Mao Xuhui once said, "My understanding is that an artist is someone who creates images. I believe in the power of forms: it is only because of forms that we can sense the invisible." From his contemplations on authority in his 1988 Family Portrait Series, the progression of Mao's work then led him toward his later Parents Series. But beginning in the 1990s, the images in his Scissors series have served both to symbolize the artist himself, and again, as physical incarnations of power. In each case, the stark, clear images were a part of the artist's deeper exploration of psychological issues. In this season's Day Sale, Christie's presents four works, spanning 15 years of Mao Xuhui's creative career- Portrait (Lot 1425), Grey-White Scissors and Arch (Lot 1605), Opened Scissors in Charcoal Grey (Lot 1606), and Quarter of a Pair of Red Scissors (Lot 1426). Beyond displaying the artist's changing expression of themes and images, the vein of thought that runs through these works reflects his awareness of societal conditions in China during different periods, and the sharp conflicts and turnabouts they often brought to his daily life.
Mao Xuhui and his wife divorced in late 1987. Mao found a release for his feelings through painting, in works that express yearning for his young daughter and his thoughts about marital relations. Mao's Portrait, produced the following year, reveals a sense of deep sadness and pent-up emotions. In a canvas structured around a mostly cool-toned palette, the artist emphasizes geometric qualities in the image of his subject through the sharp and angular shaping of her head, her elongated neck, and her trapezoidal upper body. The straight, rigid lines and their angular turnings hint at stiffness and alienation in personal feelings and relationships; Mao paints the expressionless face of his subject in pale tones, while her commonplace features suggest that the artist is not portraying a specific person but a universal psychological state. As Mao put it, "Sometimes it seems the portrait may be my father, or a more distant male predecessor; sometimes it seems like myself; sometimes it's an isolated image of a stern authority figureK it's a psychological shadow that has been pressing down on us for a long time." Mao deliberately uses pure, low-intensity hues, reducing the contrasts of light and shadow to make this thin, elongated figure seem all the more desolate, while the brushstrokes that slant downward toward the bottom left and right heighten the stark sense of disquiet. The artist also creates a "frame" for the portrait by scraping a line out of the pigments around the borders of the work with the tip of his brush handle. Traditionally, portraits are intended to present a positive, confident image of their subjects, but Mao redefines this notion in his portrait and its "frame." While Mao's portrait does not present the fresh and appealing personal image that might be expected, it is a portrait of real life and the resigned and oppressive feelings experienced at times by all.
Since the late 1990s Mao has been represented to a great extent by his Scissors series. in his paintings, scissors are taken out of their ordinary settings and placed against different backgrounds, where they shake off their identity as everyday objects and become images of heightened significance. As opposed to the veiled symbols of power in his Parents series, the incisive images of Mao's Scissors series came to represent a personalized kind of power, since, as Mao said, "i am the scissors." The artist is incarnated within the cutting instrument, entering into a dialogue with his surroundings through the simplified forms of the scissors he paints. In Grey-White Scissors and Arch, Mao depicts scissors placed vertically within an enfolding arch-shaped space, using only varied shades of grey to convey shifts from light to shadow. Though the greys are neutral and warm-toned, they suggest equally well that the scissors are tightly enclosed within tough, unbreakable concrete. The upper edge of the arch crowds closely against the painting's border, and the scissors' sharp tip seems about to pierce through the boundary of the painting, yet is restricted by the shape of the arch. The edge of conflict in these contrasting tendencies creates the strong tensions of the work. Opened Scissors in Charcoal Grey implies the potentially injurious nature of the instrument, which is set against an illusory and completely empty background, though shadows appear behind that lend the scissors realness and physicality. In real life scissors are under the control of their users, but here seem to possess an autonomous awareness of their own. We cannot tell whether they are still or in motion, and by forcing viewers to draw their own conclusion, Mao Xuhui engages their awareness, deepening the scissors' threatening and destructive aspect and expanding the imaginative space of the canvas. Following these various expressions of scissors, in Quarter of a Pair of Red Scissors, Mao's simple shaping of the subject makes his image a symbolic motif as he focuses on a detailed view of just one section of the scissors. Yellow tones shade gradually into red, and the sharp tip of the scissors and its rounded handle seem, upon reflection, a new version of the image previously seen in his Portrait. The rounded corners that frame the red-orange background introduce a soft yellow backlighting, silhouetting the outlines of the scissors and softening their vicious sharpness. Mao's harmony of compositional shapes and tonal hues creates a fresh new visual experience, while the detailed view of the scissors and its vague background again draw the viewer into thought and speculation. While the appearance of any pair of scissors changes endlessly with the changes in its surroundings, its essence as an object remains unchanged. Mao Xuhui shows us that the only thing undergoing change is our own way of looking at and thinking about the scissors.