Xiao uses rigid outline, local color, and a lemon-yellow tint to create a bizarre spatiotemporal relation between subjects in his paintings. He lets light-pinkish flesh contrast the colorful well-crafted garments and uses such a contrast to utter the elusive and complex human nature. How can a person traverse river of desires like a fish?
One Flew Over His Sea “[Y]ou cannot imagine the real life in China, such a toughness. I describe it as a sea. Every Chinese person is a sea. His pain, his self-contradiction, his solitude, his loneliness is a sea. He cannot express himself in words, but he is to be forgotten at the time of his death. One life after another, just like that.”
—— Ji Dan (documentary filmmaker), “Every Person Filmed in My Documentaries Gave Me Strength,” Today Literary, issue no.131, November 27, 2021
Time stands still. A flying fish flutters in the air. As if a passer-by, it interrupts a young lama’s Speech and raises doubts in the mother’s and her son’s minds on a dark Summer Night. Xiao puts desires for materials and social doctrines in dialogue with a hope for freedom. In his painting Play Vertical Flute, Xiao depicts a performer playing the vertical flute in water. The neon-yellowish moonlight shines down on his back. It is noteworthy that the vertical flute has its origins in Kucha (111-648 CE), an ancient kingdom whose territory overlaps today’s Aksu prefecture in the Xinjiang region. In 382 CE, the general Lü Guang of Former Qin (350-394 CE) conquered Kucha and brought its music to Liangzhou, an area in today’s Wuwei in central Gansu province. Vertical flute then became a popular musical instrument in this region. Compared to dizi (a Chinese transverse flute), the vertical flute has a lower and more mellow tone. In the Play Vertical Flute, the imagery of playing a vertical flute thus has a solitary and ethereal touch.
Flying fish is a metaphor for cognitive shifts in rapidly changing material reality in China. It also captures the emotions of witnessing “miracles,” as lifestyles and cultural trends promptly come and go. Moreover, it asks what the next trends are, awaiting people’s reactions to attendant humanitarian crises.