From the clutter of urban life, Xinyi Cheng subtracts transient moments of respite. Her subjects, alone or in pairs, mostly male but not only, exist in a fleeting state. They appear absent, turned inward. Their eyes are lowered or glazed over, their eyelids translucent, their pupils oily as the sea. Absorbed in thoughts, sensations, actions, they know better than to look at themselves through the eyes of others. Oblivious to the external gaze, they have given up on appearances. And yet, they display a state of heightened presence, one brought about by a reconfiguration of the senses: for them, touch preempts vision, and relation representation. At the tip of their fingers they hold time suspended. For a split-second, they are alone, or alone together.
By submitting to a wider logic of sensation, they have gained access to a world that is just theirs. Silence sets, while colors damp down. The tones are muted, as if the scene was perceived underwater or through the night shift mode of a phone. Through an intersubjective approach of social rituals and their dissolution, the voyeuristic viewer is confronted with an intimacy that draws them in as much as it excludes them. We glance around, and suddenly, everything inside and outside the frame seems perceived from a distance — now, it all seems mildly absurd. A spell has been lifted, and a primordial weirdness reinstated. But rather than opening up an atemporal imaginary setting, Cheng’s paintings suspend existing social norms. Just as weirdness can only appear against the backdrop of an arbitrary normality, her unique sensorial universe is closely nested inside the fabric of the real.
I first encountered Xinyi Cheng’s work in 2017 through her solo exhibition in Paris at Galerie Balice Hertling’s former Belleville space. The show, titled “The hands of a barber, they give in,” took place in the first days of summer, its opening bringing a dense, joyful crowd that included some of the “beautiful and eccentric” characters that the artist likes to paint. The context suited the encounter with the 1989-born Chinese artist’s series of fragmented everyday scenes that distillate various minor aects. At the time completing her post-diploma at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, she introduced her now characteristic repertoire: here was friendship, longing, lust, thoughtfulness, boredom, curiosity, and all the nuances in between, precisely the ones that usually escape clear-sighted, rational, and unequivocal capture.
In a sense, Cheng’s paintings, for this writer, raise anew the painstaking task of description: that forgotten narrative art, lost to reproductions and exhibition views. Sure, oered to prehension and interpretation are the represented gestures: the careful positioning of hands and limbs tracing hieroglyphical figures, or the mundane detail astutely rendered as a secular vanitas — a barber’s blade, an incandescent cigarette butt, a translucent liquor glass, or the odd ham-leg, brandished like a club or sliced with sadistic appetite. With her inclusion in the group shows “Antibodies” at Palais de Tokyo in 2020 and “Ouverture” at The Bourse de Commerce – Pinault Collection in 2021, something appeared to be shifting in her motives. At play in the hangings of recent works assembled in new configurations was still the display of an intimacy infused with primal undertones, but the tones seemed to be growing ever murkier, purplish as if suocated, mouths parted with desire but also stifling a silent scream.
This could, however, very well have been a condition of the changing context of the work’s reception, translating just as much a translation inside the viewer’s own sensorial configuration. In each of Xinyi Cheng’s works, the perceiving body is, after all, always put to work; and one could even say that nobody ever looks at the same painting twice, to paraphrase Heraclitus’s quote on rivers, time, and the changing subject. But in Xinyi Cheng’s own practice, something was also gradually evolving in parallel: “Intimacy and close-ups didn’t feel as necessary anymore. When something becomes too familiar, it risks becoming a gimmick,” she said when I visited her last spring, referring specifically to her depiction of male experience as well as to her technique of minutely depicting body hair to give volume to a flat surface.
In her atelier in Belleville in Paris, where the artist now lives permanently, earlier works from her student years in Baltimore in the US were also on display. Their surfaces are flatter, their palette brighter, oscillating between neon and pastel: garish pink, citrus yellow, baby blue. To her, colors are a tool used in an ongoing quest, personal and eternal, which she refers to as “a figurative painter’s ongoing fight against reality.” In the corners and above her desk, postcards and cut-outs pasted here and there displayed her erudition of the history of painting: from Picasso to Otto Dix, Fra Angelico to Toulouse-Lautrec. On the table lay Oscar Wilde’s essay “The Critic as Artist,” and we discussed Amy Sillman’s (at the time) newly published book Faux Pas, a collection of her writings and drawings on the subject of painting and picture-making. She gave me a copy, as she had two of them.
