The artist is at heart a mark-maker, whether by choice or by instinct. Many artists begin their careers as painters, and then graduate to more direct forms made possible with everyday materials and with the accessibility of their implied meaning. This has been the case with Cui Xianji, whose intimate and nostalgic impressions of childhood, a life filled with innate sensation and strong personal emotions, have been transformed into a more rigorous arena for the espousal of formal and conceptual realizations.
Both the making of marks and the presentation of installations have their origin in a relationship to a sense of mystery approaching faith. The essential symbol which animates Xianji’s work is a gestural glyph, or scribble, which is easily misinterpreted as a type of language—but which means nothing at all. Rather, it represents the terra firma of inspiration, the ground upon which other ideas and experiences may be constructed, and which has a role in each of his many and varied expressions. Xianji’s glyphs are built using caulk instead of paint, a material originated for construction. It is shot from a gun, and in this way the artist not only trades painting for sculpture, but he is allowed to interject a painterly aspect into the new work by taking the essential gesture both in terms of its assigned meaning and its material indications. This form of expression is not merely random, but adheres to subconscious disciplines such as automatic writing by the Surrealists, or the “first thought, best thought” philosophy of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg.
There are several works due to be featured in the new exhibition which utilize his glyph in different and exciting ways. Some of them use similar motifs but are meant to express different formal ideas. One is a set of three ornate gold painted frames, out of which project lengths of cloth in red, black, and white, each covered in a color of caulk matching its own, and the central form, the white cloth, pours down the floor and instead of gathering in billows that resemble steam, it ends at a mirror curt so as to resemble the gentle bends in the shape of a secluded pond.
In another work, two ornate gold frames are hung ten feet off the ground in a back to back fashion, also with cloth pouring out of the eye of the frame, in black and white, each with a shade of caulk in corresponding colors. This work is unique because in order to properly view one side the work, the other must be completely hidden, and the same in reverse. Seen in intimate perspective, the layering of cloth and caulk creates a prismatic effect by being hung in the open air; and the parts that are not made translucent are those blocked from the reverse face which, while viewing that, is also blocked by the dynamic at work in its double. They are like opposite ends of the earth of two untenable truths in the context of a single argument; each needs to define its own territory and yet can never know the other.
In other works, Xianji uses his glyphs to aid him in confronting the symbols of European artistic mastery and the eternal conflict of nationalist politics. Both of these works are ten feet by four feet in size and each one is covered with a multitude of images reproduced in miniature and spread across the surface, the swathed in paint, black for the masterpieces and red for the flags, which is then marked with his signature glyphs, the thick and glistening caulk overwhelming and the recognizable images behind it; its vagueness taking on an air of malevolence, proof of an obvious conflict between the powers of the artist, whose marginalized role allows him to offer critique on any level of the encompassing society.
In one last work, we have a sequence of several portraits of important political thinkers, including Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and Mao Tse-tung, each of which is framed, then covered in the veil of a nylon sheet which is painted over with the artist’s sylphs, and alternately with many small spray-paint stenciled images of mathematical equations such as 9 x 6 = 69 and ! x ! = ?. These three images of important figures in the ideological reality of a Communist country such as China appear everywhere, especially on the national currency, and Xianji evens the score by adding his own image to their number, whether as a hero or a scoundrel, we are not sure. Like other figures of importance who have become shrouded in personal mystery and historical opacity, Xianji is likewise covered with the veil of a nylon sheet that has these numbers and glyphs covering them. The role of the equations is proof that there is no final meaning in existence, that all of his questions toward a definition or equivocation of reality in mean and rational terms was eventually minimized down to nothing. Since there are no answers, one is forced to return to the questions.
At one moment in the distant past, the artist took on an important role as a communicator of eternal truths, he was a soothsayer of sorts, and his words were equally important to both peasant and kings. That time is now gone, and he is marginalized beyond belief by a multitude of media-laden experiences from news media to entertainment on television, the internet, and in video games—each of which replicates reality without adding much depth to its perception. The artist is still endowed with specific powers that allow him to tell the stories of what is true and what is essential to everyday life but is also hidden behind appearances and within the context of communicative structures such as language, which is nothing more than a different sort of vibration we make in response to the natural world. They allow us to perceive the layers of interpretation that exist between overpowering ideologies, simple yet symbolic events as fleeting as the passage of a stream or the mist at the bottom of a waterfall. The symbols which inhabit and qualify Xianji’s works are seen as code, but they are really a form of primitive movement, one that speaks and makes sense.