inscribed '100 x 101 cm'; dated '89 12'; titled in Chinese (on the upper side); inscribed '100 x 101'; dated '89 12' (on the lower side)
oil on canvas
101 x 100 cm. (39 3/4 x 39 3/8 in.)
Painted in 1989
Private Collection, Asia
Xin Dong Cheng Publishing House, Mao Xuhui, Beijing, China, 2005 (illustrated, p.147).
Red Bridge Gallery, Road – Mao Xuhui’s Drawing Course (1973-2007), Shanghai, China, 2008 (illustrated, p. 162).

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Annie Lee
Annie Lee

Lot Essay

"God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives; who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves?”
- Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science , 1882

Parent Series: Red Gate No. 1 (Lot 32) was painted in 1989, a year of great artistic turmoil in China. That spring, the China Avant/Garde Exhibition was held at the National Museum of Art in Beijing, an event that marked a watershed for the young artists of the ’85 Movement but was swiftly shut down by authorities soon after. As a young artist who had close ties to the ’85 Movement in China and participated in the Avant/Garde Exhibition, Mao Xuhui keenly felt the immediate aftershock of these events, and captured the fear and existential uncertainty that gripped him in the deeply expressive paintings he created in the months that followed.

Gazing into the depth of Mao’s Parent Series: Red Gate No. 1, one is immediately struck by the bright red doorway that frames the opening of a tunnel-like passage. The color, traditionally a symbol of felicity, brings to mind associations with Qing imperial architecture and the walls of the Forbidden City. Here, the dripping paint also suggests violence and bloodshed, as we struggle to place the red frame within the haze of muddy tones that surround it. Within the doorway, we enter into an ominous interior composed of fragmented shadows rendered with bold strokes of thick white paint. The violence of Mao’s brushwork and the thick impasto suggests the physicality of the artist as he created this work, expressing his emotions of frustration and claustrophobia

Like the works of Clyfford Still (Fig 1.), colour takes on deeper meanings within Mao’s work, evoking dramatic conflict and raw expression in the clash of red, white and black. Yet Mao drew much of his inspiration from even earlier influences, looking to the works of Edvard Munch and the German Expressionists and incorporating their graphic style and emotional intensity into his own work. Recalling an exhibition of German Expressionist art that he attended in Beijing at the Cultural Palace of Nationalities, he says, “I found the works to be powerful but also very disturbing. The style, the technique and the content all seemed so raw to me, and there was no denying that the works really shook you up. I paced up and down the gallery thinking about this, trying to understand how I felt about them. Eventually I thought, maybe I am closer to this kind of painting, this kind of very direct emotional expression.”

The Parent Series forms a key period within Mao’s artistic career, during which the artist was preoccupied with semi-abstract distillations of the human form. In some pieces the figure is clearer than others; here, the seated parent figure has been reduced to a triangular shape in the center of the canvas, with only the barest suggestion of a chair in the streaks of white. The boiling down of the seated figure into its most essential form is reminiscent of Giacometti’s pared down figures (Fig. 2), which explored the spatial distance and emotional loneliness between individuals. By placing this shadowy figure at the far end of what feels like a deep corridor, Mao leaves the identity and relevance of the parental figure open to the viewer’s own interpretation.

Speaking about the tunnel that leads toward the figure, Mao likens the feeling to the trepidation toward interacting with higher authorities. “You feel uncertain - like in Kafka’s world. Also, I was incorporating ancient underground burial sites into these works. This is when I started to portray my thoughts and views on Chinese culture and history.” Mao’s preoccupation with the past resembles that of many post-war artists, who struggled to come to terms with the horrors of past trauma and expressed those feeling of anxiety and alienation within their work. Like Anselm Kiefer, Mao’s work can be understood both within the context of their specific historical milleu, as well as in the universal experiences of humankind.

Mao’s work takes the authority figure as it’s subject, and explores the universal themes of fear, anger, and loss that can permeate the collective subconscious in the wake of conflict and tragedy. The confrontational nature of Mao’s paintings forces the viewer to come to terms with the uncertainties of human existence and the emotional impact that the past can have upon humanity as a whole, prompting his search for a universal language of expression that can speak to the anxieties of his own experience.

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