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Among the younger generation of artists who use painting as their primary medium, Wang Xiaoqu captures the viewer’s attention magically with her personalised logic of image-processing and a unique approach to the relationship between character, setting and narrative. She takes readily available images from the reality, the news and the Internet to create surreal scenes on the canvas; by distorting and rotating, she defamiliarised realistic images. During the two solo exhibitions at the AIKE Gallery in 2018 and 2021, Wang Xiaoqu creates an unforgettable sense of humour to the images through the absurd body deformation. Looking at Wang Xiaoqu’s paintings, the viewer perceives an urgency – it seems that the solidity of these realistic images attract the artist to intervene in reality and to disassemble and transform it.
Late 2021, having skilled her unique logic of image processing, the artist begins to explore more deeply the composition of images and the relationship of colour. In the Genealogy Study of Artists No.9 Wang Xiaoqu: Welcome presented by SSSSTART, Wang Xiaoqu tries to explore new ways of presenting images, starting from de-segmentsing the image as a whole. The composition of Diamond (2021) is the result of the artist’s repeated deconstruction and reconstruction of the original image: In Wang Xiaoqu’s mind, the bodies of Miss etiquettes are folded and spread out like playing cards, with subtle treatment of blue, yellow, grey and green colours, culminating in a diamond-like, multi-angled look. The disciplined body are squeezed against each other, forming a senseless rigidity. Sphinx (2017), The medal (2021) and Measure (2021), on the other hand, are attempts by the artist to find internal geometric relationships in the mountains, pyramids and human bodies. In recent years, her brush strokes have tended to be thinner and finer, and the fading materiality of oil paints has replaced by non-oil textures, such as marble, chalk, water marks, etc., it is in this way that she extends the richness of her paintings. The overflowing emotions of the figures, as in Yellow Balloon (2015), have been tempered, she leaves the outlines of the figures blank rather than filling in the content, even leaving traces of the charcoal pencil on the image. Using the frame as a boundary, she follows Cézanne’s idea that dealing with the compositional order of the image as the focus, embodying a painting artist’s ongoing study of form.
For Wang Xiaoqu, is the theme just scratching the surface? Welcome, the title of the exhibition comes from her imagination of the revolving door of the hotel in early years — Xiaoqu has been trying to dissect, deconstruct and reset the ready-made images from within the painting, and she likens this creative approach as a revolving door to question “what’s on the outside and what’s on the inside”. In Wang Xiaoqu’s work, form and subject are mutually reinforcing like revolving doors in a hotel during rush hour. The artist’s choice of images and subject cannot avoid the influence of the times. Wang Xiaoqu’s choice of pictorial vocabulary is a way for her to approach and represent the reality she is close to, not from a top-down but from a flat perspective. In this case, the playful and absurdistic treatment of the image’s structure gives the work its own integrity; the subject allows the imagined images to root into the earth and reflect the artist’s way of dealing with the realities. The two are nested within each other, aptly linking a complete loop that builds the rich readability of paintings.
In this new series of works in 2021, Wang Xiaoqu has experimented with large scale group portraits. The motif of group portraits is derived from group photos readily available on the Internet, which could be related to Susan Sontag’s observation in On Photography about the practice of private photo-taking in China, “…generally, what people do with the camera is assemble for it, then line up in a row or two. There is no interest in catching a subject in movement.” From the early work Greeting Pine (2018) to the two works in this exhibition, Find Focus (2021) and Diamond(2021), Wang Xiaoqu accurately captures the characteristic of group behaviour and psychology in Chinese group photo. As a result, the faces of the figures are presented in a blurred state, contrary to the traditional portraiture, and an infinite amplification of body language is created to enhance the reading, writing and portrayal of the characters’ subconscious. Wang Xiaoqu catches individuals’ pretension in the commemorative photo shoot. “I have collected many individual or group commemorative photographs from the Internet, all of which undoubtedly have the purpose of being shown to people. Gestures no longer belong to them, it is the body being viewed that becomes part of the landscape and environment.” As the sociologist George Herbert Mead suggests that acting is the essence of socialisation. The woman in the blue uniform in Diamond (2021) is folding her white gloved hands in front of her body and acting in accordance with the norms of behaviour required by the social role of Miss etiquettes, becomes a cog in a giant social machine. Without much prompting, the viewer can identify the specific social identity of the people in her paintings through a fixed paradigm. Wang Xiaoqu magnifies and exaggerates the physical gestures of the figures, pushing the alienation and discomfort of the socialised role to its peak and provoking intense dramatic conflict. Overall, the images, which appear to be driven by rhapsody, are in fact the result of the artist’s serious and realistic perspective on Chinese faces and bodies.
Thus, the fantastical expression and the realistic core form another exterior-interior relationship. This relationship can be traced back in literature to Kafka. InThe Metamorphosis, the salesman Gregor transforms into a worm, what beneath the absurd surface is the writer’s insight on how social order alienates human nature. The artist’s paintings also require the viewer to look beyond the trap of playful images to think about the artist’s expression of individuals and groups’ existence in society. In Serious Man (2021), for example, she imagines flowers as serious faces which stare intently at passers-by with creepy eyes. In the exhibition site, it is easy to see how the pansies with circular arrangement echoes the crowd seated around the conference table in Find focus (2021). Wang Xiaoqu metamorphoses and appropriates objects sensitively, mimicking small but tangible human sensations such as itching. Whether the subject is a human figure or an object, Wang’s work is closely related to portrait. She focuses on the subtleness of people’s mental states and personalities, reinforcing the sense of absurdity through exaggerated variations and overwhelming compositions. The ineffable ‘presence’ of the individual lurks beneath the body of the figure, touching the viewer’s individual experience. Therefore, although having realistic features, Wang Xiaoqu’s work is more like an ongoing extension of the images that people know from their memory, exuding the care and perception of the artist. The subtle details she perceives in the images provide an insightful portrayal of this world. She projects the collective dream, the social consciousness and order in her paintings. Figures in the paintings are bathed in a mixture of politics, culture and everything in between.
In the vein of Chinese contemporary art, Liu Xiaodong represents the figurative realistic style that takes group portraits as painting objects. His theme includes childhood friends as well as ordinary workers. Indeed, Wang Xiaoqu has repeatedly emphasised on the relevance of her chosen images to her personal experience. With a keen eye for realistic pictorial vocabulary, she intervenes in the complexities of society and expresses its upheavals. These realistic and still rustic images indicate the artist’s choice of subject – it does not cling to classical and traditional beauty, but draws energy from the overgrown and decadent reality. Like the popular cheesy mash-up videos, it represents a way of viewing and using images that uniquely belongs to this time. Wang Xiaoqu’s paintings resemble a game of images that nestle reality and imagination, they look light but are in fact powerful, and what beneath the playful images is the essence of the serious reality.