The Simplicity of Truth
by Ellen Manning
Du Xinjian is not only a well-trained, incredibly skilled, disciplined and precise painter, but also he is an intellectual with a fantastic scope of imagination and creativity. Like a philosopher, Du’s profound artistic expression is wonderfully paradoxical. The artist creates an illusion of reality within a surreal and extraordinary aesthetic. His exceptional oil and acrylic paintings offer an intellectual and vivid interpretation of life and ‘existence’. Du Xinjian gives generously to the good-humored viewer and he also offers fascinating insights that seem beyond comprehension. There is a duality and an edgy quality to his work which highlights his uniqueness within his own cultural realm.
The first thing one notices about Du’s work is how technically skilled he is as an artist. Trained at China’s top art institute, the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Du Xinjian is also a very meticulous person. Du’s training and continual practice with painting are so well-engrained into the artist that he does not even require models to paint very precise and anatomically correct figures and fantastic landscapes. The artist’s smaller paintings of faces which are so wonderfully alive and expressive could in fact be considered as Du Xinjian’s “doodles”; he paints those when he needs to take a break from his bigger, more time consuming pieces. It is truly amazing that Du is able to paint every detail of the heads, every bump and crevice on the scalp, purely from recollections of his own training and practice and from his own imagination. The figures look so real; it is as though the characters are brought to existence purely from the power of the artist’s imagination. Few artists anywhere in the world, nowadays, are able to paint with such pin-point accuracy and detail as Du Xinjian.
Du Xinjian’s paintings are in a world of their own. The artist carefully constructs a fictional reality, which has a simultaneously impossible and strangely alluring logic about it. Du’s figures sometimes float around, absent-minded towards the reality and necessity of gravity. Some people are nude, alluding to the innocence and naïveté of Adam and Eve. Fish are often emerging from the water or hovering in the air, oblivious towards their inability to escape their lives in the water. Indeed, the artist’s scenes are based in reality – with rivers, earth and landscapes. Yet, within every piece, something about the reality that we are “stuck” in has been twisted and transformed away from our earthly reality and into Du’s own magical-seeming place. With their basis in reality, the scenes in Du’s paintings are not unfamiliar, and so we are able to relate to the settings. The viewer is then compelled to relate to the artworks on a more personal level. It almost seems as though if, in our reality, our minds somehow overlook physics and physical properties then we too could be “free” to float within our surroundings, like Du’s figures.
The absurdity of the new reality painted by Du Xinjian makes us look at our own reality from a different perspective. We somehow question the world around us – a necessity from the point-of-view of any philosopher. Or perhaps Du’s paintings are actually a window into an alternate reality which could really exist. How can we be certain that it does not? Maybe the artist is pointing to the power of our own imagination, and his paintings allow us to experience his colorful and personal imagination, which would otherwise go unnoticed. Du Xinjian’s visual dialogue is rather like a story-teller. He ignites our imaginations with a description through language, except his artistic language covers the breadth of extraordinary canvases. Indeed Du Xinjian is passionate about literature and in particular Chinese historical literature. He has said that his scenes were indirectly inspired by a story of a farmer, who temporarily travels to a utopian society called “Tao Hua Yuan”, written by the famous Chinese classical poet Tao Yuan Ming.
