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Elisabeth Condon in Hyperallergic by Stephen Maine

October 25, 2020

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Elisabeth Condon (New York City): This drawing was a gift from the artist Li Fei Xie on a 2005 visit to his Beijing studio, on a freezing winter day. Like scrolls everywhere, it is stored in darkness and brought out to view at special times. Following text-based artistic pioneers Xu Bing and Gu Wenda, Xie’s drawing spoofs the veneration of calligraphy with a non-language of fluid, running grass-style strokes. Retreating from the sprawling studio to drink tea and warm up, Xie discussed calligraphy in terms of revision and liberation. Inexperienced with concepts of ink load and brush practice, I could not understand the drawing as I do now, though its embrace of process enthralled me.

The invented script contains broken seals, scandalous whiteouts, and a directional arrow, all taboo in calligraphy tradition; the substrate, a thin, single sheet of mulberry paper flecked with shimmering gold chips, absorbs every mark. Swipes of glittering medium cross ink sporadically, adding subtle surface texture; tendril-like gestures transgress invisible lanes of emptiness or become entangled as ungainly blots. Variations in ink tone create rhythmic arrangements from flourishes and fuckups. The drawing’s title is unknown, or perhaps it is untitled.

Viewing it again, I perceive with a jolt its reliance on calligraphy as a centuries-old practice and art form. Calligraphy can accommodate transgression and coded messaging; landscape scrolls and their critiques of unwanted regimes emerged from it. While unorthodox or idiosyncratic variants of traditional calligraphy such as Xie’s can convey critique in the guise of “nonsense,” the brute immediacy of Trump/Pence posters and their message of America First lack such capacity to encode. As globalism wanes amid trade wars, rising nationalism, and the virus, the media distortions between countries become a form of nonsense calligraphy Xie is familiar with and recognizes.

I wonder what has happened to Xie? Searching his name on ArtLinkArt, I find one 2007 entry, nothing else. Is he still in Beijing? Is he still making art? Will we ever meet again?

As the brush gains momentum the ink dances, pirouettes, before crashing into blunders the artist then wipes out. All movements matter in the ad-hoc contingency that has always united ink painting and Abstract Expressionist processes for me. The orientation of the drawing is unclear. If I follow each gesture from wet to dry, the signature seal ends up at the top and the other seals are printed backwards; turning the paper horizontal works in a western way. Rotating it day by day offers salve for the disorientation of daily life. 

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