Su Xinping: Toasting
Chelsea Arts Tower 8th fl.
545 W. 25th Street New York City 212 255 8886
September 3 – 27, 2008
The premise of Su Xinping’s show, entitled “Toasting,” is allegorical in its striking but troubled imagery of bare-chested men lifting glasses in an atmosphere of post-apocalyptic emptiness. Su, well known in China both as an artist and educator (he is head of the printmaking department at Beijing’s prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts), offers his viewers both the optimism of the toast, its cheerful recognition of what is yet to come, and the grim awareness that such are meaningless in the face of a lurid red horizon, beckoning as an empty future. Read symbolically, Su’s quizzical images seem to split into a double message, at once sanguine and pessimistic, in which the actions of men look hopeless, even desolate as they raise their glass to unknown prospects. Art, it seems, can only do so much; and while it is hard to correctly read Su’s subversive views, he suggests that China’s great leap forward is not so remarkable as it seems. Dissonance wins out; as curator Judd Tully points out in his incisive essay, “It’s all very strange.” The brutalized features of those sharing in the toast intimate violence, but at whose behest we don’t know.
Portrait in Segments (2007), one of the most striking images in “Toasting,” is a very large (138 by 79 inches) pastel on paper, divided into nine panels. It concerns a coarse featured, bald headed man, whose uplifted face reveals only a partial view; the head, body, and hands are drawn in a dark red, with white highlights. Wearing a simple jacket, with buttons or beads at the neck, this Chinese Everyman seems to embody the future. His bony fingers touch each other, creating an image of prayer, or near piety. We don’t know the object of the man’s gaze, but we sense that he represents an attitude that is portentous, bordering on the mystical. Nevertheless, Su’s audience has to acknowledge that the future here is unknowable and perhaps unappeasable, despite the humility of the figure’s outlook. While the people (almost always men) in Su’s work intimate happiness and shared pleasure, the future they toast remains indistinct and even threatening. Thus Su manufactures in his paintings an alienation that feels inevitable, in light of his figures’ ignorance. We will never know what the figures are waiting for.
Toasting is the theme of the show, and the other paintings address it. Toasting No. 55 (2008) shows three shirtless men extending a glass filled with liquor, most likely beer. Seen in profile, their features are rough, even brutal. The eyes are narrowed to mere slits, while around them are suggestions of a post-industrial landscape. It is hard not to read the image as an allegory of lost hope, if not despair. The red sky and horizon offer no solace, only the grim trappings of what might even be read as a post-nuclear countryside. The portly men literally glow in a harsh yellow light that leaves ominous shadows around their heads; it is impossible to imagine that light as natural. In addition to being an important painter, Su is also a remarkable printmaker. He continues his theme of distress in the woodblock print Toasting No. 5 (2008), which depicts a line of six men in profile, each of them holding a full glass of beer. Three stand on the left, while the three on the right sit with their drink. Again, the men are shirtless. There is the same red background, and this time the figures toasting are also red, contributing to an eerie, unnatural scenario.
One does not want to exaggerate Su’s gloom, but an unspoken anguish works its way into most of his art. His paintings beckon toward an isolation that is as moral as it is esthetic, so completely existential is its underpinnings. The strangeness of Su’s scenes reveals little of their origins; we remain in the dark as to their intention. However, they communicate a quiet desperation the viewer can do nothing to assuage. There is, in these times, the global sense that we are creating a hopelessly damaged environment, and that we have given ourselves over to trivial pursuits. In light of China’s embrace of capitalism, it is easy to speculate that Su is pointing out the hollowness of showy self-congratulation. But we must remember, however, that the figures are entirely enigmatic, even if Su wants to make symbols of them. His brilliant portrayals of loss remind us that we are inevitably exposed to harm, the cost of living in an ambiguous world.