Xie Nanxing first captured the world’s attention at the 48th Venice Biennale, with a series of distinctive character works completed between 1998 and 1999 soon after his graduation from the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. This series included Untitled No. 5 (Lot 47), which featured as its main theme the body of youth as well as suggestions of harm and violence; at first glance this work of oil on canvas seems to be based on a photograph, but the drama and psychological tension of the composition makes the piece more akin to a cinematic still depicting a manic unhinged scene, recalling the avant-grade creations of American performance artist Carolee Schneemann. Where Xie stands apart is his ability to give viewers the sense that the work was snapped in a rush and under pressure, which adds to the dramatic tension he built up with remarkably subtle techniques: the blurry effect of the surface often surprises viewers from afar, making it all the more impressive when the one actually discerns the level of detail on the canvas when viewing up close. The seemingly cinematic or photographic reality results in an implicit tension that is released only when viewing the work from the right distance. By doing so, Xie wished to leave his viewers a space for reflection and doubt, “my earliest beginning of painting this type of stuff, was related to viewer participation and my dialogue with them, at the time I thought whether I could paint a type of especially unpleasant painting for the viewers…and move them as a result.”
From this point on, Xie further experimented with the presentation of psychological sensations and experiences through quotidian objects, and without the benefit of didactic representational symbols – in effect, Xie stepped onto a new stage of “escape from graphology” and deepened his exploration into art in a new creative vein. In 2002-2003, he created six works with nearly identical composition, including Untitled No. 1 (Lot 46) In this series, three works feature a naked androgynous form lying on the ground, differentiated only by subtle differences in the placement of background objects but featuring identical setting and similar lighting, using the minute changes in scenery and the presence of the human body to evoke a sense of a repetitive broadcast of a closed-circuit television. To an artist, this is a narrative without a beginning nor an end, and he altered the linearity of events to create new combinations, “you may think these are randomly found films, but these six different scenes are meant to enrich the information you could get from a single work, by expanding its space, time, and psychological impact.” What is more, the disappearance and reappearance of the body communicates changes in time and space, and also presents how the artist interprets the passage of time and space in the world inside the painting, forcing viewers to rethink their perceived relationship between still pictures and moving videos. The palpable haziness again pushes viewers towards the edge between reality and fantasy. In fact, this philosophical deliberation upon the nature of painting can be traced to his current works as well, which Xie brought up repeatedly in interviews; to him, this was an important milestone.
“I study the surface,” Xie said of himself, “but like doctors I also study the layers that exist just below the level of our consciousness.” He has a remarkable ability to take these experiences from everyday life and thought, transform them, and realise them upon the medium of painting. From his 1998 character series to today, Xie has favoured the use of a sequence of works to holistically present a point of view, perhaps in the hopes that in the process of scratching the surface of painting or any medium, we will realise the ultimate futility of trying to discern reality. In a way, Xie’s blurry effect can be thought of in the same way as Gerhard Richter’s photorealistic painting technique; Xie transforms and reinterprets photographs to present uncertainty and transience on the canvas, boosted by his ultra-fine textures, transporting us to a fantastical realm and grey area that cannot be defined. Xie chose to embark on a creative path that takes him deep into the nature of painting itself, and as a result he deliberately avoids easily identified representational symbolism or graphology, refusing to be pinned down to any particular style of iconography. What he seeks is his identity as an artist, understanding of the interplay between his personal experiences and his medium of paint, and the creation of new possibilities with his aesthetic language. To Xie, the goal of all this is simply for his works to profoundly interact with viewers – because it is impossible to give any work a definitive interpretation, the artist does not have the ultimate authority to define his works; he can imbue the work with questions, suggestions, or even hopes. But in the end, through the process of repeated viewing, viewers and the artist are joined together in introspection towards the meaning, purpose, and nature of painting.