Discovering Xie Lei’s first solo exhibition in Belgium creates a tremendous desire to talk about Chinese tradition; the urge to draw on the texts of the Tao, of Tchouang-tseu or the classic poets, to attempt to interpret Xie Lei’s paintings through Chinese sayings or texts. Certainly this exercise is relevant, but has its limits too. In its duality and its ambiguity, one cannot deny the Chinese influence on Xie Lei’s work. But these paintings are also drawn from a long Western tradition, fed by, among others, the Spanish Baroque and the Romantic movement. The artist has just spent a year at the Casa de Velázquez in Madrid, which offered him the opportunity to deepen his knowledge of European art. Xie Lei’s prowess lies in a subtle personal syncretism, in which he conjures up Chinese tradition and Western perception of the outside world into his creative process. He reminds us that the invisible is indissociable from the visible, and at the same time, he takes away the idea of beauty and replaces it with the concept of the sublime in a style very reminiscent of Baudelaire.
The exhibition’s title also casts light on certain principles of Lei’s work. Slumbers, which sounds more literary than ‘sleep’. This title immediately imparts an intermediate dimension to the paintings. Between awakening and death, the slumberer is in an ambiguity. He is in a world that, paradoxically, he can only describe in a non-sleeping state. Lei paints the slumberers who sometimes appear more dead than sleeping, or who appear to be in a state of sexual ecstasy. Although this is often described as a ‘little death’, the ambiguity of interpretation is certainly real. There is a certain disconnect between the generic title Slumbers and what we see. The paintings are sometimes hard. For example, it is difficult not to make out a row of bodies in the large canvas in the right-hand room, or in the rear room, the heads of torture victims. But as in the work of the Spanish painters of the 17th century or the Romantics of the 19th century, death or suffering is not an end in itself. It is an in-between state or the dismissal that interests the artist: a moment of transition, a suspended moment which opens up a space for someone else to look into. What is the artist telling us?
“My paintings explore an uncertain world, worrying situations in turmoil created by my imagination. They start out from reality, but escape from it (...) They have their own language, a tension which hopes to offer the viewer a gap in the edifice”. Once that gap has been discovered, once the work has been ‘tamed’, once the viewer is in resonance or interference with the paintings, we observe the life force behind these unbreathing faces. We also understand the difficulty of speaking yet the impossibility of remaining silent.
What is special about Xie Lei is that he is able to strike a balance between the manifest and the latent, to develop a personal style in a cacophonous and talkative world. Here, silence takes over in a homogeneity of muted colours and tones, as well as in white pages and delicate untouched surfaces.
This tells us about the intense moments of emotion and reflection ahead.