Born in Guangdong, China in 1966, Xie Xiaoze graduated from Tsinghua University and the Central Academy of Arts and Design, Beijing before moving to the United States and settling in Texas where he continued his studies in a very different environment. He is currently the Paul L. & Phyllis Wattis Professor in Art, Department of Art & Art History, Stanford University, California, USA.
As a realist painter by vocation, early in his career Xie found a way to combine his passionate interest in Chinese history and current world events with more formal concerns by focusing on the materials stored in archives and library stacks as the subject matter of his paintings. During his career he has approached this subject matter in many different ways but it is paintings of libraries with which he is most closely associated.
The first painting in the Library (Western Books) Series dates from 1993 but the theme has still not been exhausted. In late 1994 when he returned to China for the first time since moving to the United States, he began working on the Chinese Library Series which is also still ongoing. Ten years later in 2005 a change of emphasis began with the Museum Library Series in which the treatment of the photographic sources is generally more specific.
The current exhibition includes paintings based on photographs that Xie took in libraries in Beijing, Kathmandu, New York, Oxford, New Haven, and Toronto. Unlike the German photographer Candida Höfer whose photographs of famous libraries concentrate on the splendid architectural surroundings created to house collections of books, Xie focuses on telling details, only rarely revealing the name of an author or title of a volume. A great deal is revealed, however, as he lingers on decaying bindings or more serious damage caused by historical events.
In the 20th century Chinese libraries have suffered more than most, a fact treated with particular poignance in Xie’s Chinese Library series. Dramatic new additions to this theme are the works titled Through Fire (Books that Survived the Anti-Japanese War of Resistance at Tsinghua University) Nos. I, 2 and 3. After the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, Tsinghua University moved to the south of China and many books were gravely damaged. The partially burnt, scorched pages of these Chinese books and manuscripts attest equally to the long history of suffering caused by global conflicts in the twentieth century and to the constant risk of the effacement of historical memory whether caused by accident or deliberately. The ancient leather and vellum bound volumes depicted in paintings of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto and the Beinecke Rare Books & Manuscript Library have also endured many centuries of turmoil and are often in a precarious state of preservation but they are now treasured and preserved in scholarly libraries. The prominence given to the metal shelving in The Morgan Library and Museum (f 318) emphasizes the fragility of the books with their decaying bindings.
As a painter, Xie is also a cultural historian, deeply aware of what he refers to as “the vulnerability of culture, memory, and history” and the seeming decline of printed matter today. The somber tonality and large scale of his paintings endows the volumes with a singular gravitas. He achieves a remarkable balance between detailed recording of the appearance of his inanimate subject matter – books and manuscripts – and an increasing delight in fluid brushwork and painterly effects that often verge on abstraction.