Xie Caomin's mandala-shaped paintings evoke the anxieties of 9/11

Chinese artist's massive contemplative works on display at MOCA GA

Tuesday May 31, 2011 09:00 am EDT

At a lecture in May, Shanghai-born artist Xie Caomin stood in MOCA GA's main gallery dressed in a black shirt and black jeans with black boots on his feet, his long black hair brought into a single braid down his back. In any other context, Xie's dark figure might have seemed intimidating or imposing. But his body looked meek, eclipsed by the monumental scale of his latest series of paintings, Mandala of Ruins. To be fair, the 12-by-9-foot canvases would dwarf anyone. As if to acknowledge the bewildering size and the difficulty of approaching such large, intimidating work, even as the artist who made them, Xie began by saying, "I really don't know how to talk about my paintings."

In almost every respect, the paintings speak for themselves. The six works included in Samsra, produced with the help of a Working Artist Project grant from MOCA GA, are variations on a mandala, a traditionally Buddhist form that uses mathematical elements to create a circular, kaleidoscopic shape. Viewed from a distance, they appear precise, nearly digital. But upon close inspection, the work reveals rough, quick brush strokes. A couple of paintings are oriented as landscapes, while the rest are lined up like towers rising above the viewer. Samsra also includes a projected digital animation of the mandala shapes slowly, cyclically shifting without any apparent beginning or end.

One crucial detail, though, is not immediately apparent. To create the initial compositions, Xie collected images of the World Trade Center ruins after 9/11. Through digital manipulation and hand sketching, Xie adapted the images into the abstract-seeming mandala shapes in the paintings.

This revelation of Xie's process, one of the few things he did explain about the paintings during his artist talk, introduces a set of discomforting, ambiguous questions. Does the mandala shape suggest a careful balance or a chaotic fracturing? Are those bits of line and shape a torn scrap of fuselage? Is a grey smear the remnant of billowing smoke? Does the circular, outward movement of the paintings suggest explosions? As the questions multiply, the paintings' striking, intimidating beauty becomes interwoven with the claustrophobic anxiety of tragedy.

Xie has been living in Georgia since 1999, when he moved to attend the Savannah College of Art and Design after studying painting and sculpture at the Academy of Art in China. He's currently in Shanghai, only the second time he's returned. While there, he's visiting friends and family and viewing art in an atmosphere he describes as "very open." By e-mail, he explains that previous generations of art students in China were instructed to work within the strict confines of socialist realism. His generation, however, experienced a new openness toward contemporary disciplines. "I belong to the first generation that the communist ideology start to weaken, and it affects art school very obvious. Back then, I remember art school students started to pay attention to what's going on in Western art scene, and started to talk about Western post-structuralism."

The recent jailing by Chinese authorities of Ai Weiwei, a prominent and somewhat controversial Chinese artist, has raised questions about just how open the Chinese government's attitude is toward artists. Xie is tight-lipped on the subject, saying only, "The detention of Ai Weiwei didn't affect anything in the art circle. Actually, it's sad."

Xie's move to the United States wasn't prompted by any particular notion about the country. "I just want to get out of China and to move to a place that I didn't familiar with," he says. "Before I moved to the U.S., I made a trip to Europe and I quickly find out that Europe was too touristy." The recent economic growth of China, though, isn't lost on him. "I always joking to myself that if I had stayed in China, I must be rich now. My old condo in Shanghai, if my parent didn't sell it, it would worth a million dollar."

The United States, though, quickly became a different place after the events of 9/11. "I saw the news at a grocery store in Savannah. My first reaction was that it must be a practical joke, and then I realized that it was real," he says. "In the TV, it looks just like a Hollywood movie." As 9/11's significance became apparent to Xie, he gradually began trying to understand it through philosophy and, eventually, Buddhism.

The title of Xie's exhibition, Samsra, refers to a Buddhist concept of cyclical creation and destruction. Watching the endless, projected animation aside the paintings, the play between balance and chaos, between the horrors of 9/11 and the calm offered by spiritual focus, is made explicit. The paintings tower like monuments to this uneasy, imposing feeling: a world constantly shifting, the center always moving. Xie, though, doesn't seem overwhelmed, "As an artist, living in anywhere everywhere is the same. Making art, that's all."

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