Born in 1977, contemporary Chinese artist Qiu Xiaofei's installation painting, Life Drawing Class, completed in 2007, was featured in" The Real Thing: Joint Exhibition by Contemporary Chinese Artists" at the revered Tate Liverpool, along with the works of many renowned contemporary Chinese artists.
An alumnus of China Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) Oil Painting Studio 3, Qiu is an iconic Neorealism artist who specialises in combining visual reality with historical context to express absurdities found in the inner psychological world and collective memories accumulated from history. His art is created through reintegration of artistic imageries, with an approach that fuses together forms of realism by using expressionism painting techniques.
As an attempt at retracing the quiet and warm orderly emotion she felt as a child, We Know Our Heavy Darkness (Lot 119) is a depiction based on an old photograph that fascinated Qiu with a rich sense of a bygone era emitted from the details in the painting, such as the old metal window and the clothing worn by the subjects. By infusing his meticulous art practice onto the photograph, which is commonly regarded as an objective medium, the setting of the photograph is instilled with Qiu's personal experience and cultural critique, as the photograph is replicated into painting and reinterpreted with contemporary art language. His figurative expressionism approach brings to mind German artist Gerhard Richter, who also painted from photographs with the painted images treated with a blurring effect, which was the artist's way of dealing with the relationship between art and memory in a profound manner.
Similar to Richter, Qiu also focuses on the psychological dialogue he holds with the photograph and not the image that the painting is representing. Qiu depicts the social or emotional reality in the photograph with an unusual visual approach of constraint and objectivity. In the painting We Know Our Heavy Darkness, the expression seeping from the corners of the female barber's eyes are carefully captured, with an ambiguous ambiance created through the painstakingly constructed spots of light. Not only does the painting project the artist's confidence in using his art rhetoric to aptly capture emotions, viewers' curiosities for the relationship between the subjects in the painting and its symbolic significance are also sparked.
The barbershop setting illustrated in this painting is reminiscent of China in the early 60s, when women were encouraged to break free from old ideas and customs and to apply themselves in different professions, with the formerly conservative patriarchal society impacted by women's elevated social status. Painted with robust and rugged brushstrokes, the people and the objects in this painting are also outlined with sepia coloured contours to mimic the effect of an old photograph, with the viewer's seemingly transported back in time. As they revisit that old place dwelling in their memories, the viewers' psychological unconscious are awakened.
Qiu once mentioned that he began to gain a more thorough understanding for the unconscious mind when he tended to a family member with psychological disorder. Freud viewed the unconscious as a repository for psychological repression. The id (or instincts and drive) is the unconscious part of our psyche, and because the id's wishful impulses are repressed to fit social norms, people may consequently react sensitively to certain words or images due to psychological factors and personal traumas. The 'darkness' in this painting's title implies that under the veneer of seemingly harmonious host-guest relationship, there is a sense of competition between masculinity and femininity. A visual balance is created through a diagonal dissection formed by the line created with the barber's lifted elbow, highlighting the dramatic tension between the two subjects in the painting's compact composition. The two occupy the nearly symmetrical composition equally, with the scissors held by the female barber a symbol of power and an intangible sense of dignified austerity projected from the male client. A strong sense of light and dark is created with the color treatment, with the cheeks of the focused female barber flushed and the male client portrayed in the shadow with his eyes closed and head tilted down. Through Qiu's sensitive and delicate observation, a sense of obscured ambiguity is instilled in this depiction of the old photograph. As an intricate relationship between people is narrated through the image, repressed desires from the old society that are buried in the viewers' memories are recalled, leading to critiques and reflections on personal and historical memories.