When I ask Beijing painter Xia Xiaowan to list a few of his favourite artists, he replies, simply, “Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci”. When I ask about his latest series, a haunting collection of 3D paintings on layered sheets of glass, he sounds like Descartes, slipping into a trance-like meditation on his quest for three dimensional space. In short, the guy’s an artiste. A blue-blooded, highly-educated, born-in-1959, highbrow Chinese painter completely submerged in the field. A master, as they call them; waxy candles, notebooks full of sketches, engaging debates, lectures and reflections on the pros and cons of oil painting... the whole nine yards. And despite the dark look of his CAT scan-inspired 3D paintings - that arrested the blogging art world a few months back - Xiaowan describes his work optimistically, as explorations of "human being humanity" (sic)…
When did you start working with sheets of glass in 3D?
Where’d you get the idea?
I had a solo exhibition in Beijing, at Today Art Museum. I showed my sketch on paper works, nearly two hundred pieces. The exhibition hall is really huge, upright and foursquare. I had many problems expressing space in flat paintings. I recognised that painting can never surpass its flat quality in a real space. Therefore, that made me crazy about the problem. Can painting be painted in a totally space way? I began to practice associating painting with the theory of CT (CAT) scans in medical technology.
How do you actually put the paintings together? What’s the process?
First, I create a sketch on paper of the image I want to paint. Then I divide the image spatially, according to my own understanding of its shape and volume. The third step is I paint the cut shapes continuously and successively on different glass sheets.
And how long does each one take, generally?
One or two months, depending on the degree of complexity of the image.
Do you prefer painting like this to traditional two-dimensional paintings?
I never give up creating traditional two-dimensional paintings and will go on. I just do some experiment on spatial paintings to find a more precise theme in recent years.
Visually, they’re pretty dark and disturbing. Is there any kind of back-story, or a common theme that ties them together?
I think it’s because I am very interested in expressing a theme of humanity. I was influenced by the Western humanities and classical arts when I was a student.
What kind of themes were you exploring with the latest series?
Human being humanity.
What’s the strangest/worst reaction you’ve had to the work?
Some think transforming flat painting to the form of 3D has no constructive meaning on the style. Others recognise this kind of space work just as technological design products.
And the best?
Besides exclaiming the strong visual power of the work, many are very interested in the new form of painting and the unclear definition, such as painting, sculpture or installation. I feel really happy and lucky the works can directly express themselves without explanation.
How many versions of each piece do you make?
Usually just one.
How do you transport them?
I appoint a professional art transport company in Beijing to cover and transport my work to different places in the world.
Who are some of your favourite artists?
Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci.
According to Wikipedia, you’re a member of the China Oil Painting Institute, the Beijing Artists Association and the Beijing Arts of Oil Painting Commission. Sounds pretty deep. What does being a member of these organisations entail?
If one artist wants to be a member of these organisations, he must participate in many important exhibitions arranged by these organisations and be voted in by specialists committees. The artist must be a professor in college or very famous.
And are your handmade 3D paintings, in any way, a deliberate move towards non-digital work? Are you making some kind of statement?
I never use digital technology in my creation. I do not intent to expel using digital technology, I just think it is not necessary to me to use the technology. What I really want is to paint, simply and directly.
What about 3D movies? Seen any good ones?
Until now, just one movie, Avatar. Pretty good. I like it very much.
Okay, what’s an average day to you?
I was born in and live in Beijing. My life and work has little change. I just move between studio and home almost every day. Occasionally, I visit friends' exhibitions.
Where do you work best and feel most creative?
I have been accustomed to live and work in Beijing. I believe stable and peaceful condition is more suitable to my creation.
Any thoughts on the state of the world?
The way I understand it, the world limits reports about contrived major affairs or environmental disasters from medias. Educated by book or feeling by myself, I am not sure where I get the view that human beings can never stop their steps to destroy themselves for interest. Nothing can save human beings when cruel facts have happened. That is the very reason why I chose the humanity theme. I really hope that we people will never “hate you others” just because we only love ourselves. We can save ourselves by actually loving others. But what I really mean has little to do with religion.
And what’s next? Where’s the next exhibition?
I will hold a small solo show in Beijing in September. Other exhibitions are just in project stage.
For more information, and to buy Xia's work, check out his profile on artnet