Crossroads in the 1980s


Born in the Chinese city of Nantong in Jiangsu Province, Xu Lei studied at Nanjing’s Arts University, graduating in 1984. Beginning his artistic career at a crossroads in Chinese history, as the country was re-appraising its attitudes to influences from the rest of the world, Xu Lei eventually struck a path which was both an embrace of the new openness, and a continuance of the Chinese classical tradition.


Embrace of Symbolism


Xu Lei was part of what was referred to as the 1985 Art Movement, where young student artists embraced some western conceptual art values, whilst continuing a Chinese aesthetic. Marcel Duchamp and Yves Klein have been cited by the artist as early influences from the west.


The spirit of Yves Klein is to be detected in the soaking of his paintings in shades of blue, varying from sultry moonlight to bright and vibrant. The legacy of Marcel Duchamp may be seen in Xu Lei’s dedication to symbolism, repeating images in his works to produce a kind of metaphorical dialogue with the viewer. Curtains to divide space like a stage, Ming dynasty furniture, birds and unexpected animals entering the scene, ornamental landscapes, high-heeled shoes, ancient maps, cages and folding screens are some of the images we see in Xu's paintings. The integration and juxtaposition of such diverse elements creates both a sense of unpredictability and a recognizable thread in his works. Flashes of Rene Magritte’s absurdist juxtaposition of familiar images of daily life in startling contexts complete a triumvirate of French / Belgian influences. Later, this French interaction was to be actualized in reverse, when Xu Lei was invited to create the design of the wine label for Chateau Mouton Rothschild's 2008 vintage.


Art critic and curator Dr. Pi Li notes the poetic provenance of this  array of objects in "Departure and Distancing: Avant-Garde Reflection in Xu Lei's Painting:" "Though he still uses traditional media, his focus is not on conveying the formulaic, structured "beauty" of traditional Chinese gongbi painting, but instead closer approximates Lautréamont's "beauty" of the "chance meeting . . . of a sewing machine and an umbrella" from imagist poetry."


Mounting Influence


Xu Lei paints on silk and paper, using his brush with water, ink and mineral pigments. The surfaces and materials are unforgiving; the realism with which he invests each scene is thereby rendered even more astonishing. Xu Lei commented thus on his use of traditional materials:  “Change can move forwards or backwards. Moving backwards is not conservatism or a retreat, but a retracing and reviving of valuable points of departure in history. You could compare it to the rearview mirror on a forward-moving car; it is an orientation towards the future… I paint using that most traditional medium, Chinese ‘cooked’ scroll paper, but I do not draw upon the familiar forms and vocabulary of traditional Chinese painting.” 


As the western world began to take notice of the seismic innovations in Chinese art, his works became both highly prized by collectors, and the cornerstones of major exhibitions. His paintings featured in the landmark 1998 exhibition “A Century in Crisis: Modernity and Tradition in the Art of the Twentieth-Century China,” organized by Julia Andrews and Kuiyi Shen at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.


Xu Lei has become in many western eyes, both a definitive link between east and west, past and present, and a key narrative guide to the principles of Chinese painting. "Traditional Chinese art tends not to focus on the space or structure within a painting, it requires time to appreciate and digest it. This is different from the nature of art in the West. Standing in front of a [traditional Chinese] painting we can feel a subtle delight like taking a walk on a winding path that leads to a secluded place,” he said on a visit to the US in 2008.


Exhibitions and Commercial Success


Xu Lei’s visit to the US in 2008 co-incided with his “Xu Lei: Revivification of the Tradition” at the Asian Division of the Library of Congress. As an artist, he successfully straddles both academic and commercial worlds, exhibiting in commercial galleries, museums and academic institutions.


Other key solo exhibitions have included his “Xu Lei: New Work” show at the Marlborough Gallery in New York in 2016, “Fugue” at the Suzhou Museum in 2015 and “Veneer of the World” at Today Art Mueum in Beijing in 2013. Xu Lei has also shown his work at the National Art Museum of China, Guggenheim Museums in New York, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Hong Kong Arts Centre and several other museums and institutions.




Xu Lei currently works at the Graduate School of the China Art Academy, serves as the art director of the Today Art Museum, and is editor-in-chief of the magazine Classics. He is also a leading commentator on emerging Chinese artists, affording critical insight into new trends and developments.


His works are in private collections and prominent museums in Asia and the U.S., including the Shanghai Art Museum, the Nanjing Art Institute, the Today Art Museum and Asian Division of the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.