‘CHINESE LIBRARY NO. 41’ Oil on canvas, 45 by 67.5 inches, by Xiaoze Xie, 2007.
Power and intellect don't need to be opposites but often appear locked in reciprocal suppression and propagation. Bates College Museum of Art shows an excellent selection of works by Chinese artist Xiaoze Xie in which he muses on this complex relationship.
"Xiaoze Xie: Amplified Moments (1993–2008)" was curated by museum director Dan Mills while he was still at Bucknell University, where his studio adjoined Xie's. The traveling show includes several series of paintings as well as photographs, ink drawings, installations, and videos. Born at the beginning of the Chinese Cultural Revolution in 1966, Xie's work has remained deeply affected by that loss of tradition, culture, and learning, which also makes it a timely comment on the present state of affairs in the US, where he has been living since 1992 (he now teaches at Stanford University).
The show begins with eight untitled photographs that capture individual books by major thinkers of the 20th century in mid-air, suspended in a selectively illuminated dark. The books are without solid context and barely recognizable as carriers of meaning, yet they capture light in the field of darkness as a not so subtle metaphor for the illuminating effect of learning. That is, in a nutshell, the theme of Xie's work in all media: the dissemination of knowledge and the power that comes with it (or vice versa), as well as the embattled state of intellectual learning.
The artist's strength clearly lies in his paintings, which are based on photographs he either found or took himself, but they are far from photorealistic. Xie uses photographs not only as mnemonic devices but also as a means of mediation, deliberately transferring photographic effects to his paintings.
The "Theatre of Power" series is based on news photographs of political world events, such as a Pentagon briefing or a meeting of Chinese leaders. Working in grisaille, Xie slightly blurs his images to focus on the underlying power structures revealed in calculated and meaningful spatial arrangements. Loss of power and individuality, on the other hand, are exemplified in "May 18, 2003, W.P. (Black Hawk)" (2008) by a multitude of lusciously liquid blobs to represent a throng of people respectfully and fearfully surrounding the helicopter.
Xie's paintings of stacks of folded newspapers, in close-up or in their entirety, Chinese or Western, highlight the fragmentary nature of the visual and verbal information they contain. Partial recognition places the paintings in time and metaphorically renders them obsolete at the same time. Time and life are continuously accumulated and supplanted. Similar suggestions of a vanitas theme pervade a variety of series centering on Chinese and Western books. These paintings formally monumentalize and use a restricted palette and stillness to incredibly beautiful atmospheric effect. As the books are showing signs of decay and neglect, and imagery dissolves into liquidity in some cases, the paintings become memento mori of learning about to disappear. It is unfortunate that Xie's paintings kept reminding me of specific series of Gerhard Richter's work, in this case of his images of candles, but the more obvious parallel is to his paintings based on news photos, including what Richter terms "Verwischung."