Painter Xie Yousu (谢友苏) left a deep impression on an audience of art lovers after presenting his works at China Institute during a Renwen Society lecture early last month. Consisting of a series of figurative paintings rendered in traditional Chinese ink on paper, his seemingly traditional paintings are ingeniously mixed with a variety of contemporary elements.
One of the most unique aspects of Xie Yousu’s works is his combination of style and subject matter. Xie’s use of ink on paper alludes to traditional Chinese paintings, a medium known to have been used in China since the third century B.C. or earlier. Much of the objects and compositions of Xie’s figures remind in particular of traditional paintings from the Tang Dynasty period (618-907), when painting underwent important advancements in technique and style and reached a pinnacle in the “painting of people” (人物画).
In most traditional Chinese art, figurative painting has always been “lacking”, in the words of Renwen Society co-chair Ben Wang, who spoke at the end of the artist’s lecture. Mr. Wang’s remark was especially insightful. Chinese painters have indeed had the tendency to highlight the importance of landscape, rendering the human figure tiny and undefined in comparison, if at all present. While in Tang Dynasty paintings figures are depicted more frequently, most of the subject matter focused on religious or court scenes. Xie Yousu seems to make a point at filling this gap in Chinese painting by making the everyday lives of ordinary people central to his works, not only emphasizing the unique features of his figures, but the relationships between them.
Both Xie’s family background and his close attachment to his hometown Suzhou have been key influences in his work. First and foremost, Xie Yousu was born into a family of artists. His mother, Liu Shuhua (刘叔华), was an artist, and father, Xie Xiaosi (谢孝思), was a famous calligrapher, painter, and preservationist. In fact, Xie Xiaosi played such an important role in preserving Suzhou’s historical gardens and cultural relics that an asteroid was named after him by the Committee for Small Body Nomenclature (CSBN) of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in 2014. Secondly, Suzhou is referred to as China’s historical “capital of art,” and is world-famous for its ancient architecture and Classical Gardens (Yuanlin 园林), many of which are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Xie Yousu deliberately makes use of imagery typical to the landscape and culture of the region. In Cricket 《蟋蟀》, a young boy wearing open-crotch pants (kaidangku 开裆裤) exposes his bare behind to the viewer while closely watching the elderly open lidded boxes to inspect their pet crickets. In Wonton Stand《馄饨担子》, we see a stand made of bamboo — also known as a “camel stand” (luotuodanzi 骆驼担子) because of the camel-like shape that carriers resemble when lifting the stand onto their shoulders –used to sell goods on the streets of Suzhou. Luotuodan are relics of China’s past, but kaidangku can still be seen today.
One of the most striking characteristics of Xie’s paintings are his frequent depictions of the elderly, and their interaction with their surroundings, whether at play or at rest. Drowsy Weather 《困人天气》 depicts an old man dosing off under a tree, his book having slipped to the ground beneath his feet, and a pot of tea left unattended on a tree stump. When noting the two butterflies fluttering above the old man, a viewer familiar with Chinese philosophy cannot help but think of “The Butterfly Dream” (庄周梦蝶), in which the famous philosopher Zhuangzi doses off under a tree and dreams of becoming a butterfly. Much like Zhuangzi, the old man in Xie’s painting may be contemplating about life and existence, and may soon awaken to wonder whether he had been dreaming of being a butterfly, or whether the butterfly may be dreaming about being him.
To a Western viewer, Xie’s focus on the figure may seem more familiar, as figurative subject matter has been more common in Western painting than in traditional Chinese painting. As a matter of fact, prominent American author, painter and illustrator, Norman Rockwell, had enormous influence on Xie Yousu’s work.
Xie was first exposed to Rockwell’s works in the 1980s, a time in which China opened up to the West after decades of isolation. Xie was inspired by the new imagery and ideas in western artworks. They prompted him to develop his own signature style of merging the western concept of depicting everyday lives of ordinary people with the style of traditional Chinese ink. Although Xie weaves in elements of Chinese tradition and folklore, including cultural activities and objects unique to the city of Suzhou and the design of Suzhou’s famous Classical Gardens, such as traditional wooden furniture, blue and white porcelain, and scholar’s rocks (供石), there is something inherently contemporary about his paintings. Xie’s characters are exaggerated, almost caricature-like. He often equips them with modern-day objects, such as cell phones and strollers, leaving the viewer to wonder what time period he is referring to. Also, one cannot help but be amused at the witty humor of these scenes.
The piece Beijing Time 《北京时间》 shows two elderly gentlemen with cell-phones in hand, one trying, with great effort, to figure out the time, while the other looks up expectantly, clearly having given up on his own device. Similarly, in Lost in Colors 《迷惑》, seniors in traditional Chinese attire gather closely around a modern abstract painting at a museum where signs of “Do not touch” and “No photographs” hang between the paintings. Enhancing the contrast between past and present, one of the men clutches a pair of Chinese exercise balls in one hand and a cane in the other while another man holds a fan behind his back. The gentlemen’s inability to decipher the meaning of the modern abstract painting is equally humorous, their bald heads bumping into one another, and noses almost touching the canvas as they bend towards the painting, searching for its meaning.
Much like Norman Rockwell, Xie creates a deeply personal, cross-cultural, and cross-temporal connection with the viewers of his work. Enlivened with humor, his paintings exude nostalgia and appreciate an overlooked and disappearing way of life he fondly remembers from within the maze of Suzhou’s Classical Gardens and narrow cobble-stoned alleyways.
Additional images from this series can be seen on this page of Xie Yousu’s online portfolio.
Images courtesy of the artist.
The article has been updated to elaborate on the discussion of imagery in traditional Chinese painting.