The Wuhan-born painter Xinyi Cheng brings to the Hamburger Bahnhof her striking, vibrantly coloured images of bare-chested men in surreal scenarios full of intimacy and intrigue. Read our interview with Cheng before you catch the final days of her solo show at Hamburger Bahnhof.
You have had a busy year, winning the prestigious Baloise Art Prize and getting the paintings ready for your first institutional show – which of course very few people have had a chance to see. How have you coped?
I felt okay when I went there, and really happy to put up a show in a 600-square-metre space, which was a year’s work. But now I am realising that this is almost over, and I started to feel a bit sad.
Has it opened up some doors for you?
Yes a lot, but I feel like showing in Germany is really special – even the quality of gallery exhibitions and the discourse around it, or working with the museum curators who were just so knowledgeable. I like German painters, especially Otto Dix. His paintings are so full of anger, horror and war. It amazes me how he makes these raw emotions so real and overwhelming to the audience.
You live in Paris. How do you like Berlin?
Being in Berlin really opened something up to me and it gave me the illusion of life as being extremely free. I was maybe too scared to enjoy it! Paris, where I’ve lived for the past five years, is different: it’s charming, and crossing the Seine everyday I am reminded about how beautiful the city is.
Anyone lucky enough to see your exhibition would be struck by the neon-like colours, which are bold but deeply sombre too. How did you come by that?
It was after I discovered Josef Albers and his book Interaction of Colour, with its different combinations and tonality, which made me want to play around with getting the colour palette to fit certain moods and emotions. But I also think adopting these colours was a way of saying goodbye to my past, which was a very traditional training at a Chinese college.
I studied sculpture in Beijing, and every day we made clay sculptures from live models. We did that for four years and at the end there was a thesis – then all of a sudden you were supposed to be super creative and make some art!
There are a lot of paintings in the show of bearded men, staring out of the canvas looking glum; others are half-naked and devouring meat. Is this a comment about the crisis in masculinity?
Yes, maybe, though gender is not such a big thing in my work. There is a painting in the show of a two-metre-tall friend who has a weird bowl cut that makes him look like a mushroom. I asked him why he has such a haircut. He said because he is so tall, he is worried about being intimidating and so wants to make himself look silly. I’m interested in how men deal with their masculinity and how they respond to other people’s feelings.
And there is a lot of playfulness – men flexing their muscles but being undermined, even mocked?
Yes, macho beards and poses come up a lot. But I want to have a silly twist to it, like with this painting of a friend flexing his muscles with this ridiculous horseshoe moustache.
You often show figures in intimate and vulnerable scenarios, with lots of people grooming each other, for instance…
I think in cutting hair, and with the scissors, there is always a sense of danger – the barber is holding this weapon that can harm you. You have to completely put your trust in them. When I pass by barber shops, the guys look like macho boys, but they really take care of their beard and hair and are really carefully groomed, which is the opposite of a certain kind of masculinity. I can’t really define what that is but it is a very sensual moment to paint.
You are known for mainly painting your friends – how did that come about? Some of them really want to be painted. The bowl cut boy was really excited and wanted to bring all his friends to see the show in Berlin. Some of them like to perform – for instance, I tell them to imagine they’re on an island and it’s surrounded by the ocean and they’re having a cigarette, as a way to get them in the zone. The paintings speak about who they are, because who you are comes out in how you look, and I don’t want to make them superficial.
Most of the faces are really inscrutable, one can’t make out the expressions. But so much is being conveyed.
Yes. I do like to paint eyes – but painting the mouth determines if someone is happy and sad; it tells too much directly. I don’t like that. I like people being absorbed in what they are doing. I look to make the emotions and the mood with the colours and brushstrokes instead of with an expression on their face.
I read somewhere that visiting museums is one of your favourite pastimes. Absolutely! My old tutor once told me: “When you go to a museum and see a piece of art you really love, remember that feeling, and when you come to back to your studio, try and achieve it.” It’s a chance to have a conversation with artists from decades and centuries ago, and I feel so privileged to be in Europe and to see so many great painters.
Xinyi Cheng’s The Horse with Eye Blinders | through June 6 | Hamburger Bahnhof, Mitte
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