On a hazy Saturday afternoon, Beijing’s 798 Art Zone feels like a small city center, buzzing with activity. There’s a refreshing excitement for art in the air. Chinese contemporary painter Xie Qi has agreed to meet in a coffee shop opposite UCCA to discuss her latest series of oil paintings, Clavicle.
“The themes I like the most are the big ones in life—tragedy and comedy together,” says the artist. Xie has been exploring the use of light and the human figure for years, giving her work a quality that’s both spectral and corporeal. For Clavicle, she added a new layer of drama by depicting the human body in various natural poses illuminated by expressive bands of light. The artist sees the clavicle as a line between portraiture and figuration, an axis holding the surrounding parts into focus.
在一个天气朦胧的周六下午，北京的 798 艺术区感觉就像一个缩小的市中心，人声鼎沸，热闹非凡，空气中弥漫着一股因艺术而生的兴奋气息。中国当代画家谢其此时正在 UCCA 尤伦斯当代艺术中心对面的咖啡馆里，讨论着她的最新油画作品系列《锁骨》（Clavicle）。
Xie moved from Chongqing to Beijing more than 20 years ago to attend the Academy of Art and Design at Tsinghua University. She often wonders why she hasn’t left the city yet, especially since rocketing studio prices are making it increasingly hard for artists to support themselves. But she says the difficulties are worth it: “Comfortable is not good for art. Beijing relates directly to my work, and here I have to keep things simple.” Besides, she adds, the city gathers open-minded people from all walks of life, such as her friends, many of whom are her subjects for Clavicle.
Her process for this series began with setting the lights and photographing her subjects. “This was a moment different from ordinary life,” she says. “We could feel each other.” Based on the photos, she then drew on the canvas, paint the first layer, wait several days for it to dry, and then paint the second layer. It took her years to complete the entire series.
One of the most fascinating portraits is the profile of a man with a fearful expression, only partly visible in the ethereal darkness. Xie met the subject, French Lacanian psychoanalyst Michel Guibal, during an art residency in Paris. Guibal trained the very first school of Chinese students of Lacan. When Xie Qi took his photograph, he was ill and bedridden, but that didn’t prevent him from sitting for her. He passed away shortly thereafter.
One might say that there is a psychological analysis behind Clavicle, as if the paintings were a direct representation of the mental state of the subjects. The artist, however, maintains that the identity and narrative of her subjects were never important to her—the body was not a means to an end; it was the actual end. “Appearance and shape, observed from different angles, are truly the main points,” she explains. “But of course there is always something behind it.”
Xie’s dramatic use of light also powerfully conveys emotions. “The lights put the subjects on a stage, connoting a certain predicament or dilemma,” she notes. For her recent show in Shanghai, she expanded this use of light outside the canvas, with an installation of neon lights that immerses the audience in her world. She had the idea after learning that the gallery space had previously been a massage parlor and front for a brothel. She plays with the sordid history of the building, adding a new layer of lechery to the exhibition.
The Clavicle series is a breakthrough for the artist. She will soon release a catalog of the exhibition containing all the artworks. Given the explicit nature of the content, she’ll have to find an independent publisher, yet she doesn’t seem bothered much by this fact. “As an artist,” she says, “I have to find a way.”