March 05, 2021 • Xinyi Cheng on painting during the pandemic and communing with the unknown
Xinyi Cheng, winner of the 2019 Baloise Art Prize, painted much of what is currently on view at Berlin’s Hamburger Banhof last spring, during France’s first Covid-induced lockdown. Her intimate-yet-detached gaze, previously applied to male figures in ambiguous encounters, is here trained on moments of solitude among men, women, and animals. The Horse with Eye Blinders—an enigmatic double portrait of a chestnut mare clad in red cap, ear hoods, and blinders and a young man with his arms folded across his bare chest—gives this exhibition its title. Born in Wuhan and raised in Beijing, Cheng is now based in Paris, where we spoke in her Belleville studio. Behind the artist’s desk hangs a painting Cheng’s mother made to bring good luck: “It’s a tree that I can lean on, a bridge and stairs that I can go up,” she said. “I bring it everywhere I go.”
WHEN I PAINTED RED KAYAK, 2020, I was thinking about the one time I went kayaking: a wonderful experience, until I got close to shore and a wave came and flipped the kayak with me in it. I was underwater for what felt like a very long moment—just twenty seconds or so, but I felt a total loss of direction. I felt like this whole year was very suffocating in some ways, and I thought it was a good time to paint this memory. But I didn’t want to paint myself; I’d rather use other people as actors or characters to play me.
Last year, I had a hard time making the paintings I was used to doing because I wasn’t meeting people. Life shrunk to my home, my studio, and my old photos. I reworked some subjects I’d painted before, and I started painting animals. In Swimmer, 2020, it’s a Saluki dog. They’re elegant, with very human faces whose expressions typically look innocent and lost. I wanted to paint this dog swimming in the sea. He seems like he doesn’t really have a direction or destination, but he doesn’t seem worried, he just kind of floats there. The one in Berlin is swimming alone, but I don’t want him alone.Xinyi Cheng, For A Light II, 2020, oil on canvas, 57 x 63″.
I also started to paint clothes, which enabled me to really focus on shape and color. For A Light II, 2020, is the first painting you see in Berlin. There’s a male figure and an Asian female figure and both subjects are dressed. The inspiration this time was Dou Wei, a Chinese pop star from the ’90s. He was the rock star, and then he quit his bands because he didn’t want to repeat the same thing over and over again. His music started to become very experimental and of course a lot less successful as a consequence. There’s a photograph of him and his girlfriend at the time sharing a cigarette, and in her hand she has a lighter that she’s put behind her back. It’s a very interesting photo, full of contact without actually having it, his lit cigarette pressing toward hers, unlit.
The female figure is also a new thing for me. My idea was never really to make my paintings homoerotic. I just didn’t want to paint women. I didn’t want the figure immediately defined with familiar stereotypes. I thought that if there were two men, then perhaps you don’t really know what’s happening. You don’t assume a certain power dynamic. A picture of a man and a woman, I thought, might open itself up to a different kind of tension.
There’s another female figure that I painted twice this year. She’s a friend, also an artist, with a beautiful figure right out of a Botticelli painting. We went to the Louvre together three years ago, and we saw the Fra Angelico paintings of angels facing each other, hands crossed over their chests. I asked her, “What does this gesture mean?” She said she didn’t know, but put her hands like that. “Oh, it feels really good.”
A person’s eyes, her red hair, his hands: These give me entry points to a painting. I feel that the image opens up and wants to be painted by me. Sometimes I pray to the painting gods to help me figure it out. A painting has its own agency. Sometimes it wants to be finished, sometimes it doesn’t. Even now, painting can be used to depict or communicate with the unknown, or as a kind of prayer for the future.
— As told to Lillian Davies