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Xu Suyi
All that is Solid Melts into Air

By Echo He, November 2, 2022

At a lecture given in 1938, artist Rene Magritte conjured a memory from his childhood at his family house in the Belgian province of Hainaut: "During my childhood, I liked to play with a little girl in the abandoned old cemetery of a country town, where I used to spend my vacations. We used to lift up the iron gates and go down into the underground vault. Once, after climbing back up to the light of day, I noticed an artist painting in an avenue of the cemetery, which was very picturesque with its broken columns of stone and its heaped-up leaves. He had come from the capital; his art seemed to me to be magic, and he himself endowed with powers from above."[1]

 

In retrospect, the macabre image of a little girl and a boy climbing into a graveyard where death is present and stumbling onto an artist's effort to record the somber landscape on canvas seems like a foreshadowing of the Surrealistic painters later creative output. Magritte was fascinated by spontaneous intimacy and the inevitability of alienation, suffocation, and death. The tense relationship between love and death is similarly examined poetically in Korean-born German philosopher Byung-Chul Han's book The Agony of Eros, in which Han considers the crisis of love in today's society.[2] The first chapter of The Agony of Eros enlists three creative works across different media – Lars von Trier's film Melancholia, Bruegel's painting The Hunters in the Snow and Wagner's opera Tristan ung Isolde – to depict the magical proximity between eros and death. As Han suggests, catastrophes that upend ordinary life tend to present opportunities for one to come into contact with the “wholly Other”. The imminence of death, then, offers the opportunity to escape from the self that has become burdened by the contemporary growth of narcissism and opens one up to the possibility of love.

Brooklyn-based contemporary painter Xu Suyi considers The Agony of Eros to be one of the most important theoretical bases for her work: "Since my early adulthood, I have experienced a longing for rigorous and profound experience, a reverence for something that you can sacrifice your life to... Han bears witness to the profanation of love in contemporary society where love is degraded into sexuality, and sexuality into commodities." Her work, in a way, seeks to understand and hopefully  resolve the crisis of love, which has been  threatened by the complete elimination of "others'' in our increasingly individualized and narcissistic society. "Today, love is being positivized into a formula for enjoyment....free from the negativity of injury, assault, or crashing."[3] The female protagonists in Xu's paintings are always on the threshold between longing and despair, pleasure and punishment. Fidelio (2021), a surrealistic portrait, is a direct response to Han's argument of love and suffering. Unlike a lot of contemporary artists born after the 1990s who draw inspiration from fast-paced social media or mass media news, Xu Suyi seeks ideas of image-making from classic sources - literature, philosophy, old master paintings, cinema, and fashion photography. She carefully titles her work in the hopes that the title will open up a string of additional visual references that engage in a dialogue with the painting that she created. A few years ago, Xu came across a runway photo of Vivienne Westwood from the Spring to Summer 1997 show Vive La Bagatelle, depicting  a blindfolded model dressed in a white gown. With hands tied at the back with a perky bow, her lips seem to be on the verge of a half smile. Feeling an inexplicable attraction to the image, Xu decided to translate the photo into a painting. To replace the runway backdrop, she decided to frame the blindfolded protagonist within the Great Hall of the Metropolitan Museum. As a self-described passive-aggressively atheist, Xu is reluctant to depict images with explicit religious implications. The Great Hall, with its monumental limestone façade, rows of freestanding columns bearing  saucer-shaped domes and arches that spring from enormous masonry piers, has served as the majestic main entry of The Metropolitan Museum of Art for more than a century. It's the closest equivalent Xu can appropriate for the lofty, religious atmosphere that the reference calls for in order to create a ritualistic stage. The title of the painting refers to Stanley Kubrick's last film Eyes Wide Shut (1999). The protagonist, a Manhattan doctor, embarks on a night-long erotic adventure and wanders into a mansion where the highest-ranked socialites gather to engage in satanic rituals and debauchery. Ironically, the password to enter the house is "Fidelio" (from the Latin root "fidelis" meaning "faithful"), the title of Ludwig van Beethoven's only opera. The opera tells the story of Leonore, a woman who disguises herself as a young man named "Fidelio" to save her lover. The painting, according to Xu, is "about sacrifice, about undercurrents of violence behind facades of beauty, and the fetishization of power in sex due to an ultimate lack of power."

