Red is the primary color of the background in Qiu Xiaofei’s new work Red. In traditional oil painting technique, it is generally frowned upon to lay down a new layer of color before the one below it has dried, so as to avoid the partially-dried layer of paint absorbing the oil from the new layer of paint, and giving it a gloomy, lightless look. In Red, however, the reason that the semitransparent alizarin crimson lake extra paint is able to form such a richly layered expression of the color of blood is because Qiu Xiaofei has parted from tradition. His application method involves stacking multiple alternating layers of dry and wet paint, which gives the picture a unique temporal depth—the telltale red of spattered blood, congealed crimson, dried deep red, and the different times they symbolize in the progression through life and death, are all compressed onto a single plane.
The main subject of Red is a seated statue with one arm broken off. According to the painter, the figure comes from his 2010 oil painting A Still Indigo, which depicts a mental paient seated in a chair, dreaming of flying. The slightly green-tinted indigo in the background, the square buildings somewhere between vanishing and emerging, and the obscured face of the figure, come together to form a vague atmosphere of nostalgia. Like that timeless ground under Shen Tao’s dancing feet at the end of the film Mountains May Depart, the figure and scene in A Still Indigo seem to be of some alien psychological realm suspended in time. Red continues the perceptual logic of A Still Indigo, though it transforms the indigo used in the earlier work into the purer ultramarine blue of the broken-armed figure. In the classical era, ultramarine symbolized melancholy, mystery and nobility, and was often used in a supplementary fashion to convey sacred figures in religious painting, such as in Jesus’ shirt or the Virgin Mary’s robe. The artist has concealed different shades of ultramarine beneath a membrane-like film of interwoven semitransparent zinc white and a scratched cremnitz white, as if concealing weighty sentiments within a body referencing new life, synthesizing imagery of new life, decline, and death.
Between A Still Indigo and Red, Qiu Xiaofei painted two watercolor studies that have transitional qualities. The most striking thread in these two studies would have to be the shift from the figure having two full arms to having one broken. In Untitled (Broken Arm) and the drafting phase for Red, perhaps for compositional reasons, Qiu Xiaofei worked to highlight the remaining joint of the broken arm, which would for a time be the visual center of the picture, as if meant to recount something on its own. But as the painting progressed, he gradually softened this dramatic feel. By the time the final painting came together, this limb had “devolved” into a highly ordinary element of the broken-limbed figure, yielding its central position altogether. This yielding broke the balance that had once existed in the picture, bringing touches of unease to the dreamlike scene of Red.
The shifting rhythms of brushstrokes and colors are a part of Qiu Xiaofei’s awareness throughout the painting process. Even in the relatively uniform image of the broken-armed figure, we can see differences in the way the artist has rendered the arms, hands, torso and lower body: compared to the torso, we see fewer scratches in the paint of the arms, perhaps representing the steadfastness that remains of this restless human form, or perhaps representing rebirth; compared to the arms, the hand appears more assured, and hasn’t even really changed much from the original studies: the bright outline provided to the black by the opaque cremnitz white gives the hand a real sculptural feel, which differentiates it from the relatively flat body. In terms of texture, the hand appears as if hewn from black granite, which after endless polishing, has become a lofty, self-consistent symbol of time. After the joint of the broken arm, the left hand with its “black patina” occupies the visual center of Red, even if it does not provide any clear narrative of its own—the hand could be the gravity source that propels the seen and unseen movements of the planets in the background, or a road sign on the crossroads between past, present and unknown future, or of course it could just simply be a hand that draws in the gaze.
In the dog days of summer, the mentally-ill often have a harder time maintaining their composure. Lü Nan, creator of the photography book Forgotten People: The Condition of China’s Mental Patients, once recalled that in order to maintain the dignity of the patients he photographed, he would often shoot the same scene for a long period of time. Some mental patients had no awareness of their clothing, and were often in a “naked” state, making them appear “wretched” and “pathological” in the eyes of normal people. Oftentimes, people isolated and confined the mentally ill not only for easier management, but more importantly because these people had violated social taboos, creating the need to remove them and make them invisible. For artists who use representational mediums such as photography or painting to depict mental patients, this poses a paradox: if they follow social norms, giving the mentally ill a dignified appearance, for instance not depicting them naked and thus avoiding a “wretched” appearance, then they lose that truth which is “not accepted by society.” If they do not embellish the image of these patients to satisfy social norms, then these people are swallowed up by the power of taboos, and remain mired in their discarded silence. From this perspective, perhaps Red can dispense with the symbol of clothing, and thereby liberate the broken-armed figure, allowing it to embrace a more open meta-allegorical structure—a limbo between “naked” and “clothed” that avoids the illness representation paradox altogether.
Qiu Xiaofei is likely aware of the allegorical nature of Red on some level. At the unveiling of Red, visitors had to pass through a narrow channel devised by the painter in order to enter into a sacred space and view the painting. The picture is complex and chaotic, with dizzying intersections between transparent and opaque colors, dry and wet layers covering each other over and over again. Two different techniques break the sense of order to the brushstrokes and the image’s sense of stability (records of the creative process reveal that the painter covered over many historical images along the way), further heightening the work’s ambiguity of both meaning and appearance. These two unwieldy forms of ambiguity are precisely what provide the necessary context for certainty regarding the significance of the broken-armed figure: what matters is not the specific sense of history, such as the connection between the giant headless statue in the background and Qiu’s Utopia; nor is it the specific sense of tragedy, such as the connection between the partially-erased words “Longevity Mountain” on the tombstone in the foreground and Beijing’s Jingshan Mountain; what matters is from where the tenacity of life comes in the broad sense of history and tragedy.
There is one place the painter did not change throughout the process of Red: that small region in the bottom right corner, just beyond the small, snaking “boundary river,” stands in marked contrast with the mottled colors and spatiotemporal complexity on the other side. The muddy soil is like a pile of burnt and cooled embers, or like the ruins after the end of time. Death is often right at hand, “a short leap across the stream,” but the broken-armed figure, having internalized the great cycle of new life, decline, death, and rebirth, is deeply rooted in the land of the living, like an ancient tree. Death may be close at reach, but the broken-armed figure remains steady, as if declaring, “I am the true god of life.”