Color, and its distribution, make a kind of pure painted space, where there is competition between order and chaos, between passion and coldness, and between the commonplace and the inspired. The artist must let the mood build up, yet be able to seize the instant, to maintain the harmony that already exists and to evoke this opposition that is gradually revealed. –Su Xiaobai
Su Xiaobai received a traditional education in painting at the Wuhan School of Arts and the Beijing Central Academy of Fine Arts. Moving to Germany in 1987, he continued to study painting at the Düsseldorf Academy of Fine Arts, where his exposure to Western avant-garde art brought fresh inspiration and changed his conceptual outlook. Su returned to China in 2003, where participation in a cultural exchange in Fujian brought him into contact with ‘da qi,’ or Chinese lacquer, which had been developed into a sophisticated art form in that region. Lacquer is a coating developed from natural wood resins, and as the special medium for Chinese lacquer painting, its use stretches back thousands of years. Attracted by the unique, quietly exquisite character of lacquerware, Su embarked on a long period of study and practice, gradually becoming aware of the unique flow and evenness of lacquer, qualities he found lacking in other mediums. When used in painting, its fine, smooth quality stands in opposition to the coarser textures of canvas, and the surface of his works exhibit variously sized beads of color and a range of complex textures that cannot be produced in the oil medium. At the same time, Chinese lacquer exhibits a fine lustre and color gamut, and by means of newly developed production techniques, Su Xiaobai was able to control the lustre within a more subtle range of brightness. A single color applied in multiple, spreading layers became increasingly rich and mellow, while lacquer’s natural thickness and basic simplicity mean that even as Su produced new-wave, avant-garde works they still possessed a certain kind of Eastern reserve and a rich sense of history.
Su Xiaobo’s Three Colors—Yin Bai dates from 2013, by which time Su had become very proficient in lacquer techniques. In a complicated, ten-step layering process, Su would buff and polished the lacquer to adjust its color and patina. Standing before a work such as this, the sense of physical mass achieved through this slow process begins to blur the boundary between painting and sculpture. The surface shows a complex web of cracks and veins, while the whitish tones, and their varying depths, emit a subtle glow. Su Xaiobai once said he hoped that people would be able to view his works in natural light, or under low-level artificial lighting, to better appreciate their mysterious and changeable moods. The artist said, ‘White exists in a space where time has not yet entered, a space in which our thoughts can freely move.’ In his Suprematist Composition: White on White, Kazimir Malevich also chose white to represent limitless space; he believed that a Utopian world of purity could only be achieved in art through the use of non-figurative elements. Likewise, Su Xiaobai’s Three Colors—Yin Bai eliminates any objective or figurative content, focusing our attention on its coloristic aspects. This allows the viewer to observe the subtle shifts of its surface colors in a pure, calm frame of mind, to sense the spiritual and sacred aura in the light reflected from its surface.
In the marks of varying depths that score the surface, we see moments of impulse and inspiration, while the repeated alteration and re-covering of the surface that produced the harmony of this work embody long periods of patient accumulation. Each shift in color and each mark on the surface, even those that seem random and coincidental, are existential traces left by the artist during the work’s creation. The simplification of this picture surface was in fact created gradually, step-by-step, through a meticulous and complex production process. Su Xiaobai describes it this way: ‘I’m no longer dependent on depictions of nature; I’m no longer restricted to the natural world. I focus entirely on constructing my pictorial spaces.’ Su has therefore availed himself of Western minimalism to prevent any notion of symbolic subjects or emotional representation from entering into his works. In this way he completes the journey from the original ambitions of the Abstract Expressionists, to abstractly express the visible world, to a renewed focus on the purest expression of art in itself. Abstract art is no longer a vehicle by which the artist captures and expresses a particular kind of artistic conception, but instead becomes a genuine recognition of the existential beauty embodied in any work of art.