Xiyao Wang. Photo: Tizian Baldinger. Image courtesy of MASSIMODECARLO.
9 February – 11 March 2023
by ANNA McNAY
Having been buzzed in to an imposing Georgian townhouse in the heart of Mayfair, London, and ascended an ornate staircase to a magnificent door, I find myself entering a light-filled room, with full-length french windows to the balcony opposite me; an enormous mirror, reaching up to the firmament, on my immediate right; an opulent chandelier; creaking floorboards and an archway to the adjoining room, which has an open fireplace and mantelpiece. The spearmint-coloured walls provide a soft backdrop for a near-wall-sized triptych, hung so closely that the joins are seamless and the swirls and strokes, painted from a rainbow palette, cascade from one canvas to the next, creating the illusion of a fresco. More than that, even, because the mirrors and glass reflect this riot of colour, and my presence in among it, so that I feel I am standing in the eye of the cyclone. I am winded, hit hard by the energy and vim of the kaleidoscopic eddies. Looking at the reflections, I only ever see one part of the paintings at a time; they are fractured as they are refracted.
Xiyao Wang, Like a Firefly Chasing the Waves no.3, 2022. Acrylic, oil stick on canvas, 200 × 190 cm (78 3/4 × 74 6/8 in). Image courtesy of the artist and MASSIMODECARLO.
At first glance, these gestural scribbles could be the work of Cy Twombly, but, in fact, they hail from the hand of Xiyao Wang (b1992, Chongqing, China), who describes the scrawls as “extensions of my body, of my limbs”. Indeed, my heady sense of spinning could be the result of a zealous dance partner twirling me in and out and round and round in endless pirouettes. Inspired not just by her western present, but by her eastern heritage, aspects of Taoism and associated martial arts practices also come to mind. The graphic lines interact, colliding in busy passages where the paint is stippled and several layers deep, and dispersing to the peripheries, larger, looser, fading to shades of pink and grey, mere traces of the transitory presence which fleetingly passed by. Yang versus ying. Qigong versus neigong. Movement, flux, impermanence – a condensation of life.
Xiyao Wang, Like a Firefly Chasing the Waves no.3, 2022 (detail). Acrylic, oil stick on canvas, 200 × 190 cm (78 3/4 × 74 6/8 in). Image courtesy of the artist and MASSIMODECARLO.
As much as I feel this dynamism, I also hear the music. A symphony bursting through the thick silence. The expressionist artist and synesthete Wassily Kandinsky experienced paintings as communicating certain sounds. He said: “Colour is the key. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many chords. The artist is the hand, that by touching this or that key, sets the soul vibrating automatically.” This statement could not be more fitting. My spirit shudders.
Through the archway, a nearly square canvas hangs above the fireplace. The longer I look at it, the more images I discern amid the lyrical abstraction: faces, flowers, heads … I feel as if I would never tire of gazing at this work, as if it were in a state of perpetual vicissitude. These are not snapshots of a moment frozen in time; they are particles colliding, the koniokinesis of specks of dust, a thousand glimmering glow worms, fleeting memories and vanishing dreams. The resplendent chitinous exoskeleton of a beetle, or the membranous wings of a fly trapped in a gossamer spider’s web, invisible until this prey lands or a hoar frost paints its crystalline sparkles. Nothing is static, nothing endures. As König Galerie, one of several to represent the artist internationally, writes: “Each work is more than a passive recording device – it resonates, speaking back to the movements that first brought it into being.”
Xiyao Wang, The Crystalline Moon Palace no. 6, 2022. Acrylic, oil stick on canvas, 200 × 190 cm (78 3/4 × 74 6/8 in). Image courtesy of the artist and MASSIMODECARLO.
The final room hosts four canvases – two hung next to each other but separate, two hung as a fused pair. This sets up an interesting opposition between binariness and wholeness; mitosis (viewing just one wall) and meiosis (attempting to take in the whole room); the thoughts within an individual’s head and those that are shared with another. To cite König Galerie again: “[Wang’s] language of abstract form is forged from a dialectic between the outer expressive gestures of her body as she paints, and the resulting marks generated on her canvases.” The negative space of the white canvas takes on as much significance as the pulsating vessels daubed across its surface. Is it silence or merely white noise? Is the orchestra playing harmoniously, or is it a painful cacophony of harsh tones?
Xiyao Wang's studio. Photo courtesy Xiyao Wang and Perrotin.
I want to know more about how Wang paints. Are the canvases upright, or are they flat on the floor, with her dancing across them? How are they constrained by the limitations of her body? What brushes does she use? And what do the paintings mean to her? Are they abstract or figurative? Does she hear their clamour as well? It is as if a dictionary’s worth of words has been uttered, fallen into a colander, been collected, shaken and tipped out on to a white surface, all jumbled up, with infinite syntactic possibilities. Each viewer will build a unique utterance and derive a unique meaning. But what was the original formation in the artist’s mind? In what order did the syllables escape her mouth? What poetry did this frenetic calligraphy compose? There is, in fact, a poem – Elegy for the Summer – written by Wang to accompany this series of work, and the line that cries out to me the loudest, which directly precedes the line adopted as the exhibition’s title, A Carnival in the Forest, reads: “She told me the secret of immortality.” So perhaps that is it? That is the secret being shared. The way to avoid becoming frozen in time is just to keep on dancing as if it were a jamboree.
Daniel Buren and his Invention Trajectory
Daniel Buren has had a stimulating and now distinguished continuity in Britain. The arrival of his exhibition, 'Invention II', at Modern Art Oxford recalls a long association, firstly with MOMA Oxford (1973) and in the pages of Studio International. His own texts here are notable for their clarity and perspicacity.
Starting at Zero: Black Mountain College 1933-57
Radical educational establishment and sanctuary of the avant-garde in art, music, poetry and dance, Black Mountain College survived for only 24 years, but its influence spread far beyond its isolated North Carolina location. This exhibition, and its accompanying catalogue, offers 'a kind of afterlife to [the] artists' practices'1 by assembling the sometimes contradictory memories and records of the college's experimental achievements in paint, print, dance, pottery, photography, poetry, theatre and music.
Architects, sculptors, painters, we must all turn to the crafts. Art is not a 'profession'. There is no essential difference between the artists and the craftsmen. The artist is an exalted craftsman. In rare moments of inspiration, moments beyond the control of his will, the grace of heaven may cause his work to blossom into art. But proficiency in his craft is essential to every artist. Therein lies a source of creative imagination.
Abstraction and Atonality: Wassily Kandinsky, Franti
František Kupka (1871–1957) is generally recognised to be the best-known Czech artist from the 20th century, and Museum Kampa in Prague is proud to house one of the largest private collections of his work
Hilla von Rebay: the Artist Behind the Guggenheim
Hilla von Rebay is perhaps best known as Solomon R. Guggenheim's art adviser and the person who commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design the Guggenheim Museum in New York. But the Adam Gallery is exhibiting work she made as an artist in her own right, principally 'non-objective' paintings and collages influenced by the artists she encouraged Guggenheim to collect.