A Sacred Intent to the Spiritual Meditation, New York-based Painter Suyi Xu

Suyi Xu (b. 1996, Shanghai, China) is a painter who currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Xu earned her B.A. in Art History and Visual Arts from Barnard College (New York) and her M.F.A. in the Fine Arts Department of the School of Visual Arts (New York) in 2022. Xu’s paintings are meditations on space, interiors, and architecture that morphs into meditations on color fields. Her subjects are responses to the spiritual crisis of contemporary existence, and her method is a visceral engagement with the painting medium driven by the idea of a sacred intent.

Xu has participated in exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe, including group shows at Galerie Hussenot (Paris, 2022), New Collectors Gallery New York, 2021), Boomer Gallery (London, 2021), and A.I.R. Gallery (New York, 2021). Her solo exhibition All that is Solid Melts into Air is currently on view at Fou Gallery until December 18, 2022.

Installation view of Suyi Xu: All that is Solid Melts into Air, 2022. Photograph by Zhou Xi. Courtesy of Fou Gallery.

We would love to learn how your creative journey has been so far. Can you tell us a little about yourself? 

I am a painter and an artist who currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. I paint because it’s a persistent practice, a nonverbal habit, and my way of being in the world. 

I came to painting when I was pursuing an art history degree in college. In one seminar, our teacher told us to pick the subject of term paper by taking a stroll at the Met, until an artwork caught our attention; and before writing in words, do a drawing study first. She emphasized that we need to find our subject in person, not through image reproductions; and the request for drawing was unprecedented for an art history class. Now I have internalized this “instruction” in my practice—a method of intent looking, acquired by patience, chance, and a state of free fall—a free fall in aesthetic experience that comes before language. I still do this kind of “free fall” in museums once in a while, or the world at large, where I let something find me, move me, till I gain a force to translate and transcend it.

Suyi Xu, Consulting Lights (Study of Rembrandt/removing the figure), 2022. 
Oil on linen, 14 x 11 inches. Photograph by Xi Zhou. Courtesy of Fou Gallery. 
Suyi Xu, Consulting Shadows (Study of Hammershoi), 2022. Oil on linen, 10 x 14 inches. Photograph by Xi Zhou. Courtesy of Fou Gallery. 

What is your art about? Do you have a specific topic or theme in your practice?

I am a painter of spaces and silence. I do not consciously think of themes in my practice; instead they emerge like subconscious patterns. My first body of work features a lot of close-ups of hands. I’m drawn to their tenderness and proximity of intimacy—how our bodies unconsciously compile habits and affinities we unknowingly accept. There is also a theatrical side of hands. Through A Glass Darkly (2021) heightens that theatricality. From that painting I discovered the evocative power of space. Mark Strand describes Hopper’s work as “a drama between what geometry wills and what narratives propose.” The later paintings that specifically deal with space are, in a similar way, about what “objective expression” wills and what “feelings” convey.

Suyi Xu, Through A Glass Darkly, 2021. Oil on canvas, 36 x 30 inches. Photograph by Xi Zhou. Courtesy of Fou Gallery. 

What is the most exciting project that you have worked on during the past few years?

Every painting I made has its own journey. I used to be a “serial monogamist” where I work on one painting at a time and do not stop until it was completely resolved. This method of working could get incredibly obsessive, especially when the painting reaches a certain level of complexity and starts to confront me with silence. Then I would either take it off the stretcher bar or force the moment into crisis. In the progress of All that is Solid Melts into Air (2021), I painted the water for so long that I thought I was also drowning in the painting. In the initial phase of The Unwinged Surrender of Kneeling Youth (2021), I walked into the studio every day to see the same cathedral-like room that starts to look like a prison. In those moments, the conceptual space of the painting and the psychic space I inhabit become one. Now I am taking a more liberating approach by working on multiple canvases at once, like attending to different pots in the kitchen. However, one piece would eventually get more demanding than the others. Then I plunge myself back into it until we reach closure. 

Suyi Xu, All that is Solid Melts into Air, 2020. Oil on canvas, 28 x 22 inches. Photograph by Xi Zhou. Courtesy of Fou Gallery. 
Suyi Xu, The Unwinged Surrender of Kneeling Youth, 2022. Oil on linen, 64 x 48 inches. Photograph by Xi Zhou. Courtesy of Fou Gallery. 

What does “community” mean to you? How do you see yourself in a community? 

I empathize deeply with the portrayal of “maenads” in the greek play The Bacchae. They are the female followers of Dionysus, the god of excess and passion. In the rites of celebration, they reach a state of ecstatic frenzy, tearing apart beasts and drawing milk from streams. The word maenad, in its Greek origin, literally means “mad” or “demented.” I wonder if the maenad was also once “a mad woman in the attic”[1], and I wonder how society constructs the narrative of female madness. I don’t recall much about the rest of the play, but I remember how maenads inspired in me a form of reverie, a malady of dreaming. There is a radicality in their collective feelings of ecstasy and destruction. If the cult of maenads is a community where the deranged and the marginalized find a place of solidarity, I see myself in it. 

Suyi Xu, A Woman Under the Influence, 2021. Oil on canvas, 72 x 48 inches. Photograph by Xi Zhou. Courtesy of Fou Gallery. 

[1] Termed by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in 1979, “the mad woman in the attic” refers to the literary and cinematic trope of the deranged female character. The original mad woman is Bertha from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, who was locked in the attic by Mr. Rochester. 

Do you have any advice that you would offer to others?

People tend to give away advice they need the most themselves, as told by Oscar Wilde. In my case, it would be to never forget my studio keys.

text & photo courtesy of Suyi Xu & FOU Gallery

Photograph credit: Xi Zhou

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