Dai Zhuoqun

Since 2005, Xu Xiaoguo's art has undergone various stages and seen the development of several series within a span of ten years, which include works like "Artificial Landscape", "Stage", "Traces of the Sacred", "Small Country", "Cage" and "From Space to Texture". "Artificial Landscape", "Stage" and "Traces of the Sacred" may be regarded as representative of the earlier stage of his works; while "Small Country ", "Cage " and "From Space to Texture" are representative of a later period.

Starting with the series "Small Country ", a turning point can be discerned in Xu's work. That series was a departure from Xu's previous infatuation with the deconstruction of classical humanism, a line of thought and approach that he was more familiar with at the time. Later, it was a radical and metaphysical agnosticism which he turned to as he attempted to praise new value and meaning in his work. Early traces of this metamorphosis in Xu's thinking can be seen in how he reflected on and questioned his own inertia of thought and epistemological methodologies. This very much sums up the period of his early works, when his probing and ideas found practical expression in works such as "Artificial Landscape" , "Stage" and "Traces of the Sacred" . In a set of works richly endowed with a classical contemplative style, the artist has indeed depicted for us a virtual world that differentiated from representational imagery, that instead constructed an artistic order independent of the order of reality.

From Ancient Greece right down to the establishment of the Hegelian system, classical philosophy had traditionally believed in the existence of an absolute truth. However, with the advent of a subversive modern philosophy ushered in by Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, the eradication and denial of such a thing as absolute truth had taken over most thoroughly and decisively. Modern philosophers represented by Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Foucault went a step further with their deconstruction of classics as well as criticisms of the notion of ‘Idol’ and historical determinism.

Classical philosophy regarded truth as a uniform correspondence between language and materiality. From Plato's "Theory of Ideas" to Kant's "Thing in Itself", philosophers have sought to discover how this direct correspondence could be possible as well as how the changes in our conceptions of this knowledge came about. Objects are concrete and material, whereas language is abstract. There is thus a need to search out the forms and bases of the realm of sensory perception and intellectual knowing.

Based on such a premise, Xu Xiaoguo embarked on a whole new approach in his research and perspective on the topic of what defined classicality, starting with his series, "Small Country". What, after all, was the relationship between the classicality of certain imagery with that of other "meaningless" imagery? Those formal idols which were given stamps of approval according to the ideals of classicality of certain imagery, "idols" as well as those principles which have become inviolable in those idols; in other words, what many often unthinkingly take for granted to be in the public interest ... these are what artists thoroughly question and decisively subvert.

Hence, would it not be possible to turn a pure form, a meaningless image, into something classical, and then infuse this classic work of creation with primitive linguistic meaning, so that it can be examined and considered? This question becomes the conceptual pathway for Xu's launch into an all-new attempt at painting. Subjects and imagery within his painting take on the qualities of the evanescent and the undefined — Mickey Mouse, boxes, hats, stepladders, balls, Stalin, chairs, tiger skin, skull and bones, ape heads, floral arrangements, cages, lobsters...all sorts of completely unrelated visual phenomena without any context or meaning, are given firm existential bases when they are processed through the artist's epistemology and intellect.

Through the intellectual form and sensory perception of humankind, and with time and space as dimensions, our sensory perceptions can only provide for an understanding of certain characteristics of physical objects such as their qualitative aspects, volume, shape, colour, and so on. Were it not for these specific characteristics, we would have no way of unfolding our imaginations onto these objects. For this reason, the uniformity of material things and language seems to be only be possible within human consciousness. That is to say, the innate essence of material or physical things do not change; what changes is only human sensory perception. In truth, it is not actually possible for us to know the true nature of material things, but only a representation or image of the thing itself.

In the "Cage" and "From Space to Texture" series, Xu's thinking about space in painting tends more towards pure

exploration. Through the interweaving and intersection of straight lines, horizontal lines, oblique lines, and curves coupled with the control and blending of the third space and intermediate form between positive and negative forms; the artist has, in the process of his painting, truly and meaningfully entered into a completely new cognition of the fabric of space and its motion. The sense of motion that came about during the process of painting itself; the various types of visual relationships brought in by the blending, alternation and layering of colour and line; the distance and closeness, descent and ascent of space; the indeterminacy brought about by positive and negative forms; and the projection and inversion of images, all contain very resplendent and multifarious linguistic messages within their various forms.

Xu makes use of semitones in the keys of a piano to analogise his theory of the third space. There is a semitone relationship between every two adjacent keys on the piano keyboard. The semitones refer not to tones but to the relationship between two tones; with twelve tones in every octave of the chromatic scale. The frequencies between two semitones are not necessarily equally calibrated and are often intricately fine-tuned based on relative pitch and whether or not they harmonise. This kind of subjective and ambiguous state of critical boundaries becomes the foundational context for Xu to develop a rhetoric of visuality.

Through research into the visuals of spatial relationships on flat surfaces, Xu makes use of lines, curves and highly abstract yet geometrized forms to interweave space for optical illusions on flat surfaces. The "Cage" series represents his purest and most extreme attempt in this direction, with an entire canvas made up of a simplex of lines, repeatedly overlapped, covered, and arranged until the original background of the canvas is concealed within the treasured brushstrokes. These lines are not randomly placed but have been meticulously and ingeniously thought through by the artist, and arranged and constructed accordingly. The positions and placements of different interwoven insertions determine the various fluctuations, permutations or trends of the canvas-space relationship. The foundational image of the line as a basic unit becomes both the pathway and method of painting, as well as its object: the very painting itself.

In the most recent stage of Xu’s artistic career, works such as "Order of Experiences" and "Analogical Puzzles" series, concrete imagery which had once been abandoned during the period of the "Cage" series all make their reappearance. It is at this time that Xu would have to balance his concern for imagery and paintability of the "Small Country" period with the pure visual rhetoric developed during the "Cage" series, and pull together these various strands of thought together within the frame of a single canvas. By this time, it appears that the personal identity, the unique persona for his paintings which he had been exploring and searching for all along, is finally discernible. The lines on the canvas spread out into infinite basic forms, even as the main thrust of Xu's artistic integration lead to colours presenting intricate yet richly ordered contrasts and transformations; this orderliness has overflowed beyond the confines of space, to even more prolific change and transformation.

"Analogical Puzzles" is a striking example of this. In this work, the framework constructed with lines from the "Cage" series continues as usual to dominate the basic structure of the canvas. The interweaving of lines and forms continually connect and obstruct the relationship between normal space and visuality within the canvas. The array of lines appearing in the background and in the midst of order are broken up and covered, while circles and arcs occupy a central position as the main subject on the canvas. The composition and connection among shapes as well as the gradual change and crossover in colours cause the images within the canvas to overflow continuously from within the calm and order of space, to develop and delimit its visual experience.

Xu's newest attempt, the "spherical system" series, is even more captivating. The elements of the canvas are utterly simplified and purified, and on a large flat surface, single colour systems and single round shapes constitute the entirety of the visual element. Colours go from dark to light and circular shapes repeatedly overlap. At this stage, research into space and form seem to be consciously extending into the psychological realm as issues of space, shape, and visuality in the painting truly direct us into the worlds of mood, psychology, and spirituality. Painting once again returns to its original primordial intention - a concern for the expression of basic human emotions. Perhaps for Xu, this is but another new beginning, as is always the case for him

December 6, 2015, Beijing