Xu Hualing 徐華翎
Xu Hualing was born in 1975 in Harbin, Heilongjiang province of China. As a member of the young Chinese artist group N12, Xu studied and obtained her bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in Chinese painting at Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in 2000 and 2003 respectively, during the same period as peers Liang Yuanwei, Wang Guangle, Hu Xiaoyuan, and Qiu Xiaofei. With her unique artistic identity, Xu Hualing shines at the heart of contemporary Chinese painting.
A Female’s Perspective
Xu Hualing is categorized as a contemporary painter due to her artistic practice. She does not only imitate traditional gongbi art, but also explore the value of individual existence in her work. Most of her works are in a form of self-manifestation, in order to draw inspiration for life. Xu has revised and expanded the traditional gongbi with other painting techniques, such as watercolour effects. Xu embodies modern aesthetic taste with gongbi painting techniques, which flourished into a personal feminine style in her art. In traditional Chinese paintings, the human body was rarely seen as the artistic subject; but for
the recent generation of Chinese artists, there is no such restriction due to the Western influences during their education and pursuit of their artistic career. During her study, Xu discovered that most of the modern Chinese paintings of a female subject or the female body were mostly painted by male artists. These artists gave fine treatments of the female body, but from a male’s perspective. More often, the main feature of these paintings is aestheticism—for beauty’s sake.
Xu Hualing uses her own perspective as a woman to paint her female subjects. Her works centre around the “essence” of the body. She believes that women surely have different understanding and vision of the beauty of the female body. Xu finds the beauty of the female body to be pure, natural, and slightly mysterious. Being a female herself, she naturally finds her focus of attention in her paintings different from that of men. Xu once expressed: “For men, the beauty of the female body lies in its plumpness, the curved lines, and the variable forms of the body. In my view, however, the curved lines are not everything. Purity is the most important thing, and I am mesmerized by female skin that seems to be breathing.”
Visualising Adolescence and Purity
Xu is most interested in the bodies of teenage girls who have just experienced their girlhood and are about to enter into their young adulthood. They are in the border area where sex finds way into their awareness yet they are not quite aware of it; they are timid and callow, sensual yet not explicitly sexual. They are at the age when they search for identity, acceptance, and freedom to express their feelings. It is this very personal and intimate feeling from these girls that one can connect to in Xu’s paintings. The sensuality from her paintings is further accentuated by the medium she chooses to paint on – silk.
In her "Fragrant” and “Still Beautiful” series, adolescent girls are Xu’s featured subject in the paintings. The girls or their torsos appear delicate in a serene environment. Yet often, one can find a Band-Aid, a swollen eye, or blackened eye-sockets, subtle discordant details that break the harmony of the picture. These detailed contrasts are powerful surprises and fascinations rather than conflicts. In Xu’s own words: “It is like a needle dropped in a silent room; the sound is small but penetrating.” Such surprises arouse the curiosity of viewers to wonder the story behind. If a painting of a girl whose face is beaten and swollen, Xu is reflecting darker side of youth, the emotional struggle, the insecurity of young adulthood.
According to Freudian theories, the complex of “castration” is the prototype of female consciousness. The incomplete female body in Xu Hualing’s paintings seems to correspond to such primitive motive. In some of the works, the bodies are even unclear. The painter sometimes paints lace fabrics to cover the continued abandonment of the subject. Xu often sees two sides in a woman: relaxed but tired, excited but stressed, stressed about love and life, about social insecurity and uncertainty in modern marriage. Gender equality in modern Chinese society may bring greater stress. The women in Xu’s paintings feel very small, and insignificant, even helpless.
Capturing the Beauty of Body
Xu acknowledges that her artistry is influenced by western photography. Body parts are the themes of many photographic works, especially black and white photos. The artist usually takes photographs of her subject first before painting. Other times, she would download images from the internet as her inspiration. She believes that the beauty of the body is better presented in parts. By not revealing all to the viewer, the artist leaves significant ability of imagination and individual connection with the viewer. To Xu, painting parts of the torso alone is purer; the expression is more direct and extreme beauty can be achieved. They are snap shots of beauty. Only what is necessary for the beauty and sensation to come across are painted. Nothing more, nothing less.
Xu Hualing has been living in Beijing for the past two decades. From 2003 to 2012, she taught at the Beijing University of Technology, Art & Design College. She currently teaches at China Central Academy of Fine Arts, School of Chinese Paintings.
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