Exhibition: Xu Weixin’s Monumental Portraits | Arts & Culture

Exhibition: Xu Weixin’s Monumental Portraits

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By Natsu Oyobe

One of the most accomplished painters working in China today, Xu Weixin has been creating portraits of his country’s citizens since the 1980s. Over the past 10 years, he has focused on close-up, larger-than-life-size faces, painted in a Realist style that has roots in China’s modern history. His method draws our attention to the personal lives and stories of his subjects. As individual portraits, each work invites a

“Miner Liu Jinsuo” from “Miner Portraits,” 2005–2015, oil on canvas, 98 2/5 x 78 3/4 in., Private collection

n emotional connection between the viewer and the subject. But when these portraits are exhibited together in a series, as an installation, they take on a collective power, and begin to speak of the larger human condition.

“Xu Weixin: Monumental Portraits,” the artist’s first exhibition in the United States, brings together selections from his two best-known portrait series.“ Miner Portraits” features images of miners who have labored in the harsh conditions of state-owned mines. Going against the political rhetoric of the art that predominated during China’s revolutionary era, Xu rejects the glorifying images of blue-collar workers that served as the foundation of the state. Instead, his paintings of miners capture their candid expressions, emphasizing that their lives and experiences are as important as that of any other human being.

The subjects in “Chinese Historical Figures: 1966-1976” are people who lived through the turbulent decade of the Cultural Revolution. The familiar faces of major political figures are mixed with those of lesser-known individuals, including students and Red Guard soldiers. By representing and displaying these subjects with utter neutrality and uniformity, the artist compels us to look beyond the fragmented and faceless impression we may have of a major historical event, into the stories and experiences of each individual.

Xu Weixin was trained in the style of Socialist Realism the heroic naturalism, employed to depict ideals of the Communist state, that was the dominant painting school in China after the Communist Revolution in 1949. In the 1990s, the overtly political agenda and naturalist style of Socialist Realism gradually lost its status, as the art scene, fueled by international attention and commercial success, became more diverse. While sharing the critical co

nsciousness of many of his contemporaries, Xu has continued to explore the aesthetic possibilities within Realism. These series of monumental portraits, begun in 2005, have been his breakthrough, here he merges the documentary power of Realist painting with the immersive, transformative experience of installation art.

“Huang Shuai” from “Chinese Historical Figures: 1966–1976,” 2005–2012, oil on canvas, 98 2/5 x 78 3/4 in., Courtesy of Taikang Collection and Taikang Space

“Xu Weixin: Monumental Portraits” is on view at the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) from February 20 to May 29, 2016. The exhibition is free and open to the public.

Lead support for this exhibition is provided by the University of Michigan Health System, University of Michigan Office of the President, and the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts. Additional generous support is provided by the University of Michigan Confucius Institute, Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies, Beijing Fu Zhan Zhou Culture Art Development Co. Ltd, Boylescott Limited, and University of Michigan Ross School of Business Global China Node.