The details that Du Xinjian places within the scenes in his paintings add further depth and meaning to his pieces. It is as though the scenes are taking place haphazardly in a land where other equally bizarre events are occurring simultaneously, yet they are semi-unnoticed. The details within the work serve to enhance the scenes, but they often illustrate the artist’s subtle wit as well. For example, in Du’s award-winning painting “Situation”, a fish is lying on dry land, to which logic would conclude its demise. Beside the fish there is a man who appears to be suffering the same tragic fate. The one visible eye of the fish is trained on the man, and the aquatic creature’s expression appears to be shocked and questioning: “What is going on? How could you be lying here like a fish out of water?” Apart from the humorous expression of the fish, the placement of the fish and the man side-by-side in similar circumstances draws a comparison between living beings in a way that is reminiscent of Buddhist philosophies. In another piece, a man in the background of a painting is standing in the river with a book in hand reading (Confucius) to a donkey. “How do we know for sure that the donkey doesn’t understand?” asks Du in a partially joking way. Through this clever and unique method, the artist’s paintings make us contemplate our surroundings. In another painting, two people – one of whom is a bigger man with a belly – are standing on the shoulders of a thin woman. This is a reversal of logic because it is usually the bigger man who will stand below supporting the thin woman on top. Observing this incongruous event elicits a great sense of enjoyment in most viewers. The artist plays with the logic of our reality which is both appealing and challenging.
Apart from literature, Du’s inspiration also comes from a wide variety of sources, in addition to his own vivid imagination. Certain figures hold poses that are inspired by figures in Renaissance paintings such as a woman with her arm up (while, in Du’s case, riding on a fish). The red flush on the figures’ cheeks is certainly a nod towards classical realist painters. In one piece, painted clouds were inspired by Magritte. Du has also recently been painting submarines, drawing inspiration from current political events in the Chinese news. Many of the artist’s landscapes and mountains were originally inspired by Du’s home province of Shandong, and they also have been influenced by historical European painting techniques. Du Xinjian’s paintings also contain “figments of reality” to “remind viewers” that we are eventually forced back to reality just like the farmer at the end of the story of Tao Hua Yuan Ji. In some paintings, computers (with Windows) – something increasingly important in modern times – appear as though they are either sinking into the earth or emerging from the earth. This tiny jolt of our real-life surroundings remind us of our own reality, even while we are engrossed in the fantastic scenes that flow from Du Xinjian’s brush.
The artist claims that “the space between the real and the surreal is vague.” Perhaps Du is hunting for a link between the conscious and the subconscious to create meaning. It is as though Du is encouraging clarity in the real world by observing ones’ surroundings both internally and externally. Here, the visual dialogue of Du Xinjian becomes more of a philosophical discourse that seems appropriate given the artist’s power of thought. Beneath the absurd surface of bald humans riding fish there is a message that is much more profound. For example, his nonchalant depiction of wearing sunglasses and headphones is also a contemplation of a world without sight or hearing. Intellectually and aesthetically, he elicits awe in most viewers.
In Du’s latest series of paintings, his work has progressed from delicate, finely painted almost photo-like surreal scenes to a much more expressionist surrealism, with bolder brush strokes and stronger, more striking colours. Also, the lighting and composition is more dramatic in some pieces as though the figures have been caught in the middle of an event rather than just being observed in their everyday life. For example, in one of his recent paintings, brightly coloured red bricks are constructed to form two walls as the background of the painting. The walls are angled or pointing towards the corner of a building where a man stands holding a fat fish in his arms. The man appears to have been trapped or “cornered” and as a result has become cross-eyed. Indeed, our own eyes are tricked through the visual play and optical illusion of depth caused by the angle of the bricks; perhaps the figure in the painting mirrors our own tricked eyes, illustrated in his crossed eyes.
Du Xinjian is truly an exceptional Chinese contemporary artist. His artistic skills are undeniable – both technical and creative. Unlike many of his peers, Du continually creates new and fresh ideas and presents them with intelligence. Each of the artist’s paintings is carefully considered before he paints them with incredible detail. Unlike many of his contemporaries, each work of Du Xinjian’s is a unique and intricately detailed object d’art. Du Xinjian’s artistic expression and philosophical theme (and his preoccupation with flight and fish) have resulted in many admirers across the globe. The artist's unique work has been exhibited world-wide: South-East Asia, Europe and North America in addition to China. Du Xinjian is a well-regarded artist, not only because his works are technically sound, but also because of the philosophical depth of each of the artist’s paintings.