Modest piles of archived newspapers constitute the only subject matter in Xiaoze Xie's latest show of paintings. His previous work includes book bindings, gilt frames and other objects, but for this show, the newspaper is the sole subject. Working from photographs taken in libraries in the US and China, Xie enlarges the familiar, handholdable size of the daily news to a superhuman scale, the canvasses each measuring several feet wide. His work is characterized as being "poised at the threshold between pure painterly abstraction and photo-realistic representation1," focusing on small details of the objects he depicts and rendering them in a fresh and provocative manner.
There are references that his previous work deals with "censorship and the struggle for free expression2" and the like, but for this current series, history is the dominant theme; the cataloging, archiving and preserving of news and events is documented and contemplated in Xie's calm, sensuous style.
July 2001, A.J.C is typical of the series. A pile of broadsheet3 newspapers, in this case the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, are each labeled by hand with the date of publication in red marker. The news is serious, with keywords like "dies amid," "G8 chaos" and "crisis" emphasized. Interestingly, a search of both the Journal-Constitution and the Associated Press did not find the lead story depicted for 21 July. While it's probably a bit "conspiracy theory," wouldn't it be interesting if in fact Xie is manipulating the news, playing with the "factual" photograph? It is certainly something worthy of a bit more research.
A painting of a pile of old papers can be funny as well. Whether purposeful or otherwise, in July 2001, H.P. the headlines that happen to fall on each fold can be concatenated to read, top-to-bottom, left-to-right: "Longtime city rabbi D. Silver ... is 'terrific' ... in sordid saga..." The fragmentary nature of modern media--headlines and soundbites-- is perhaps being satirized and used to underline a point about how easily "news items" can be manipulated by the media institution. By painting only the folded edge of the newspapers- he could certainly have laid them out in a grid and painted them from above-- the already fragmented stories are reduced again. A day's history is pared down to a three digit label and an inch-high sliver of type or photograph.
|November-December, 2001, S.J.M.N.|
Most blatant in emotional content, September-October 2001, N.O.T features an "extreme close up" shot of four newspaper edges, dated with large adhesive labels bearing the dates "10-7," "9-23," and "9-16." 9/16 shows a pile of flowers, 9/23 a sea of American flags and 10/7 a group of armed men standing around a tank. In their original context, these images served as documentation of that days' events, but in this abbreviated, fragmented context they become a shorthand for human experience and triggers to one's personal memory of events. Also, in these pieces only the body text is readable; headlines are absent. If the photographs are not obvious enough, "Afghan," "American military" and "Taliban" stick out of the text block, which covers a smaller proportion of the canvas than in the others.
|March-May 2002, Shanghai #6|
On the other hand, the Chinese newspaper paintings, the April-May 2002, Shanghai series, are absent of the large, easily discernable headlines and photojournalism of their American counterparts, and therefore are devoid of obvious emotional content. Even being able to read Mandarin, one would not be able to make out more than a phrase or two; the absence of signifiers of date, context, or any photographs emphasizes the anonymity of these newspapers. Only the vague dates (of the paintings themselves) give a clue as to what the content of the stories may be. Earlier work is described Xie's Chinese subjects as "seen in the context of political and physical pressures: pulled down off their shelves and destroyed in a feverish call for change, or left to decompose from usage and time 4," and this series is, in contrast, rather sedate.
In these works, it seems that subtle and astonishingly elegant rendering and interesting lighting and focus effects are the primary subject matter. Each folded paper is rendered distinct from all the others, yet the depth of field is extremely shallow, mimicking the photograph from which the work was painted.
Preservation and archiving are key ideas discussed in these works as well. While the experience documented on the pages of the newspaper is preserved for posterity in the "official repository5 of the library, the piles of humble newsprint seem decidedly fragile, as if they've been left to die on a dusty shelf. "The vanitas-like composition6" emphasizes this fragility. Also, since Xie operates by first photographing, then painting from the photograph, he has taken up the role of archivist himself by replicating the archive by both mechanical and handcrafted means; the permanence of the newspaper is multiplied by the somewhat redundant, literal transcription from library shelf to canvas.
