sheet 3 signed in Chinese and dated 2005.8
Xia Xiaowan's groundbreaking paintings established him in the early 1980's as the painter among the entire '85 New Wave generation most committed to exploring ideas of the self, humanism, and transformation. These compositions, multilayered narrative paintings that turn on assemblages of often writhing nude figures, hark to precedents in the Western painterly canon which Xia Xiaowan was then encountering, even as they manifest a unique, and uniquely haunting, vision of the self emerging from the primordial ooze of history and narrative. As knowing grafts of expressionist representational strategies onto classically grounded compositions, these works stand as some of the most complex and interesting fruits of China's first nationwide contemporary art movement.
Of course Xia Xiaowan, who graduated from the oil painting department of the Central Academy in 1982 among the first class admitted after the Cultural Revolution, has not rested on his laurels. In 2006, he mounted the first major showings of his "glass paintings" in rapid succession¿first as a featured attraction at the 2006 Shanghai Biennale (themed HyperDesign), then in a solo show at Galerie Urs Meile. These works, in which images are divided into component layers and painted separately onto layers of glass that are subsequently arranged into three-dimensional compositions, hover somewhere between painting and sculpture, endowed with a depth rarely possible in standard oil-on-canvas practice. As objects, they are as haunting as any of Xia Xiaowan's earlier compositions: viewed head on, figures rendered in this way appear to hover in mid-air behind glass like specimens on view at a natural history museum. The present work, "Old Man" captures the head of an anonymous, bearded septuagenarian as if sliced preserved in formaldehyde. The artist has himself written of this series that, "In spite of the differences in the techniques of creation [between painting and sculpture], they can both influence the human mind. The "solidity" of the space in sculpture and the "emptiness" of that in painting represent the human need for a comparatively complete space."
Certainly many were shocked to see a painter long committed to his art make this sudden turn of career. But Xia Xiaowan sees this as just another step in a long and evolving artistic practice. As he wrote in the manifesto that accompanied the first presentation of these works, "This is nothing but a re-application of principles of traditional realistic painting, from which I can accumulate some experience in how to make good use of and understand the fine tradition. As for whether this series can be called a work of art or not, I don't think I need to offer much explanation."
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