Installation view of XIA XIAOWAN and CHEN HUI’s “Aura” at Tang Contemporary, Hong Kong, 2017. Courtesy Tang Contemporary.


Xia Xiaowan & Chen Hui

Tang Contemporary, Hong Kong
China Hong Kong

The title of one of Chen Hui’s paintings in Tang Contemporary’s Hong Kong gallery read: A Portrait of You No. 7. Surveying the other canvases revealed three more paintings with similar titles, numbered 2228 and 30 (2014–16). The identity of “you” in the artwork is open to question.

Historically, portraiture has depicted the powerful and the wealthy in only the most flattering light, but the visages in Chen’s portraits are homely. It is easy to imagine witnessing them in the forms of the tired, young employee on your daily commute; the rebellious teenager with dyed hair in your apartment complex; your sickly, older relative. Indeed, the exhaustion, vulnerability and deterioration apparent in the series are universal to the human experience. “You” could be any person in any of our lives, or even the viewer.

CHEN HUI, A Portrait of You No. 7, 2014, oil on board, 60 × 50 cm. Courtesy Tang Contemporary, Hong Kong.

This was “Aura,” a duo exhibition by contemporary Beijing-based artists Chen Hui and Xia Xiaowan. The show comprised eight oil paintings by Chen created from 2011 onward, and three new, large-scale, mixed-media and watercolor works by Xia shown for the first time. Both artists have a penchant for delving into the human psyche and teasing out how our natures and impulses sit in the context of the rest of society. The manner with which they do this is through distorted and fanciful—at times, grotesque—imagery.

CHEN HUI, A Portrait of You No. 22, 2015, oil on canvas, 100 × 80 cm. Courtest Tang Contemporary, Hong Kong.

CHEN HUI, Braised Trotters, 2013, oil on canvas, 50 × 60 cm. Courtesy Tang Contemporary, Hong Kong.

Focus on Chen’s paintings long enough and a sense of the uncanny begins to take hold, evoked through the way Chen’s perspective is occasionally slanted, her subjects’ facial features a little too stretched and their skin craggy like cliffs rather than flesh. Her other works are overtly bizarre: A piglet inexplicably nestles in the lap of a human subject in Braised Trotters (2013). A skull, computer mouse and packet of cigarettes adorn a headdress of colorful flora and feathers worn by the woman in Portrait No. 1 (2011). Wigs, masks, lingerie and costume jewelry bedeck the androgynous bodies in The Pearl and Guess Who I Am (both 2011)—the latter’s title explicitly inviting the viewer to pin down the identities of the pair depicted, though their visages remain obscured.

Xia’s three featured works, all created in 2017, are even more outlandish. His contorted bodies in Sphinx, which dominates the wall opposite to the gallery entrance, hardly look human at all, and are situated against an alien, iridescent sky. A face looms in the surrounding landscape in Medusa, its horror only topped by a mess of human bodies and monstrous octopuses that surround it. Even more diminutive bodies blend into their surreal surroundings as fixtures of the landscape—rather than existing as independent, sentient beings—in Sketch of Memories, forming a fantastical scene of pure id recalled—or, more likely, daydreamed—by the largest figure whose pose harks back to Rodin’s signature bronze sculpture, The Thinker.

CHEN HUI, Portrait No. 1, 2011, oil on canvas, 60 × 50 cm. Courtesy Tang Contemporary, Hong Kong.
CHEN HUI, Portrait No. 1, 2011, oil on canvas, 60 × 50 cm. Courtesy Tang Contemporary, Hong Kong.

CHEN HUI, Guess Who I Am, 2011, oil on canvas, 55 × 62 cm. Courtesy Tang Contemporary, Hong Kong.

While both artists share a background in oil painting, Xia started out with traditional paint-on-canvas before running the gamut of experimentation with paints, only to return to oils. He is best known for his “glass painting” technique, in which he produces fine details on a set of glass panes, then layers them to create a holographic, three-dimensional image in a process that has been likened to MRI scanning. A pioneer in many senses of the word, Xia was also part of the 85 New Wave movement of the 1980s, and played an integral part in the Chinese creative community’s pushback against the repressions of the Cultural Revolution.

Set against the white walls of Tang Contemporary Art, the paintings in “Aura” interwove with each other for an effect that was as harmonious as it was eerie. Thanks to its location in the center of the city, the gallery is sequestered in a generic high-rise, granting its floor-to-ceiling windows humdrum views of the uniform skyscrapers across the street. Whether intentional or not, these urbane glimpses sitting beside the artists’ explorations into human nature served to amplify the works’ collective message—within the minds of multitudes are thoughts that are extraordinary.

XIA XIAOWAN, Sketch of Memories, 2017, ink on paper, six pieces, 39 × 54 cm each. Courtesy Tang Contemporary, Hong Kong.

Xia Xiaowan and Chen Hui’s “Aura” is on view at Tang Contemporary, Hong Kong, until September 27, 2017. 

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