Bearing the weight of history, Chinese painters have gradually broken the bonds of tradition, pushed the boundaries of interpretation, and consistently rejuvenated an art form venerated for centuries. In China, the artist is revered as an intellectual, one who is both socially and intellectually responsible for the cultural and spiritual welfare of his or her people. Michael Sullivan writes that in Chinese painting, there is no such thing as pure formal beauty; art is inseparable from ethics and moral judgement. Like their contemporaries of the Cynical Realist and Political Pop movements, Xu Lei and Yu Hui represent a generation of painters whose choice of medium can be considered a political act in itself; as classically trained ink painters, they have embraced the past with subtle restraint and imbued their works with hidden meaning.
As a true contemporary literati and poetic scholar of Chinese art history, Xu Lei carefully presents a unique style that speaks to the world. Xu provokes his viewers with ideas of Surrealism in his paintings, but he is deeply rooted in the exploration of classical aesthetics typical of Chinese literati painting. By placing objects in unconventional and impossible contexts, Xu Lei infuses the ancient discipline with contemporary concepts of time and space, and provides simultaneous references to the past and present, reality and fiction.
The horse is a significant icon in Xu’s artistic lexicon, ranging from a delicate creature hiding behind sheer curtains to a virile beast exemplifying the power of Tang dynasty chargers. In Shattered Illusion (Lot 828), the horse is a metaphor of an unspoken Chinese literary tradition: the shadow of a white horse across a crevice symbolises the passing of time. As the white horse peers into a room with two empty chairs—alluding to the absence or recent presence of another protagonist—Xu’s lyrical depiction draws the viewer into a mysterious realm that conveys a transcendence of time and space.
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