Another painting featuring a female protagonist - A Woman Under the Influence (2021) is bigger than life-size. Xu refers to a runway photo of Balenciaga by Bruno Dayan (1997/1998). While immersed in her light-filled studio one summer, Xu felt an irresistible temptation to make figures with body and flesh proportionate to her own arms and hands. Juxtaposed against dark masses of opaque brown arched architecture, a woman is trapped in the center with closed eyelids. She is restrained by two disembodied hands, one resting on her nape and one reaching towards her throat from the air. Her destiny is in suspense. It is unclear as to whether her acceptance of her fate is a voluntary choice. The architecture in the image is also based on the Grand Hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Xu's first instinct is to frame the image within a chapel, to further complicate the provocation, but during her image search, she found a better alternative—-the Metropolitan Museum, a space that has the monumental quality of a cathedral where people came to worship—not at Gods, but art. According to Xu, to cite the runway photo from a fashion brand is an intentional appropriation of the original image sources: "What’s more satirical than framing the pop cultural reverie of Balenciaga within the Met Museum? A fashion photograph that is timely, campy, and self-aware versus an institution that is grand, monumental, and eternal. The met gala was just around the corner while I was working on this painting. The tension between old and new is everywhere in the time we live now; the painting is a dilation of the tension."

Xu has always held a strong interest in painting hands. She thinks of the hands as a stand-in for figures, halfway between the quotidian and the magical. Through a Glass Darkly (2021) reveals the loneliness and alienation of contemporary life through the hands of anonymous subway passengers on the metallic poles. Cupsize Pleasure III (2021) refers to a black and white photograph Memories (2012) by Daido Moriyama, as well as André Kertész’s Chez Mondrian (1926) and juxtaposes the splendor of a soft feminine hand reaching into a glass of water with a goldfish confined in the bottom with a distant view of staircases. However, Xu tries to deny herself the pleasure of painting flesh by rendering  the hands with an impersonal approach - they are translucent, genderless, and race-less. In All That is Solid Melts into Air, Xu depicts a pair of tightly clenched, translucent hands floating against a landscape suffused with distant, auroral light. The title comes from a memorable sentence from Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto. The original text reads as :”All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” It’s also the main title of a book by Marshall Berman, about modernism. Suyi Xu found this sentence in Linda Nochlin’s essay on Impressionism [4], and was intrigued by how Nochlin sways the quote out of its original context to serve her own musings. Xu would find a kindred spirit in James Elkins, who considers painters as contemporary alchemists: "Painting...takes place outside science and any sure and exact knowledge. It's a kind of immersion in substances, a wonder and a delight in their unexpected shapes and feels...Alchemists tried to give order to their nameless substances, and their names correspond to artists' colors and media."[5] In some of her most recent works, Xu attempts to remove the figures as an effort to further negate the importance of flesh. Consulting Lights (Study of Rembrandt/removing the figure) (2022) is a study after Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn's A Scholar in A Lofty Room ("Saint Anastasius") (1631). Xu removes the musing scholar from the canvas and allows the space embracing the figure to become the subject. In the end, the cave itself – brought to life with rays filtering through a curved window, shadows playing off the asymmetrical arch, and dust motes scattered on the rough ground – becomes the center of attention.

Xu believes in Baudelaire’s notion of art in The Painter of Modern Life: beauty possesses both an eternal, “invariable element” and a “circumstantial element” that reflects the contingencies of the time; a work of art should thus be both timely and eternal. She juxtaposes spaces, architecture, and interiors that negate time with imagery infused with contemporary sentiments. She draws historical references from Dutch golden age painters like Rembrandt, Johannes Vermeer, and modernist painters like Édouard Manet, and Edward Hopper while developing subject matter, compositions, and perspectives that are informed by contemporary culture. This is seen in an antique cinema that displays a crowded New York subway scene (Through a Glass Darkly, 2021), the Daru staircase in the Louvre leading up to a statue of a suffering figure(The Unwinged Surrender of Kneeling Youth, 2022) and a depiction of a corner of her apartment in Brooklyn (Consulting Shadows - Study of Hammershoi, 2022).

Through a Glass Darkly (2021) depicts an empty New York downtown cinema where the theatre screen shows a snapshot of a common commuter scene - several hands holding onto the metallic poles of a subway cart; they are in intimate proximity but carefully avoid touching each other. Xu borrows the perspective of Edward Hopper's New York Cinema (1939) and solicits a still life of a subway photo she found on Instagram by photographer @subwayhands. Xu infuses the alienation and solitude of quotidian contemporary existence with a tender and humanistic gaze.

