Horse • Free Run is an exquisitely rendered masterpiece by Xu Lei that dramatises movement frozen in time with an almost cinematic aesthetic and an eerie beauty. Painted in 2014, it captures a galloping white steed, whose rump is tattooed with a blue-and-white floral pattern like those on Ming and Qing porcelain, charging forward and disappearing into the heavily curtained stage. The superimposed images of the animal in motion are mesmerising: the horse’s limps overlap, repeated for a total six times, as if an uncanny afterimage that lingers on the retina as the eye travels across the composition from left to right. For Xu Lei, what appeals is “an illusion of an illusory evocation” – in Horse • Free Run, this is suggested by Xu’s refined, meticulous gongbi technique and deft reworking of motifs from the histories of art that create the theatrical suspension of disbelief, transforming the assemblage of the running horse into a perfect visual riddle.
A master manipulator of the seen and the unseen, Xu Lei invites the viewer to participate in the mise en abyme in his pictorial scene. The seemingly implausible dreamscape, washed in enigmatic hues of blue, is grounded in a profusion of influences. ‘Each person,’ writes Xu, ‘is actually rearranging his [or her] own art history.’ One can trace the image of the running horse to a myriad of imageries that came before: from the form of the iconic Night-Shining White, portrait of a charger of Emperor Xuanzong by Han Gan (ca. 706-783), to the chronophotography of horses in motion by 19th century photographers such as Étienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904) and Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904). Despite the strong visual link between superimposed images of the horse by Xu Lei and the stop-motion photography, the artist further points to a reference literary in nature: a white horse leaping through a crevice signifies the passing of time. In rearranging and appropriating his own histories, memories, and rhetoric and illusions, perhaps Xu Lei summons not one but many spectres – endowing the painting with a sense of mystery that lies beyond its beautiful facade.