Background and Early Exhibitions
Xiao Xu was born in Chongqing in 1983. He had what he describes as “a care-free childhood in a rural area.” The most fascinating component of his childhood wais watching his grandfather making sacrificial houses out of rice paper and bamboo for those who had died, an association between tradition and the modern, between this world and another world, which has impacted him ever since.
He graduated from Sichuan Fine Arts Institute with a Bachelor’s degree and Master’s degree in Chinese Painting department in 2007 and 2010.
Xiao has participated in numerous exhibitions, including Devotion to Ink organized by Galerie Ora-Ora at Hong Kong Maritime Museum (2014), Enchanted Landscape – Ink Group Exhibition at Sotheby’s New York (2014), After 70’s: New Ink Painting – Yiqingzhai Collection Exhibition at Art Space, Sotheby’s Hong Kong (2013) and Danqinxi Gu Jin – HK-Taiwan Contemporary Ink Artists Series Exhibition at My Humble House Art Gallery, Taipei (2012).
The Past as a Treasure Trove
Xiao Xu’s paintings harness the media (brush, ink and paper) of classical times, much of its language (rocks, mist, water) but with an atmosphere of mystery, dream, fantasy, driven by dark shades, the roaming of unexpected creatures and beasts and the juxtaposition of modern components such as the chain-link fence.
Xiao Xu asserts his own connection with the past, writing: “My passion for painting is rooted in my unique interest in traditional landscape painting.” He picks out Zhao Mengfu, Ni Zan, Huang Gongwang as inspirations.
In addressing the influence of the past, Xiong Yijing points to Xiao Xu’s willingness to probe in the “infinite treasure trove” of Chinese classical painting. He sees Xiao Xu’s painting of “created realms” as an extension of the tendency of the literati in the Wei and Jin periods to decouple themselves from the chaos of politics and turn to the tranquility of landscape instead. Whereas artists and poets of the past drew from nature, Xiao Xu amplifies the natural order with the addition of creatures from our shared mythological memory.
Xiao Xu himself feels drawn to, rather than being part of, the past. In his own words: “Living in the modern age, I feel that I am too far away from tradition. Yet I never stop looking for it.”
Xiao Xu’s paintings have a quasi-cinematic quality, driven by the artist’s interest in photography and film. He also draws inspiration from museums and temples, places where he often spends his leisure time.
The Journey through the Forest
The artist works in predominantly dark shades. As Luo Ma writes on Xiao Xu’s use of colour: “His pictures have always been shrouded in thick blackness, with only the… central images radiating a faint light… He sets out a sustained meditation and linguistic exploration of the predicaments of fantasy and reality, nature and life.”
As artist Peng Jian continues, “Xiao Xu’s artworks are mostly black… placing the viewer within a dream, taking in conflict, passion… as if watching surrealist theatre.” The darkness is a subtle world which draws the viewer into its depth, spotlighting human figures, animals… and a chain-link fence.
Critics observing the fence (which appears in a number of Xiao Xu’s paintings) have been divided. As Xu Lei mused in 2012 in an essay on Xiao Xu’s In Search of the Supernatural exhibition at the Hive Centre for Contemporary Art: “The chain link fence is the only recognizable, modern sign in Xiao Xu’s painting… The juxtaposition of the natural order and the chain-link fence delineates two opposed worlds… Are we gazing upon a mystical realm under the principles of nature or a quarantined refuge caged up by modern civilization?”
“We cannot help but think about our own predicament, lost with nowhere to turn, struggling to push forward between survival and death. This is the contemporary sunset confession of today’s civilization that urgently awaits a response from art.”
As the artist wryly observes: “It might be that I see too many dark sides of the world.”
A key literary influence is Franz Kafka, whose novels such as “Das Schloß” and “Der Prozeß” deal with an individual’s journey through the mazy, disorientating world of state or official bureaucracy. In Xiao Xu’s painting, the deer becomes the symbol of the naïve individual navigating the enclosing darkness of the world around him, perhaps a little like Josef K. in “Der Prozeß.”
Xiao Xu also sees magical realist author Gabriel Garcia Marquez as an influence, as well as the chronicler of rural idylls, Henry Thoreau. Other literary influences highlighted by the artist are Orhan Pamuk, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Italo Calvino, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa and Jorge Luis Borges.
Creatures of the Wild
Alongside dragons and actual creatures of the forest, the octopus is also to be found in Xiao Xu’s paintings, creating a sense of elision between the world above the sea and the world below it, a world where any creature or memory may thrive. The presence of the octopus places the darkness, the mist and the storms in a new context – calling to mind the darkness of the subaqua world, with light filtered through the waves into the world beneath. What if the world is not how we think of it? If enchanted forest creatures roam freely, swimming towards us through watery foliage?
The metaphor starts to break down as lions with unicorn-style horns and rhinoceros’ begin to appear, poking their heads through forests of bamboo or scholars’ rocks. This is a world where the symbolism of ancient times is surrounded by unexpected visions. Is this how the ancients would have seen us, their descendants – as odd interlopers moving like a rhinoceros across their familiar landscapes?
When asked about the future, the artist notes how meaningful experimentation remains close to his heart – the value in continually experimenting, challenging both himself and his audience.
Perhaps Xiao Xu has the following quotation in mind from Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden:” “I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”