While revealing his sketches for a proposed series of paintings based on crushed cans, Gu Xiong said that common objects look dead, and are only made to come to life when they are “Killed.” A neat irony, one that can take off in many directions.
Discarded cans of pop, cafeteria trays, dirty kitchen utensils (his present reality where he works as a busboy at the U.B.C. cafeteria) were manufactured to serve a purpose. But once used (and the Coke cans often crushed by the students for reasons unknown to Gu Xiong) they must be seen in a different light. Like knives and forks, the symbols have changed, and can continue to reverberate for years to come. John Chamberlain’s crushed automobile bumpers aimed to express a principle of abstract and pop art sculpture. Gu Xiong takes his discards in another direction, towards a compelling obsession of a different kind.
Gu Xiong set out to make a group of painting for his current one-man show at the Diane Farris Gallery (artists often insist they have only an aesthetic purpose in mind); but such thoughts must have been lying just below the surface.
Although he may not often speak of it, he must also feel occasionally crushed by the burden of enduring as an artist while trying to survive economically, socially and linguistically in a country remote from Cultural China, where he was born. Even on the simplest levels which we born on this content, take for granted, such as how to dial 911 in an emergency, how to look up something in the yellow pages, and the nuances of behavior in order not to offend others, Gu Xiong and others like him may find themselves at least perplexed, even sometimes in danger.
We cannot observe these paintings without thinking of the iconic portraits and series work by Andy Warhol. But because Warhol’s art seems neutral, there is a certain emotional flatness about them. Gu Xiong’s crushed cans are varied, and take on the same diverse character that we see in people, even, in fact, the personality in the crusher. Thus they become individual portraits, each different from the other. This lends them much vitality and interest, enabling us to contrast them with each other, but also to witness their total impact at this exhibition.
His technique in paint has emerged out of his earlier concentration on drawing and woodcuts. This helps to explain the directness, the clarity, the linearity of these images, as well as their string contrast of light and dark. But, as with Lao-Tse, these frontal, “realistic” portraits may be “succinct to the point of obscurity.”
Gu Xiong is a classic example of an artist straddling two cultures, both of which provide substance and pain, and which find their way into his work in an amalgamation of early Chinese influences and Western expansion and daring. Together, they provide a richness of experience and an electrical charge that neither culture alone might have been able to inspire in him.
A leading art critic in Canada, Alvin Balkind has served as the director of the Banff Centre Fine Arts Department and as chief curator for the Vancouver Art Gallery.