Xie Nanxing Paintings: 1992-2004, Timezone 8, Beijing, China, 2004, p. 14
Xie Nanxing Paintings: 1992-2008, Timezone 8, Beijing, China, 2008, p. 82
Throughout his core body of work produced between 1998 and 2006, Xie Nanxing a set of techniques of obfuscation that allow his work to tend ultimately towards the abstract: in this pursuit of obscurity, he creates a catalog of devices ranging from clouds and fog to blurred vision, almost all of which are tied to the potential for dysfunction tied to lens-based media. What is significant about Xie's attempts at abstraction, however, is that they never fully succeed, at least not in this stated goal. Instead, the viewer is always presented with a plane of the sensible—quite literally, in the form of a broad expanse of paint and affect—that attempts to withdraw from sight, pulling back the lines and traces it may have once offered in order to remain unknown. These paintings slide towards a cliff of invisibility, entering a border zone in which the work seems to collapse in on itself like a gravitational force. It never seems to be the case that Xie consciously constructs an image from the inside out; instead, he begins with a particular perspective and then watches as it consumes itself, leaving behind only the traces of smoke and melted visual matter.
One might call Xie Nanxing's approach to the degradation of the image a sort of speculative abstraction, depending somewhere on the existence of an object buried somewhere behind the portion of the image actually accessible to the viewer on the surface of the painting. Untitled No. 8 (Lot 169) presents one such case: beginning with a distinct image of some sort, specific objects are visible within the frame, including a pair of glasses, a string or chain, and stains approaching the color of blood. The source is clearly photographic, as demonstrated by a large white point of glare directly at the center of the composition, but this technical background merges with the washed out coloration and blurred brush stroke to constitute a field of ghostly effects. Beginning with the photographic decomposition—an error of image production—at the center, the work begins to consume itself, concrete objects disappearing back into an undifferentiated mass of possible interpretation. Untitled No.11 (Lot 168) continues the same narrative arc through the fragmentation of documentation, depicting a frontal male nude with wounds on his crotch and torso almost obscured by what seems to be a yellow rose in the extreme foreground. In this case it is the flower that captures the glare of the absent camera, and this point from which the work seems to fade into abstraction through obscurity.
Such a technical imaginary, providing spectral support for an abstraction that is not entirely reducible to anti-figuration, can be traced back to some of Xie Nanxing's earliest work, including most notably a series of paintings depicting dirty figures with almost comically exaggerated musculature, situated within visual contexts that could only be described as literary. In Family Theme: Quartet No. 4 (Interior Kitchen) (Lot 167), for instance, the work is centered on a half-naked male figure whose torso is largely obscured by a plucked chicken carcass that he holds up in front of him. Here the viewer will locate an element of humor largely lacking in the dry perspectival tragedies of the artist's mature work, but the approach to representation and its failures remains intact: looking into the painting, the viewer seems to be looking out through a peephole, as the entire composition is contorted as if seen through a fisheye lens. Already the presence of the lens stands directly and unavoidably between content and reception, allowing for the possibility of illegibility that ironically exists only in the tools of vision. The glass face of the self-abstracting canvas has yet to appear. The lens defines space, but is not yet troubled by clouds of moisture, superficial scratches, and forgotten lens caps.
Such early work, though purely representational, presages Xie Nanxing's turn toward an unlikely abstraction in two ways: aside from preparing the canvas for the problematic of the lens that will soon intervene, it also sets the stage for a new form of illegibility based not only on invisibility but also on absurdity. In his most recent work, roughly spanning the period from 2007 to 2011, the artist has ceased to allow his paintings to swallow themselves, refusing to introduce elements of pictorial failure prior to working through the image with his own hand. Rather, in several mature series, Xie has brought forth a form of abstraction based on the construction of the image, carving it out of substance rather than delimiting it from without. The cryptic functions as an analogue of the absurd, as the art historical reference, the visual non sequitur, and the uncanny object all appear at once: his paintings have begun to quote themselves, appearing through craft rather than coincidence. This is a form of abstraction altogether distinct from that that appeared between 1998 and 1999; the work is now dominated by a turn towards the severe. In this case the abstract remains but the tools of abstraction have disappeared, as the painter now seeks to produce his ghosts rather than catch them by happy accident on the edge of conscious vision.
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