On the walls, Xinyi Cheng had hung some unfinished paintings, as well as some made for her postponed 2020–21 presentation at Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart in Berlin, “The Horse with Eye Blinders.” She explained how she had lately tended to shift to larger formats, although, working on one painting at a time, she never made a radical change all at once. Fantasies, she said, had started to wear out. Upon arriving in Paris and finding herself alone in an unknown city, bathed in its new light, Cheng asked some of the people she met to pose for her, either in her studio or home, or to be photographed via her phone — photos that she sometimes also displays in her shows. This, she mantained, was never about portraits as such, as they were always already playing a character in her imagination, even when just playing themselves. “But if one stays in one place for a long time it wears out and reality becomes a struggle again,” she added.
Gradually, the larger formats also started to open up onto open spaces. Airy backgrounds, undefined scenery. Balconies overlooking the horizon, figures swimming in the sea. In the depiction of human and nonhuman figures alike, clothing took on a new role: a red bonnet, almost Phrygian, worn by a resting androgynous character (Stijn in the Red Bonnet, 2020) or adorned with horns and perched atop a curious horse’s head (The Horse Wearing a Red Ear Bonnet and Eye Blinders, 2020). Revealing an interest in how garments are used in social life, the red bonnet’s recurrence also refers to Fra Angelico’s use of the color red — one of her favorite painters — or more broadly, Éric Rohmer’s color scheme as an indication of a certain personality. Other scenes also expanded on her interest in animals, especially dogs (Swimmer, 2020; Long-Distance Swimmer, 2021), which she describes as “elephant-like or akin to little horses,” swimming side by side in the sea, strange and human in their demeanor.
Water, and paintings about water, appeared in Xinyi Cheng’s motives as everyday life shut down: the world started to feel like an island. She recalls watching the Italian movie Swept Away (1974), a romantic-political film built around the stranding of a yacht on a deserted island. A man, a capitalist, and a woman, a communist, struggle to survive as they are separated from the others. The plot revolves around their changing power dynamics inside a time-space where social class hierarchies are suspended. Cheng, however, is well aware that her own medium doesn’t work narratively; and that its meaning can’t simply rely on the translation of allegories: “Painting could carry a lot of ideas, but it works dierently from video or installation. It has its own intelligence — you feel moved or shocked — and in museums I always look for a physical feeling. A painting has to transcended information so that its meaning can always keep changing.”
In those works, it is above all another weirdness, one just as indescribable, which makes itself felt: less stifling, more universal maybe, or simply condensed to its barest expression. Those scenes set at the seaside unfold like a fable, but one translated less through action than feeling; one “oceanic” in nature, as an a ective state of connective limitlessness that goes beyond the boundaries of the closed self to refer to a shared paraontological experience of being alive. The term refers to a rich conceptual history, going back to novelist and mystic Romain Rolland’s correspondence with Freud, who would elaborate on the concept in his work Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). Its reception long remained tributary to a psychoanalytical reading, relating both in Jacques Lacan’s and Julia Kristeva’s analyses to binary (and to a certain extent, gendered) psychic structures — polarities that Cheng’s own representational scheme has always carefully transcended.
In a more recent take, Jackie Wang anchors the “oceanic feeling” inside the realms of the creative as well as the social. “The oceanic state, like dream states, resists signification,” she asserts. “I would also add that oceanic states animate writers and artists precisely because they are inexpressible.” Written in 2016 and first published as a Tumblr blogpost titled “Oceanic Feeling and Communist Aect,” she explains what she posits as an underlying call for “new modes of relationality.” To the scholar, the oceanic “could be considered a revelation: the illumination of an already-existing communalism and the direct experience of our embeddedness in the world.”
Lafayette Anticipations – Fondation d’entreprise Galeries Lafayette in Paris now presents Xinyi Cheng’s first major institutional exhibition in France — also the first time they have dedicated this entire venue, inaugurated in 2018, to a painting solo show. With more than thirty works made from 2016 to 2021, “Seen Through Others” leads the viewer through the early nocturnal and interior scenes, gradually building toward the more recent airy outdoor paintings hung in the glazed upper-floor space overlooking the skyline. “I kept them undefined, so as not to singularize the future,” she said as we concluded our chat last year, subtly indicating that she won’t provide any definitive keys or meanings but rather will entrust each visitor and sentient entity with the task of embracing a fleeting feeling — however one might want to name it — as a way to push oneself to a threshold state of consciousness: a point where self and other, ego and outside, collide, collapse, and maybe even become reconfigured, reborn.