 

Belladonna (2022) is a contemporary appropriation of Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim (1454–1456), a late-medieval masterpiece at Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp's collection. French court painter Jean Fouquet painted the work in the middle of the 15th century, yet it looks remarkably modern. The breastfeeding Virgin Mary is presented in a bold and surrealist fashion,  her features allegedly rendered after the likeness of Agnes Sorel, the mistress of the French King Charles VII. Xu carefully depicts a detailed view of the painting and places it at the curved dome of an imaginary architectural space inspired by the monumental Daru staircase at the Louvre. The 2200-year-old Winged Victory of Samothrace, one of the most famous statues at the Louvre, is notably absent from the grand empty hallway. Instead, a dauntless Virgin Mary, in place of the skylight, dominates the space and grasps the viewers' attention. The title of the work, Belladonna, is the female archetype in T. S. Eliot’s poem The Wasteland, which was written after World War I, and depicts an apocalyptic and hallucinatory view of modern existence (right after WWI). In one scene from the book, the “famous clairvoyant” Madame Sosostris performs an ominous tarot reading and declares: “Here is Belladonna. Lady of the rocks. Lady of situations.” Belladonna” means “beautiful lady” in Italian, with the connotation of Madonna (Madonna of Rocks as seen in Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting). Belladonna also refers to a poisonous plant that has been used as a medicine since ancient times. It is named “Belladonna” for the “beautiful women” of Renaissance Italy, who took it to enlarge their pupils, which they found more alluring.

In another work that appropriates the Daru staircase in the background, The Unwinged Surrender of Kneeling Youth (2022), Xu replaces the Winged Goddess of Victory with something more modern and sinister – a sculpture named Kneeling Youth by the Belgian Modernist George Minne. While the Goddess of Victory's wings are outstretched in triumph, the suffering male figure embraces his sinuous body so tightly that his arms overlap each other. According to Xu, the decision to use Fouquet's Virgin Mary and Minne's suffering youth to supplant the classic goddess is also a tongue-in-cheek critique of male gaze: "If John Currin, in his latest Gagosian show, could paint voluptuous women crammed in mannerist classical architectures, I want to paint a small suffering man in a grand empty hallway.” Upon the completion of Belladonna and The Unwinged Surrender of Kneeling Youth, Xu revisits the same subject on a smaller, more intimate scale. In order to paint in a way that "activates each space on the canvas," she decided  to remove the fixation on figures completely. Study of Ochre (2022) and Study of Violet (2022) are two small works on linen that reflect on the interior of the Louvre. Xu spares no effort in painting the color of each brick in the space with subtle variations in tones and hues. Surprisingly, viewers of her work keep telling her "the architecture has a bodily presence that looks like flesh."

Through her paintings, Xu Suyi brings us into a mystical world and gently closes the door behind us. Past this point, the artist's work is complete, and the rest can only be assimilated through the viewer’s experience and imagination.  Perhaps, on a cloudy day, as you wander alone into the European Sculpture court of the Mets, you will notice how the soft sunlight permeates the skylight to render the negative spaces between sculptures. Or perhaps, on a quiet evening, as you delve into sea caves, your eyes becoming gradually accustomed to the darkness, you catch a glimpse of the fluorescent constellations that rise from the caverns’ corners. Or perhaps, as you gaze upon your reflection in the mirror, you will notice how the light at dawn-break, bouncing off grey-blue waves and slipping through portholes, fills every crevice of your face and illuminates each of your wrinkles and scars. These moments will bring you back to the meditative spaces in Suyi’s paintings, to the stone bricks with flesh-like textures and the subtle shades of warm ochres, dusty pinks, muted reds, deep purples, grayish greens, and moody blues. Within the gaps between bricks, figures retreat as the artist swims merrily amongst abstract shapes and colors. Meanwhile, we can finally identify the rays of light that are contoured by the dust motes dancing within. Eros and Thanatos walk by each other—their encounter prescribed in light and dust in a space beyond time.

 

[1] Paquet, Marcel. René Magritte, 1898-1967: Thoughts Rendered Visible. Köln, Germany: Taschen, 1994: p. 11

[2] Han, Byung-Chul. The Agony of Eros. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2017.

[3] Ibid., 13

[4] Nochlin, Linda. "Morisot's 'Wet Nurse': The Construction of Works and Leisure in Impressionist Painting." In The Expanding Discourse: Feminism and Art History. New York: Routledge, 2018: 230–243.

[5] Elkins, James. What Painting Is. New York: Routledge, 1998: 220.

Thank you to: Angela Chang,  Kevin Wu, and Zong Xiao for your translation and editorial help.