Xue Jiye, one of China’s most important contemporary artists, is a creative surrealist painter, full of ideas. “I have too many things in my mind, I just don’t have enough time to paint them all,” says the artist. The North-eastern Chinese painter and sculptor captivates viewers with his imagination and visionary power.
Xue does not like to be classified as a particular kind or type of painter. He says that it is important for artists to depict things in their own unique and original artist’s language. Xue’s style has evolved a lot over the past 10 years. And he predicts more changes in the future. But the artist is consistent in the purpose of his paintings – he paints because he has the urge to paint. And the subject matter of his paintings emerges from that need. When creating, Xue prefers to allow himself a lot of freedom. “I work in a surreal style in my paintings because it gives me more space.” The artist says that “reality has become boring,” and he feels numb from society. So his mind stretches beyond reality into the world of dreams and imagination.
In his latest series of paintings, Xue depicts the human condition – a constant struggle for existence within human society. The figures in the paintings are all nudes, indicating that they are defenceless and vulnerable. Some of them are exerting all of their energy to hold themselves up, suspended between the two ends of the painting. In one set of paintings, the figure is gradually restricted between the edges of the paintings until he does not even have enough space to breathe or move. These pieces indicate men’s futile struggle against the powerful forces of society, which is surrounding them, as the edges of the paintings are confining the figures. Even if one tries to escape from society, it will eventually constrain and constrict us all.
Human beings throughout history also participate in another kind of “struggle”: battles. The nude battling male figures in Xue’s paintings all look the same, indicating that with no uniforms, one cannot even know which side each participant is on or even what they are fighting for – essentially the people struggling are all the same. This also makes the battle timeless and strips down war to its most basic meaning: members of society destroying other members of society. The purpose and the result do not matter to Xue, for there are always excuses in society for battle. What the artist cares about is the process, the unending pressures from society to fight.
Xue’s paintings have also been strongly influenced by his own sculpture work. Certain pieces are of men chiselling forms out of large rock masses and men interacting with different objects sculpted out of stone. The artist, too, brings form to solid, hard and motionless objects in his sculptures. It is almost like being God and creating life.
In some of Xue Jiye’s paintings, tiny, uniform naked figures inhabit giant building structures, swarming throughout the canvas like ants, running up and down gigantic stairs, fighting, carrying building material, hollowing out caves, digging subterranean corridors, building huge sculptures and buildings or hammering and carving geometrical shapes out of stone. The movement of the persons seems directionless, just as the often monumental buildings appear to have been built without any practical purpose. This also reflects human societies: from ancient Egypt’s pyramids to modern Chinese buildings, it is the workers, dominated by society, who must all toil together to create gigantic monuments.
Xue’s paintings of solitary figures are also engaged in similarly futile actions: suspended between the paintings’ borders, building towers out of red square blocks or sitting on the floor, lost in thought, they seem to be involved in some sort of existential struggle. “The people in my paintings are just like tools I use them to build a new and different work,” says Xue.
All of Xue Jiye’s male figures are depicted nude, with muscular bodies and proportionally large hands and feet. The nudity can be seen as a reduction to basic human characteristics, not as an individual person in a certain time, but as a human being in general. Xue uses and reuses the same nondescript nude male figure. Who is this character? He is the most basic form of man, he is no taller, shorter, lighter or darker than his neighbour. He is the man from the past, the present, the future. He is from the East and from the West, indicating that after breaking it down, societies are essentially all the same. Similarly there is no indication as to the background; the men are depicted in empty dark brown-black spaces. The human bodies and the buildings are illustrated in red tones, contrasting strongly with the dark backgrounds, which give them an almost glowing quality. This helps to evoke an impression of a visionary world, which is a mixture between Stone Age and the future; the buildings are reminiscent of ancient advanced cultures and science fiction movies at the same time.
Xue Jiye explains that life in society has made us all more and more numb. “Things that were once special have now become ordinary, boring and mundane”. His paintings take basic human actions and put them in imaginary contexts that mirror our real society – like science fiction. Through this the artist shows a neutral view of society, which could almost be labelled as his own disenchantment with existence. Xue’s works show us that human society leads us to conformity, since when people exist together, everyone ends up attaching importance to a uniform set of ideas and values. No matter how much one struggles within Xue’s work or in reality, there is no escaping basic human conditions and society.