Xu Xi Paints the World -- From Broadway to Siberia

Victor Forbes

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"People are wondering what future direction Chinese ink painting will follow. How Chinese painters can break through from the bondage of traditional Chinese paintings and add their own refinements to win world wide recongnition and appreciation is a goal I am sure I share with most of Chinese painters working today." -- Xu Xi

New York... The morning breeze, the neon-light-dressed skyskrapers, she is pretty. The museums, the libraries, and the world-renowned universities, she is deep and cultural. From point to point, New York is the center point that people coming from and going to any corner of the world would have to make a stop over to, she is aloft. The constant fast pace throughout the year and the forever jammed highways, she us busy and hard-working. The symphonies, rock and roll concerts that people can hear from music halls, theaters and playhouses at night, she is leisure. The Christmassy Time Square, holiday fire works and parades, she is festive. The shocking poverty, the high crime rate and the seemingly forever unresolved social problems, she is really shameful and sorrowful. With the Statue of Liberty, symbolizing human rights and freedom...guarding the habor, she is steadfast. New York...she is character that has a vast accumulation of attributes and complexities. -- Li Shan

The preceding words express, with compassion and eloquence, an affinity for and understanding of New York on wourld expect from a George Gershwin or a Damon Runyon. Ironically, they were composed by a person who has lived in New York for only four years -- Li Shan, a famous traditional painter born in Chin Tao in 1926-best friend and mentor to the artist Xu Xi who, in an equally short residence here, has transcended the stark reality of the cityscape into suites of paintings that glow with the touch of his teacher's enlightenment, passed on from one world traveller to another. Without such sensitivity, no matter how skilled the cratfsman, failure, or even worse, mediocrity, would be unavoidable.

From a pre-War apartment overlooking Brooklyn's Sunset Park where he resides, by combing elements of East and West with his own personal need to be both original and authentic, Xu Xi embraces the phiosophy of the Chinese poet who knew "Poetry is actually everything but the poetry itself."

Balancing an emotional affinity for his subject matter with a virtuoso's technique and the required discipline of a master, Xu Xi has gained a world wide following. Born in 1940 in Shaoxing in southeastern China, Xu Xi was trained for a career in the sciences. By the age of twenty, however, he shifted to art and two years later graduated from the most selective art school in the country (only one per cent of all applicants were admitted) the Zhejian Institute with the school's highest honor. At 22, he published a bold woodcut in the "People's Daily" newspapaer which was widely reprinted in China and beyond. With this bit of fame for encouragement, Xu Xi continued his studies with trips to local hospitals to better understand anatomy and, of course, many expeditions into the countryside for field sketches. The wanderlust has remianed with Xu Xi to this day and his fearless forays around the world have provided the artist with matterial for his life's work.

Before settling in New York, Xu Xi had been to the Alps, Northern Canada, "and even further away, to Siberia, for my snow pieces. I had been to Hong Kong, Vienna and Chia Ling Kiang for my theme of the night." While natural phenomen (as a yongman, Xu Xi was preparing for a life in the natural sciences)--rain, snow and night are recurring motifs in his work-- Xu Xi has ventured to Tibet with the resulting collection of paintings revealing the depth and universal feeling of the native inhabitants of that special land. In their first year in America (Xu Xi arrived here in 1989) they have travelled the nation and his paintings of a pastoral countryside contrast and complement his a well-known Manhattan scenes. While there are successful artists who find a safe harbor and stay with it for the sake of commerce--long-after any new concepts can be drawn from the subject-for Xu Xi it is not the actural physical or subject matter that is critical to his work.

"How to creatively convey my spirits into my painting has long been my desire," wrote Xu Xi in a recently published monograph. Though he speaks few English words, verbal communication with Xu Xi transcends simple language. An endless flow of ideas from Xu Xi are universally understandable--from an idea about a new painting to what to eat for lunch. Fortunately, Hong Yu is fluent in English and able to convey her husband's deepest thoughts to an interested party.

From his Brooklyn apartment, Xu Xi travels the world both physically (he is currently in Hong Kong where his work, at the Sotheby's Acution House, is selling for top prices) and ethereally, so that from his sketches and experiences, he can creat on rice papaer or canvas what his soul desires--moving pictures of a fleeting moment caught in time. "Only when I allow myself to walk in the pouring rain, can I then have my piece of rain done."

There have been thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of artists, who have sought to immortalize a thought or moment on papaer, canvas, woodblock or cave wall. "We had seen many paintings of green grass, streams and lakes before," remarks Mr. Lee. "But not until Monet's masterpieces were the vivid liveliness of such scenes evident in art. We had seen many forests, bushes and skies before. But only until Vincent van Gogh was the firing inferno via his daring adoption of color brought into the picture. Whe we examine the (Chinese) art history, there are only a few who stand out, who can hope to achieve what van Gogh and Monet did as the great masters."

How Xu Xi and Li Shan --two men from the other side of the world--can not only adapt to, but fall in love with, such a place, reveals much about what comprises a truly artistic nature. While most of the millions born here do take the island somewhat for granted, to Xu Xi and Li Shan, Manharttan becomes a livebeing--to Li Shan, Manhattan is "she"; to Xu Xi, his paintings are "My Story of Manhattan."

Xu Xi's current collection of work is a wrap-up and a starting point for him. At the height of his creative powers, Xu Xi paints the Hong Kong Harbor, an American field, a snowy village, a South China town and the Li River with equal grace. A personal identity is gleaned from traditional components, years of study and equal years of a rich cultural life. Before immersing himself in painting Manhattan, Xu Xi and Hong Yu spent all their spare time attending concerts, plays and art and ceramic exhibitions to "fan the flames of my creativity." The two are constantly exchanging insights from the fields of music and fine art, which not only inspire Xu Xi, but have interested Hong Yu in painting (she has already had two successful exhibitions in New York).

Time will tell whether it is Xu Xi's destiny to find a niche in the history boods beside the masters of the ages. Along the way, however, he is leaving strong imprint on the contemporary art scene. With boundless energy, a fervent desire to acheive and a sensitivity and knowledge that blends thousands of years of cultural tradition with the instant history of the modern world, Xu Xi is at the vanguard of an artistic link between an ancient culture and the age of sound bytes, color faxes and global warming. After a deep look at his paintings, is this not a comforting thought?

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