Gallery: Art Supermarket
Opening / Event Date: 21 Nov, 2019
Closing / End Date: 30 May, 2020
Tang Contemporary Art is thrilled to present Xie Nanxing’s solo exhibition “Someone’s Portrait” at its Hong Kong gallery, curated by Cui Cancan. The exhibition features seven works from the artist, including three works on paper and four oil paintings from his Someone’s Portrait series. The exhibition focuses on Xie Nanxing’s portraits for the first time in the form of case studies, exploring the methods of his artistic practice, the source of his understanding and creation to demonstrate his concept of the ‘portrait’ and how they come to form through personal choice and reflection.
Conversation between Cui Cancan and Xie Nanxing | Date: May 10, 2016
Cui Cancan (CCC): When did the series Someone’s Portrait begin?
Xie Nanxing (XNX): The three works on paper from 2007 were portraits of a few of my friends. I used my perceptions and opinions of them to shape spatial dislocations and formal distortions and simplifications, then I blended these elements into the stories behind these three works. It was only later that I discovered that all of this unconsciously inspired the narrative elements in my paintings. It was an inadvertent starting point, a flash of inspiration, but then I discovered that this flash of inspiration had substance, and was something very essential. These three works are the earliest in this portrait exhibition. They are almost primal, and they have influenced many of my later works.
CCC: What is this narrative about?
XNX: The narrative itself doesn’t have a lot of meaning; it is simply a thread woven through my work, which naturally links to a number of themes. For example, these works on paper suggest the posture of the figure, the composition of the image, and my attitudes toward certain ideas.
CCC: How does your form of expression differ from the portraits of the past?
XNX: The basis of traditional portraiture is the modeling of a figure and the depiction of that figure’s attire and personal traits. Most often, the subjects are given a role to play, and even placed within a specific context. By highlighting this “profile” view, you can convey a conception of portraiture. The direct depiction of a subject gives you a portrait of a specific person and an atmosphere, or conveys specific symbols. However, my portraits come from knowing my friends, and understanding their unpredictable traits, their personal stories, or even their encounters with certain parts of life. The most outrageous possibility is that I might include my preconceived notions about that person. All of these things become part of a portrait, part of a multi-faceted prism.
When looking at this prism, I may be the only one who is clear on the stories and rumors it contains, so it’s difficult to see the universality of my portraits. However, when a painting is comprised of personal traits, it actually strengthens the universality of the image. Viewers will understand it, because it’s not complicated; it’s actually very clear and direct, with a sense of form. For me, this is a rather strange and unique way of understanding formal issues. I want to paint the things that were not visible in earlier portraits, including the subject’s air: his jealousy, his anxiety, and a number of other things that are not visible in more direct portraits.
CCC: Is the point of your methods to represent a possibility outside of traditional portraiture?
XNX: Yes, like a gatefold. On the surface, all you see is the cover, but when it is pulled open, it could extend forever. When portraits break through this cover and you see how it extends, I think that it really moves toward something beyond the visual.
CCC: Is this method something you created?
XNX: I don’t know; I hope so, but it’s possible that other people have used this method.
CCC: Relative to our past experiences of portraits, these very personal, emotional methods present the audience with an immense barrier to understanding. Viewers may be drawn to the abstract aesthetics of the works, but the paintings themselves contain a lot of specific information. Conceptually, you cut off a viewing method that was effective in the past, and you also inspire doubt in your viewers. Have you purposely created barriers to viewing?
XNX: Yes, because I think that nothing is truly effective. Only when you engage with a method and give others the chance to understand it can it truly have an impact. The many portraits that have emerged in the course of history feature various beautified Others with all kinds of faces. Since the advent of Modernism, portraits have changed, but they are still related to a person’s form and the direct description of their character. If this isn’t done, you may not be able to see the connection to the portrait. But in this series, anyone can become someone’s portrait. Since people don’t know who this person is, why would I tell them? The portrait can have broader meaning, or it can have a very exclusive one.
CCC: So, how do you choose this information about your friends and incorporate it into someone’s portrait? How do these impressions become visual forms in the paintings?
XNX: This process is very characteristic of the artist; it’s the most mysterious part, so I don’t think we can begin to understand it. Sometimes it’s a flash in your soul, and sometimes it’s an impression from a casual reference to some object, so it’s very hard to replicate.
CCC: When your Someone’s Portrait series is shown all together, you still get an impression of style and sense the logical relationships between these “profiles.” However, each individual piece has a different flash point, inspiring impermanent, momentary, and ineffable emotions.
XNX: These portraits may unconsciously incorporate this inspiration. Inspiration covertly overtakes my ideas and presents them in a very simple and relaxed way. Sometimes I can’t follow them; I can only see their tails.
CCC: Compared to your other portraits, your portrait of Na Buqi is very figurative, rather like a portrait in the traditional sense. What place does this piece have in the series? What different sort of information is it meant to convey?
XNX: This exhibition contains a total of seven paintings. Six of them reveal the subject’s personal circumstances, materials, and states from other aspects of the portrait; they are imaginative presentations of “knowing” someone. The painting of Na Buqi is a special exception. At the very beginning, I wanted to use it as source material for further modification. But as I painted, I discovered that I couldn’t change it, because I had captured the unique characteristics of the person within the painting itself. In that moment, you realize that direct portraiture sometimes has its charms, and you can’t simply ignore it. Portraits play such an important role in painting because they are very much related to the artist’s instinctive duties and some of the artist’s most essential modes of expression and understanding. My “profile” portraits can only be constructed within a conceptual framework, because they can never be representational. This portrait of Na Buqi was just right, and you cannot avoid the aesthetic associated with depicting a subject in a painting. I’m very interested in this idea, and it’s sometimes more accommodating than your more interesting ideas are.
CCC: Yes, when this portrait is placed with the other works, they collectively constitute a way of understanding portraiture.
XNX: Six pieces in the exhibition are all related to the formula of this individual portrait. In particular, the three paintings on canvas are the planar representation of a single person. The three works on paper represent imagination; they are the combination of exaggerated forms and the plane of the image created in my mind. In the end, that portrait of Na Buqi was very direct. I think that if you see this exhibition from beginning to end, you’ll discover this intermediate connection: one is a true portrait, while a few others are more like QR codes for portraits.
CCC: Compared to your last exhibition, what different kinds of logic and information does this show present?
XNX: My previous exhibitions featured a number of works, with three different series of works. I purposely disrupted their order; the portraits would be scattered through three exhibition spaces, and from this arrangement, it may have been difficult to discern the connections between them. This exhibition formally presents my Someone’s Portrait series all together. A clearer study of this series presents a uniting thread, the minute differences between the pieces, and my understanding of the genre of portraiture.