Whitehot Magazine

Suyi Xu in conversation with Qingyuan Deng

Installation view, Suyi Xu: Free Fall at EUROPA.

By QINGYUAN DENG April 18, 2024

Looking at Suyi Xu’s paintings feels both calming and thrilling. The calm comes from her mastery of serene spaces that conceal all discomfort often associated with the masculine movements of abstraction. The thrill comes from the gradual dissolution of space and time in her paintings that requires careful investigation. In Free Fall, her first solo exhibition at EUROPA, Xu debuts a group of paintings that are bound up by the remnants of histories and traditions and yet at the same time devolve their potency and accelerate their mutation.

The paintings on view at Free Fall have a fraught relation with spirituality. On one hand, Simone Weil, the foremost Catholic philosopher-mystic of twentieth century, whose writings intensely explicate the art of losing oneself and dreaming up a beyond in the messy present, provide much inspiration for Xu’s impossible architectures. On the other hand, the loss of faith in the transcendental haunts the constructions meticulously conjured up by Xu; their nebulous contours sketch out our wrecked conviction in religious institutions.

Xu’s paintings also tend toward recursivity. Spaces multiply to the point of no return as they lose semblance to real-life references and become an indefinite chain of reflections. Perspectives, no longer strictly linear or leading to one focal point, get caught u in the proliferation of these metaphysical structures and are now enjoyably disorienting.

On the occasion of Free Fall, Xu and I talked about the spiritual aims of her paintings and what she has read in preparation for this body of paintings.

Suyi Xu, The Wandering Womb, 2023. Oil on linen, 44 x 56 inches.

Suyi Xu in conversation with Qingyuan Deng

QD: You paint prominent European cultural institutions with storied histories from your Brooklyn studio. What attracts you to these spaces deeply associated with Renaissance and early modern Europe?

SX: I am very influenced by Baudelaire’s idea of beauty. In The Painter of Modern Life, he talks about how a work of art should be both timely and eternal. The eternal element is variable, and the timely element is circumstantial, reflecting the taste, fashion, moral and emotion of its time. I draw a lot of inspiration from the eternal, but at the same time I’m looking at it in the present moment and reimagining the eternal with contemporary eyes.

There’s a rapture between this space I paint and the space I live. When I’m conceiving the body of work that is on at Europa, I was feeling this constant state of compression. I felt very oppressed by space and noise, living in a city that's full of tension. Subconsciously, I was trying to create work that is about silence and open space. I would joke to my friends that because I have very little access to a place that offers grace I keep dreaming up with them in my work.

You were trained in art history in addition to visual arts and your painting have this affinity for historical narratives in spite of their contemporaneous style. How would you describe the role of time in your paintings?

Time is a very essential ingredient in my work. There’s the linear time, which is how we make sense and make orders of the world. But as individual we also experience an interior time, that show up as memories, dreams and meditations. In my work time shows up as care and rituals. I usually start my day with a 30 minutes’ walk from my apartment to my studio and sweeping the studio floor. In the past, I wanted to eliminate signs of life, such as sleeping and eating, because I believe it was in the way of creation. I believed that this mortal flesh that I must keep attending to feels more like a burden than something that I should be grateful for. Recently I realized the process of creation already started in that 30 minutes’ walk to the studio.

The great Catholic mystic Simone Weil is an important interlocutor for your paintings. In Gravity and Grace, Weil discusses the insistence on emptiness as a spiritual practice. In your works, you create emptiness through constructing dreamscapes that are physically impossible. How is your approach to emptiness similar and/or different than Weil’s?

Emptiness functions in two ways in my work. On a formal level, I am very intentional about emptiness as negative space, which holds as much weight as the area are painted. I think about such formal constrain through the metaphor of music, where the pause between notes is just as important as the music itself. On a more metaphysical level, I am fascinated by the void. This Simone Weil quote, where she says void is a place where we meet grace, really propels me.

Avoiding one point perspective, I usually start a work from the outskirts and work my way into the center, which is often an empty space that I don't know what to do with until the very last moment. The vanishing point is itself a void waiting to be filled. And when I finish a painting, the center becomes an accumulation and summation of all the efforts that were leading up to that point.

Suyi Xu, The Apparitions (detail), 2024. Oil on linen, 22 x 18 inches.

Readers of Weil know well that she also prescribes to an embodied emptiness, as evident in her acute attention to her own bodily state and her asceticism, in opposition to oppressive institutions. In your paintings, we see an absence of bodies. What are some of your reasons for depicting institutional spaces devoid of human traces?

Figuration for me is very much linked to pleasure. The rendering of human flesh, according to De Kooning, is the reason oil paint is invented. When I first started painting, I was much more indulgent with that pleasure and made a lot of work that puts the body in the center stage, whereas the spatial element is just a backdrop to complicate a narrative or a stage for the action to happen. A few years ago, I became interested in the subconscious mind of repressed desires, which for me manifests more in the modulation of space than the figure itself. And I believe I can cultivate a bodily presence without the actual representation of that figure. A transference of energy happened where after I stopped painting human, the body somehow infused itself into the surrounding. And the very act of painting the space itself is to embody it. By emptying out all the space in these institutional spaces, I can imagine myself in them.

Art historian Rosalyn Deutsche, whom you studied with at Barnard, wrote about ellipse as a space of lack and incompletion, far removed from fullness and unity, which signifies placelessness in postmodern art. Similarly, there is an abundance of curves and focal points (and sometimes lack thereof) in your paintings. What do notions of place and geometry mean to you?

I studied Institutional Critique with Rosalyn Deutsche. For my show at Europa, I am fascinated with the idea of cultural institution as sites of worship and power. I tried to draw a parallel between these historical museums with cathedrals, because both spaces indoctrinate the audience through their supreme beauty and sovereignty. And initially I tried to call attention to this by adopting the one-point perspective. The vanishing point mirrors the viewers as the whole visual paradigm convergence into your eyes. It's a really like a position of mastery. However, I become less invested in this idea as this body of work evolved. I have retained the linear perspective, but they function more as like a geometrical or formulaic device. For instance, in The Doppelganger floors turn to mirrors and space turn to concentric circles of reflections. The gradual dissolution of real space is heightened, as I have removed the horizontal line, which results in an image that has more to do with my own projected psyche than being about a believable actual space.

Hito Steyerl, whom you are in conversation with through your paintings, discussed the vertical as an apparatus of class warfare in her essay In Free Fall. Many leftist theorists who influenced Steyerl have proposed the horizontal as an alternative way of organizing our relations. What is your relationship to the horizon/horizontal and its disappearance?

I started reading In Free Fall, when I was almost finished with the show. In the essay, she started from the history of linear perspective and ended with the gradual disappearance of the horizontal line, which somehow magically mirrors the transformation that was taking place in my studio. Once I removed the horizontal line in my work, a sort of new visuality arises: Space dissolves, architecture fractures into pure forms, and the boundaries between interior and exterior becomes ambivalent, I realized that I don't have to rely on this utopian ideal of linear perspective anymore and embraced the spiral of freefall that we're all somehow experiencing, instead of desperately trying to hold on to a stable ground. The plurality of free fall as ruin, love, abandonment, passion, surrender, decline, corruption, and liberation particularly resonates with me. WM

Qingyuan Deng

Qingyuan Deng is a curator and writer, based between Shanghai and New York City. He is interested in relational aesthetics, experimental filmmaking, and the intersection between literary culture and visual arts.

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