Xinyi Cheng’s sensual paintings explore the complexities of intimacy

Chinese artist Xinyi Cheng telescopes interpersonal relationships. His exhibition Seen through others — presented at Lafayette Anticipations in Paris (March 23-28, 2022) — brings together around thirty works produced between 2016 and 2021, featuring characters with impenetrable expressions placed in enigmatic contexts. His characters brandish lit cigarettes, sport stylish mustaches, lollygag in leopard-print leggings, show off stray nipples, and dip their fingers in wine glasses. She highlights the friction between itchy toes with the same interest she applies to searching lips. Yet when she portrays physical closeness, you never know how much of a genuine intimacy that conveys. The dim lighting and featureless backgrounds of his paintings are suspended in any particular present, ambiguous and devoid of obvious signifiers.

Xinyi studied sculpture in Beijing, then painting in Baltimore, followed by a residency program in Amsterdam before moving to Paris, where she has been based for four years. Her work has recently been the subject of group exhibitions at the Pinault Foundation — alongside Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Claire Tabouret and Kerry James Marshall — and the group exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo Antibody.

Standing in the middle of his paintings – namely a naked blond man capsizing in red kayakand two skinny white dogs paddling in Swimmers — we spoke to Xinyi just before the opening of her new show Paris.

How do you land on the micro-moments that are worth extracting and fixing? Do you recognize a valuable moment as it occurs? Or is it what stays with you?
I always have my iPhone with me, and whenever I feel like taking a picture, I always do. Over time, I revisit the photos I have taken. From everyday objects or moments, I want something specific. In the still lifes I’ve done, everything represents people so much [the items belong to]. The new direction I want to take is to work more with my imagination than with photographs. I still need photography as a tool to capture things, but I want [to pursue something] more unreal.

The title of the exhibition refers to Virginia Woolf. Does reading influence your painting?When I paint something, the ideas are small and I look for meaning while I’m doing it, so sometimes reading helps me understand what I’m doing, rather than inspiring me. But I’m a very visual person. I am inspired by encounters, or I turn to other paintings to make me want to paint. I always love watching Otto Dix. I like how he painted the details – how he layered the paint.

A man on a sofa without pants, wearing a leather jacket by Xinyi Cheng

Dix has such darkness. Would you describe your work as dark?
Yeah, I want something to bother. I think if I can really get closer [to something dark], It’s really interesting. I think it’s somewhere dangerous. I want to take up this challenge.

Why is it dangerous?
Because making a bad painting is a failure. So there is danger there.

What East bad paint? Do you have work that you’re not showing, or can you still fix your work?
I still want to fix the paint; I’m really not going to throw anything away. I think, sometimes, I know this painting can’t really be a awesome painting, but I just want it to be above mediocrity.

When I start, I often wonder if this image – this idea – is interesting enough. Going through the process is quite a commitment, and I don’t want to give up.

You have lived in several countries. How did the location influence your aesthetic or your process? Has it evolved as you have changed locations or has the painting not been changed by where you are?
I’m probably influenced by where I am, but I don’t know how to talk about it. I live in Paris and the weather is really nice there, beautiful light. And I can go to the Louvre. Visual experiences are very important to me. I can’t just breathe the air without absorbing my surroundings.

painting of two people kissing by Xinyi Cheng

I read that you have seen several exhibitions to think creatively about yours. You mentioned going to the Georgia O’Keeffe show at the Center Pompidou. What other exhibitions have marked your preparation process?
I really loved Josef and Anni Albers’ show. It was so beautiful: I went there four times. I also went to the Goya exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel.

How did those visits translate into what you did next?
I don’t think it’s a direct translation; it puts me in a state of mind. I like a painting by Watteau in the 18th century gallery at the Louvre – I like the way he painted that white suit. When I did “Midday Troubles”, I really went to the Louvre to see how he painted. It is therefore a direct translation. But sometimes I really wanted to see a big picture and feel uplifted.

You use photography as a work tool. Would you ever consider your photography an art form in itself?
I think so. There are pictures in my catalog. Have you seen these postcards? There are like five postcards inserted at random. These are my photographic works. I want to develop it… I don’t know how, but I keep thinking about it. I only use my iPhone because it’s fast; I don’t want to think too much about technique.

a painting of bare feet falling in a whirlwind by Xinyi Cheng

A subject represented is your boyfriend. Another is a portrait – three versions of the same friend with different body hair over time. Are the subjects always someone around you?
I paint the people around me – I need to know the person. Because when I start a painting, it means that I spend many hours looking at it: I need to think about this person, I need to relate to this person. That’s why I can’t paint celebrities because I don’t have a personal entry point into that person’s life. For “Incroyable (En Route)”, it is a journey: I painted Thomas on [a period of] ten years.

As for naming the paintings, do you always do that after they’re finished? Or do you tend to have a name and then find a visual to go with it?
Sometimes I have a word in my head very early on, even before I start painting. But there are also times when I can’t find a good title, I have to ship a painting or it goes to a publisher, and I just have to find something. So it depends. Ideally, I really want the title to add a new dimension — but also something that doesn’t really explain the painting. I want people to feel like this could be a twist on something else.

You have been in Paris for four years and have some French titles; How does the local language influence you?
I don’t speak French really well, so I still have my fantasy about Paris. I look at people but I don’t know what [exchanges are about]. Because I don’t really know what’s going on, their expressions, their gestures seem so present and so expressive. I always have to imagine what’s going on – I think that gap is what interests me.

A painting of a woman in a fur coat smoking by Xinyi Cheng

It makes you a keen observer of other communications – it’s interesting. In the catalog you express your concern about repetition, but then at some point you acknowledge that you are just attracted to certain things. Would you say he’s getting comfortable with obsession?
I was really afraid of repeating myself and being boring. But I went to Norway last year and saw paintings by Edvard Munch. I think I made peace with myself when I saw that he kept coming back to the same subject – you even have almost the same compositions. I was thinking maybe it’s okay, maybe in my life I will also be interested in very specific things. And every time I do them, I know it’s not the same: I want to do something new, and it always makes sense to me. So I don’t want that to be a burden or keep me from thinking about what I want to say.

It’s true – and it draws on the idea of ​​”seen through others”, the way another’s gaze shapes the way we act.
Exactly.

a painting of horses swimming in water by Xinyi Cheng

So you think it’s mostly a burden, this idea of ​​being seen through others? Or does it validate?
I didn’t really think about it in my paintings. But I’m very interested in people. Ultimately, I’d like to know what’s going on in their heads, I’d like to know their inner life — but I don’t think I can ever do that. Inner life and public appearance and how these two manifest and are perceived…

Would you say you are skeptical of the possibility of a connection?
I think there is no way not to be skeptical. Only in a book by Virginia Woolf could we hear monologues from other people’s heads. I think there are limits to the accessible parts of everyone’s life. But it is okay. I also imagine them and then they become characters.

Would you say you are drawn to youth culture, or does a specific generation characterize your work?
I do not know. I’m curious how I’m going to paint an older person, or how I’m going to paint as I get older. A friend, who is in “Midday Troubles” (2021) has a truly ageless face. I’m very attracted to that. I don’t see it as a generation though. As in ten years, we have all changed so much. It’s more than I follow the trip.

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Credits


All paintings by Xinyi Cheng

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