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Xu Yang; Combinatory Play — Performance and Painting

Xu Yang; Combinatory Play — Performance and Painting

Lucy von Goetz


Xu Yang’s studio is brimming with treats, a palace of intricate narrative-laden paintings.


The materiality and surfaces of Xu’s paintings are tangibly delicious. Tempting. You want to have the objects depicted; to feel the goods on display. Her use of oils has been described as having “twists” and “creaminess”, which it does. The brushstrokes and worked layers are an eighteenth-century cake, so satisfyingly lavish you could never cut a slice. You want it to remain pristine, exuding its inviting flavours into the room.  


Away from the cakes and puddings of paintings, Xu experienced a shift in context, culture, and setting that feeds into her work. In a nod to her history and earlier self, a lot of her paintings feature intimate objects from her childhood in China. These esoteric markers are placed in contrast to symbols of her new surroundings, creating a candid dialogue between two realities. Xu’s China-specific visual language acts as a knowing smile to her family and the life that ultimately shaped who she has cultivated herself to be. These interior footprints are an acknowledgment and appreciation of a unique time. With Xu’s explanation the works open with depth and richness. The flower Xu depicts in many of her artworks represents her father’s farming. Xu told me that his horticultural skills need sharpening, as it’s very rare for his plants to blossom on his plantation. There are also dumplings, dates, fans, teapots, and teacups. If you look at the three swallows in the backdrop of “All I Ever Wanted Was to Find A Love I Never Knew”, they fly as symbols of Xu and her parents.


Xu’s life-size self-portraits are breath-stopping. Her Tate Collective commission is a work of total confidence and clever queries. Xu dresses and sets the composition for her self-portraits in real life, before turning the created image into a painting, connecting the construction of her work to performance.


Xu’s vocabulary of painting oscillates between and within the performative and painting, renegotiating the relationship between the private and the public. Using varied and numerous referents the works deploy a scope of self-possession, with an amalgam of signs and messages. The work is at once introverted and specific, open and libertarian. In either instance, Xu avoids influencing us with any preordained design of which prevails over the other; the personal or the municipal. The final integrity of the works sits within their layered, distinct influences and reconnaissance. Not only do the symbols sing in piano, but the performative elements that anticipate the paintings endure within the finished canvases. These paintings are bold and delicate simultaneously. Einstein considered “combinatory play” the essence of creativity. The thought of two things that merge, mutually altering each other, two things that, intermingled and interactive, become one thing, gives way to the nature of intimacy and that which is found in Xu’s work. All identity is combinatory.


Art history professor, Jonah Westerman examined the history of the term “performance” in his essay, The Dimensions of Performance. Westerman considered how the category of performance came to encompass so many kinds of artistic production. Challenging and drawing into question the notions of performance that seek to define it as a medium or genre and argued instead that performance is an interrelated set of questions concerning how art relates to its audiences and the wider social context.


Xu starts her works in a theatrical but private clearance. The only eyes that might witness this process are those of Victoria Cantons, her partner in and outside of the studio. Xu’s self-portraits are catalysed by her performative staging before a brush touches the canvas. This is an exploration of created notions of femininity and the dedication that feeds that effort, as well as a commentary on drag and what the action of dressing and layering has on a cultivated and deliberate identity.


Cindy Sherman and Jack Smith have used the face and body as a surface in their work, the skin as canvas. They often use make-up when dealing with gender role-play. Bold makeup is a constant in Xu’s self-portraits, drawing on historical portraiture, identity, drag, and the idea of the stage set.


The other two large self-portraits in the studio are not currently available for public viewing. Xu wants these to sit and percolate into future works. Two monumental guardians of the studio. One is in dialogue with historical portraiture and the other sits in reimagined Greek mythology. When they are shown they will sing with plenitude and faculty.


Xu spoke of her history, which helped to understand her practice in greater fullness and nuance. She spent her first eighteen years in the Shandong province of China inside the one-child policy and a traditional conservative home. Xu’s mother runs her own central-heating and air-conditioning shop. Her father, a businessman, also worked supporting her mother in the running of the family business. Originally from an agricultural background, Xu’s father started farming some of his own land about a decade ago, realising a deep-rooted love of nature.


Xu explained that while growing up she painted at every opportune moment. From an early age she had private art tuition at weekends and went on to study in a painter’s studio for three years before coming to England. It was this painter who first introduced Xu to the Western canon of art, particularly the Impressionists: he himself having studied in England.


Once in England, Xu found in her initial pursual that the grand homes of this new country had something to query. Seeing the portraits hung in these seductive spaces Xu started to reflect on how women had historically been portrayed in these works, both generally and specifically within stately residences. The setting made a difference for Xu. The esteem attached to what is chosen for these lofty and historic walls changes how the viewer sees the painting. Xu always gives her subjects a world to inhabit within the frame of the canvas, and places figures who would never be found in the galleries of these houses into their own noble settings.


Xu’s paintings are opulent, rich, and commanding. There are still-lifes with Rococo style wigs, jewellery, adornments, crowns. Pets from Chinese dynasties. Huge dresses and lush fabrics. These are the tools and decorations that Xu positions as early drag. An extrapolated statement to the now, considering the received views of how women should behave and be seen. Xu sees dress-up as an expression of fantasy, then and now. There is a quiet and oft dismissed soft power in the feminine cultivation of identity.


The subtle connections and the distribution of dissonance allows us insight into a considered, abundant odyssey. Xu operates in the role of the artist as a pathfinder towards a dialogue about the weighted questions she posits. Xu does this through her singular lens with an evident resonance, for an audience that she consciously considers when making her works. The artist is expected to be an essentially divided entity — hunting for an impossible wholeness. Xu’s paintings are yearning with that torn element in so much of life. The poet and writer, Hermann Hesse wrote in his book, Steppenwolf in 1927 that; “Many artists… have two souls, two beings within them. There is God and the devil in them; the mother’s blood and the father’s; the capacity for happiness and the capacity for suffering; and in just such a state of enmity and entanglement towards and within each other as were the wolf and man.”

Centrefold (To Desire Being Desired)

Oil on linen

140 x 80 cm, 2024

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