Qiu Xiaofeng, Red, 2020, oil on canvas, 78 3⁄4 × 118 1⁄8".

Qiu Xiaofeng, Red, 2020, oil on canvas, 78 3⁄4 × 118 1⁄8".

Qiu Xiaofei

New Century Art Foundation

Some viewers might have expected this two-part solo show to be a retrospective—“Part I: RED” ran through October, while “Part II: Trotskyky Grew into a Tree” was on view through January—especially since the artist was personally involved in the curation. But the earlier works, made around 2003, soon after his graduation from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, do not connect to the recent ones in ways that reveal an internal logic. In other words, the old works were not meant to support the understanding of the subsequent ones, but to inspire memory. The upshot was a sustained dialogue between old and new, past and present, that evoked—much like the serpentine forms common in Qiu’s paintings—the changing, flowing stream of time.

The exhibition was structured in reverse order. In “RED,” viewers passed a dim, cramped corridor near the entrance; on turning a corner, they saw the painting Red, 2020, a large work that the artist completed during the pandemic. The work’s scene of ruins, as well as the seated subject at its center, might have reminded audiences of two of the artist’s earlier works—Utopia and A Still Indigo, both 2010—though neither canvas was on view. Compared to those works, Red is more abstract; its pictorial language and construction speak of activity, generalization, and fluidity. A gradually changing red background recalls what William Blake describes in Milton: A Poem (1804–11) as a “vortex.” The bluish figure at the center sits on a chair, holding its single, petrified arm out, hazy in the crimson light; below his feet are infinite stars. Reality transmutes into a lyrical form: It is intensely uneasy yet still moves viewers in a very specific way, just as Qiu’s invocation of personal family history does not hinder his sensitivity to historical narrative. The central image in Red was partly inspired by Qiu’s thoughts of his son, who was born in 2017, as well as of his father, who was diagnosed with cancer the same year. The confluence of these events—the experience of shuttling between two hospitals, visiting the dying man in one and the newborn child in the other—provoked the artist to revisit his family history, which was deeply entangled with the political upheaval and social change of twentieth-century China.

Today, Qiu is interested in lyricism’s potential form and its evocative power; his explorations in turn motivate his insistence on eschewing clear logical assumptions. Though Qiu engages with history, as embodied by the representational forms and socialist realist imagery in his early paintings, he also assimilates these traditions into expressions of individual experience and family memory. The second installment of the exhibition, “Trotskyky Grew into a Tree,” was divided into a left and a right wing. Through this structure, the artist examined a twofold question: how form inspires emotion and how emotion is given form. When memory is processed by history, critical analysis and rationality come into play. Qiu tries to avoid recourse to reason. Instead, he endows the chaos of history with an imagined form as a lyrical subjectivity.

Translated from Chinese by Qing Zhang.