Art history and 21st century
How does one invent a new way of painting in the 21st century? There are few artists who belong to this small group who have managed to come up with new alternatives, to sidestep or – better yet – to take a step forward in this unfolding history of painting. History weighs heavily on the shoulders of artists who followed the wave of 20th-century geniuses, experimenting through abstraction, surrealism, expressionism, naïve art, so-called bad painting, Pop Art, whether sensual or glossy, as well as the uncategorizable, the giants like Picasso or Matisse, or even closer to us Sol LeWitt in his late pleasure-seeking period with his wall drawings, and even Kerry James Marshall with his mixture of political and chromatic expressions.
These days figurative art is in favour – until the tide turns once more – with a lot of post-naïve, post-surrealist or decorative art, artisanal-art, but it is almost always accompanied by a lack of inventiveness, with the exception of the desire to react against a glazed form of painting, a product of the ubiquity of technology and the encroaching influence of data invading our daily lives.
Paris in 2017
I first noticed the very discreet Xinyi Cheng – a painter born in Wuhan in 1989 – in 2017, the same year that she arrived in Paris. She studied art in China, Baltimore, and at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam.
At the time her paintings, which were already very unique, were characterized by a strong sexual obsession. They resembled in fact an expression that we could liken to homosexual desire as portrayed in certain films, composed of occasional brushes and indiscreet encounters between men. In her images there would often be two figures, depicted naked or in intimate scenes from daily life. The compositions were emotionally intense, and at the time Xinyi explained to me that, in her view, there was a way of addressing the subject of eroticism with modesty, partly while hiding behind the homosexuality that fascinated her.
Since then she has matured, acquired lived experience, and confirmed and consolidated her talent, while her centres of interest have expanded. She continues to create pared-back compositions, without decorum, which are characterized by the depiction of situations in contrasting colours which make up a large part of the “message”, as she explains in the video interview. An intimate incursion in her world. She says: “The challenge is the act of painting itself. I like it when the layers of colour can be seen one on top of the another.”
Special Japanese tints
Each work takes between two and six weeks to make. She also creates works on paper for which she uses specific Japanese tints mixed with a paste of animal origin.
Her painting style seems to be in no way inspired by the Chinese tradition, but she explains that she started out being interested in art from her home country. At her studio in Belleville, which occupies a former shop, that day it was very cold. There were very few artworks on the walls, but there was a recognizable landscape which she always takes with her (see the video on the subject in the report ‘Art that makes you feel good’) that her mother painted around the time she left China. There aren’t many artworks on display because Xinyi’s work is subject to intense demand.
Palais de Tokyo, Hamburger Bahnhof
The Palais de Tokyo in Paris, which is currently closed due to Covid, is dedicating an exhibition to her featuring eight paintings as part of their exhibition “Anticorps”. Last year she was awarded the Baloise Art Prize at Art Basel and she was subsequently the subject of an exhibition of 29 paintings and some photos at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin (also currently closed).
Recently in the French magazine Beaux-Arts the collector and owner of Christie’s François Pinault declared after reminiscing about interviews with Robert Ryman and David Hammons, “I have a very vivid memory of meeting Xinyi Cheng, a wonderful young Chinese painter”. We can therefore imagine he will be exhibiting her at the opening of the Collection Pinault at the Bourse de Commerce in Paris once museums are allowed to reopen in France.
Lafayette anticipations and Shanghai Biennal
In the spring there is also a Xinyi Cheng exhibition scheduled with Lafayette Anticipations, the foundation of the Galeries Lafayette, also in Paris. She will be participating to the Shanghai Biennal during the spring of 2021.
On Instagram, the new platform for promoting art, posts relating to the painter are flourishing, from her French gallery Balice-Hertling (1), of course, but also from influential market operators such as the private dealer based between Paris and New York – who refused to respond to my requests for an interview – Philippe Ségalot.
Placid and quiet
Xinyi remains placid and rather quiet. She plays skilfully with paradox and when for example she is asked about her art history references she talks first about sculpture and about abstraction in painting.
They are my friends
She wrote in the catalogue for her exhibition in Berlin: “I paint people that I’m fascinated by. They are my friends whom I find beautiful and eccentric (…) I like to come to the studio around 11 ’o clock in the morning or so and stay until the evening. Most of the time I’m just sitting around, looking at the painting until a moment of enlightenment comes. This is how I stay connected to the present, waiting”.
This is how we can also stay connected to Xinyi, while we wait for her shows to open and reopen.
(1) Xinyi Cheng is also represented by Antenna space gallery in Shanghai
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