Xingzi Gu at Lubov

June 25, 2024

As sexy as cigarette smoke, the recent paintings of Xingzi Gu are both ephemeral and potent. Viewing innocence as a state of near-fatal bliss, this artist eschews specificity to get right to the moment of heartbreak and loneliness.  There is wisdom in these hazy depictions of couplings, a vagueness that only heightens their eroticism.

The title of the exhibition, Pure Heart Hall, echoes Christian literature encouraging followers to pursue virtue, but since Christianity is not widely known in China, this young artist imagines a space for magical connectivity and serendipitous encounters.  With sheer layers of oil or acrylic paint over light pencil outlines, Xingzi magically conjures that awful sense of being left behind—the palpable depression of missing the one you love. At the same time, this artist embraces fluidity over geographic or gender identities, which makes these depictions of love feel simultaneously contemporary and timeless. 

Xingzi Gu, Ruddy, 2024. Oil and acrylic on canvas. 42 x 60 inches.

In Untitled (Ruddy), two women appear crouching, amidst a cloud of butterflies.  But on closer inspection,  one is embracing the other’s back with dreams of romance in her eyes while the other looks away, smoking a cigarette. A fallen angel is barely visible in the background. For Xingzi, emotional entanglements are always complex, even in the painting, Untitled (Cherry Coke or Ocean Flame), in which two lovers linger in a post-coital glow in a scene that might be a fantasy of happier times.

Xingzi Gu, Untitled (Cherry Coke or Ocean Flame), 2024. Oil and acrylic on canvas. 54 x 44 inches.

These are sophisticated and subtle works from an artist who recently graduated with their MFA from NYU. Both their parents were practicing artists and Xingzi’s education included high school in New Zealand and then attending the Art Institute of Chicago as an undergraduate. But key is the influence of their hometown, Nanjing, a significant city in China, known for the horrors suffered there at the hands of Japanese in WWII, a heavy history that affected Xingzi’s upbringing. Yet, as they point out, Nanjing can be lovely and temperate, a place to enjoy life. This juxtaposition of trauma and pleasure is seen in the artist’s paintings that mix happiness and guilt, dreams and reality to recreate the sensuality and longing endemic to relationships at the beginning of the twenty-first century.  

Xingzii Gu, Lili Pond, 2024. Acrylic on canvas. 42 x 60 inches.

Most haunting is the painting, Lily Pond, in which a nearly nude androgynous figure stands like a ghost framed in cyan with auburn ducks situated on each side of the canvas. This work is closest to some of the most prominent motifs that might be found in Chinese scroll paintings, especially the mandarin ducks.  However, French Symbolist Odilon Redon is as present here as Qi Baishi, the twentieth-century master of ink-and-brush, known for his playful use of the medium. 

It is interesting to consider Xingzi’s choice to remain in New York, as opposed to returning to China where ghost stories and horror films are now forbidden. Exercising the most subtle form of resistance, Xingzi Gu is finding their own unique path, along with many others from this post-Covid generation of diaspora artists.

This exhibition is organized by Lubov, N.Y., where it is on view from April 27 to July 13.

Barbara Pollack is an art critic and curator based in New York City who has written about Chinese contemporary art since the late-1990s.  Her most recent book on the subject is Brand New Art from China: A Generation on the Rise (Bloomsbury, 2018) and in 2022, she curated Mirror Image: A Change in Chinese Identity at the Asia Society Museum in New York City.

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