While the content of these paintings is certainly interesting to contemplate, the combination of traditional/Classical/Dutch/Baroque lighting and composition, magnified scale, and abstract/photo-realistic rendering make a humble, forgotten pile of newspapers left to rot seem more Important and worthy when they are given their own historical record: the large-scale oil painting.
Notorious for his 1995 work Myra, a portrait of child murderess Myra Hindley featured in Sensation, Harvey's current show takes up Xie's bent towards still life and history as well and paints in similar style, yet with radically different subject matter. Five works are shown, just down the block from Xie's show.
|Detail, Morning / Coffee Table|
Morning/Coffee Table (2001), one of three still lifes in this show (there are also two mediocre figural works), documents the events of an (apparently) noteworthy evening; the remains of a pizza, empty glasses of wine, handcuffs and a plethora of rather hilarious sex toys litter the bland wood-grain coffee table's surface. Morning/Tabletop (2001) relies on much the same stock of obscene props, but in this case, the view is frontal, with the viewer on the same level as the tabletop (unlike the overhead shot in Coffee Table), allowing the toys to stand upright (as it were) to make a forest of phallic plastic. The references to food and drink are present in this piece as well, with a pile of dirty plates, empty beer cans and wine bottles populating out the large, horizontal (78" x 192") canvas.
Dildos shaped like vegetables coexist in a pleasant harmony next to a bowl of real fruit; black anal beads cast a strong shadow on a slip of paper. A stark white, gun-handled dildo directs the eye to the center of the composition in Tabletop: a festive rabbit-shaped toy filled with brightly colored beads, placed directly in the center of the canvas.
|Morning / Coffee Table|
The compositional and surface quality of these still lifes is ornate, almost Baroque. Chardin's Attributes series of horizontal, crammed with objects still lifes come to mind; both artists take great pains to make these "found" arrays of disparate stuff fit standard definitions of good composition. Harvey includes objects for the sake of flexing his painting skill: the intricate lace tablecloth in Tabletop and the strongly-lit corrugated cardboard of the pizza container have no specific purpose other than to prove technical prowess, another traditional attribute of the Academic still life. We may even be able to carry the comparison further, describing the elements as a sort of allegory on life: food, drink, sex- primal, elemental human need and desire represented by modern (decadent?) signifiers.
Third in the series has a more voyeuristic tone; the view is inside the top drawers of a dresser, overflowing with lingerie and the same sex toys- handcuffs, the gun-shaped phallus, etc. While the objects are much the same and the work is just as carefully composed, the implication here is that the owner of these objects may not want everyone to see, as the drawers can be closed and the contents hidden away from view, whereas the tabletops are set squarely in a somewhat more public space.
Two other works accompany the three still lifes, Small Door and Large Door, but they are drowned out by their more blatant and titillating counterparts, and while Harvey's work is not especially significant in a broad sense, but the show was certainly an interesting contrast to Xie's show, which I viewed just prior to Harvey's.
Both artists show how painting can indeed survive after Modernism. While it could probably be argued that using the Classical/Dutch/Baroque idiom with new subject matter- newspapers with hundreds of pages and photographs and plastic dildos are certainly 20th century innovations- is derivative or kitschy, these two painters show that realism is a legitimate form. The photographs upon which they are based similarly would not have the impact of the hand-painted canvasses; without the sensuous, semi-photo-realist rendering, all of these works would certainly be boring, and it is this relationship between the artist and the technical quality of painting in a realist mode that makes these works truly interesting.
2 http://www.absolutearts.com/artsnews/2000/05/21/26983.html 3It is important to note that he does not paint American tabloid-format newspapers, as the headlines and photos would not be seen, as is the case with the Chinese papers in this show.
3 This is important, as views of tabloid-style papers wouldn't show headlines.
6 Davidson Gallery, as above.