Truth is often buried deep under the water. What appears above the water is not a real spectacle but a contextual perception of reality.
- Xu Lei
Green Mountain After Rain belongs to the Sea and Sky series that Xu Lei began to paint in 2012. Here, the artist imbues the painting with delicate, fluctuating hues of blue suggestive of the sea and the sky. The pictorial surface is divided into two seemingly connected parts, demarcated only by a line that alludes to the sea level. Rising above the deep cobalt blue sea is what appears to be a classical Chinese landscape painting, with expressive trees and craggy mountain-forms in the style of the Ming artist Dong Qichang (1555-1636); below the sea, the uncanny extension of the mountains takes the form of a hyperreal rock mass buried underwater, alluding to the contrasting visual lexicons in the tradition of Chinese painting. For Xu Lei, what appeals is “how to make a game out of cerebral, rhetorical relations among pictorial figures" which recalls the trompe l’oeil that delights the symbolists and the surrealists in pursuit of the perfect visual paradox.
A master manipulator of the seen and the unseen, Xu Lei invites the viewer to participate in the mise en abyme in his pictorial game. The calligraphy inscribed above the mountains in the upper part of the composition further references a poem inscribed by the Song Emperor Lizong (r. 1224-1264) in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art – albeit the first and second lines of the couplet are depicted in the reverse order. The poem likely describes the beauty of the West Lake: ‘Deep in the autumn, waters are clear to the bottom / After rain, blueness extends across the sky.’ It remains ambiguous what ‘truth’ the artist intends to present underneath the surface; perhaps the paradox lies in the contextual, or perhaps false perception of reality.
Xu Lei’s work points to the paradoxical nature of things. With refined, meticulous gongbi brushstrokes, he frames his subject – enigmatic rocks, mountains or a lone horse – in a seemingly implausible dreamscape, with curtains or screens obstructing the objects on view. Hinged between the public and the private, the visible and the invisible and when the familiar is made strange, the often magical enclosed space constructed by Xu Lei at once dislodges and divorces the subject from their usual context: a heightened sense of strangeness is at play.