Xu Weixin’s art paints real, no-nonsense portrait of China

Sunday, April 10, 2016 - 7:10pm

Many a Chinese artist has painted a portrait of Chairman Mao, the country’s leader during and after the Communist Revolution. His likeness, which adorns buildings, Tiananmen Square and an enormous gold statue, even inspired an Andy Warhol portrait still on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

But contemporary painter Xu Weixin’s take on the famous leader is a little different. Viewed on its own, his portrait of Mao looks similar to more conventional depictions — painted on a grand scale, the monumental portrait seems to reflect Mao's stature in Chinese society, accompanied by a small plaque with a brief biography of his life. But in the context of Weixin’s exhibition “Monumental Portraits,” his American debut, the Mao painting takes on a greater significance.

Next to Mao’s portrait is another portrait, identical in size and style, depicting a young boy. As you turn away from the wall and scan the gallery, you take in dozens of these paintings, all the same larger-than-life size, portraits of miners and schoolteachers, politicians and businesspeople. The paintings come from one series in which Weixin painted contemporary Chinese miners, and another in which he depicted figures from the 1966 Cultural Revolution in China based on old photographs.

There is something immensely powerful about standing in the gallery, surrounded by faces and figures, many unknown or marginal even in China, on such a monumental scale. Weixin paints in a realist style infused with pathos, his muted color palette reflecting the melancholy air of many of his subjects. Taken on their own, unaccompanied by the text on or beside each painting, they remind me of Dennis Hopper's work — the loneliness of humanity etched in each line on the faces of the solitary figures. Weixin has a real gift for capturing the nuance of facial expression, and I often recognized myself or someone I know in the mischievous sparkle in a child's face or the worn-out frustration of an overworked bureaucrat.

But the text, as in Mao's portrait, provides a short and dispassionate biography of the subject's life which packs a huge emotional punch. These figures, seemingly anonymous and distant, are revealed to be as enormously, overwhelmingly human as their oversized visages. Weixin chose to paint figures from all facets of the Cultural Revolution, which remains the most contentious period in modern Chinese history.

The 1960s saw a change in government policy and grassroots actions which sought to purify the country of any remaining non-Communist, pre-modern influences. Weixin paints top party leaders like Chairman Mao and his wife, Jiang Qing, but also supposed "nobodies," from emigrants who left China to victims who died during the era's political purges. Many landholders, intellectuals and political dissidents died during the time period at the hand of the Red Guard, teens and college students who wanted to cleanse China of dissent.

Weixin doesn't leave any of these stories out. He paints victims, like a Peking University professor who was beaten to death by her own female students, or a fifth grade girl who was “re-educated” after she wrote a letter asking the government to put an end to the violence. And he paints Red Guard leaders, telling their stories of youthful optimism that fueled periods of militant violence, but also of times of hard labor and incredible achievement. The United States doesn't have a particularly nuanced view of contemporary China, the Cultural Revolution or even Chinese art. Weixin’s diverse, multifaceted portrait of his country’s history is a poignant reminder of the complexity of the human experience.