From chalk to canvas

April 13, 2011, 3:02 a.m.
Professor Xiaoze Xie has been drawn to art since he was a child growing up in small-town China. Throughout his studies in the United States and China, his style has transformed (Courtesy of Xiaoze Xie).

In his aesthetically sparse office, Xiaoze Xie sits, his eyes full of quiet intensity. Art books fill the shelves, next to a notable stack of haphazardly stacked newspapers. Xie’s restless hands twirl a pen, brandishing it like a brush as he absentmindedly traces abstract swirls over and over on a yellow legal pad of paper. Art, for Xie, the Paul L. and Phyllis Wattis Professor of Art and Art History, has not only become a successful career but also a lifelong passion.

Xie was born in a small town in Guangdong Province in China. The youngest of three, Xie began pursuing his interest in art at a very early age.

“It sort of just happened naturally,” he said. “When I was young, I loved drawing. My father used to work as a teacher, a high school director. I was able to pick up chalk in his office and draw with it.”

Xie’s early drawing subjects were diverse, ranging from cars to people such as Mao Zedong to ordinary objects.

“I was always fascinated by vehicles like trucks,” Xie said. “You didn’t see many cars passing by too often. I also drew people. Once, I remembered learning how to draw Mao.”

Xie took art classes through middle and high school before continuing on to study architecture at Tsinghua University in Beijing, a decision based on a compromise between pursuing what he loved and gaining practical skills.

“In high school, I did really well in math and science, and at the time, science, technology and engineering were the thing to do,” Xie said. “I was interested in art, and I thought architecture would be a nice combination of art and science.”

Although Xie did well in architecture, he found the field of study to be too restrictive.

“In architecture, you have to take into consideration many factors,” Xie said. “It seemed very compromising … I was longing for something freer and more expressive.”

After graduating in 1988, Xie entered a grad program in mural painting at the Central Academy of Arts and Design in Beijing, a move that disappointed his family.

“Architecture was considered to be practical—[architects] make a great living,” Xie said. “When I switched to art, they believed that I was not serving the proper profession.”

Despite his parents’ lack of approval, Xie recalled, they did not resist his change in career plans.

“No one tried to force me to change,” Xie said. “My parents said to me, ‘You know that’s what you want to do, then do it.’”

In Beijing, Xie enjoyed the thrill of fast paced city life.

“It was very exciting for me to see all of the national monuments,” Xie said. “This sense of excitement and ambition and … the future, was the driving force [for me] as a young man.”

During his graduate studies in Beijing, the infamous Tiananmen massacre broke out when Chinese troops broke up nonviolent student protesting for economic reform. This politically charged moment in history would leave an indelible mark on Xie.

“It was something that struck me pretty hard, but the change in my art from political and social issues was not an immediate or direct outcome of that event,” Xie said. “It’s not that you have such an experience and then suddenly decide to become a political painter. It did have a profound influence on me in the long run.”

In 1993, Xie came to the United States, seeking to update his art knowledge by studying Western art.

“I’d been interested in studying Western art, contemporary art,” Xie said. “In the ’80s, we had this feeling that we were isolated [in China]. The flow of information wasn’t as easy as it is now.”

Xie went on to obtain a master of arts from University of North Texas, where he, as a TA, taught undergraduate courses, and more importantly, had a small, personal studio. The exposure to Western artists, such as Francisco de Goya, Gerhard Richter and Andy Warhol, played an enormous role in shaping Xie’s art.

“My work changed,” Xie said. “In China, I had training in realism, but I was more interested in abstract art. But after coming to the States, I felt more interested in the potential of figurative art, in realism, in more contemporary context.”

Xie experimented with different styles, from photorealistic to more expressive. Eventually, Xie finally found a topic that would stay with him for many years—the theme of the library.

“My subjects include Western books, stacks of newspapers, close-up views of newspaper stacks that revealed fragments of photos and text, decaying books,” he said. “I am interested in exploring time and documentation, the history of memory and how this memory can be so fleeting.”

After receiving his master’s degree from the University of North Texas, Xie went on to teach at Washington State University. Not long afterwards, he received a tenured position at Bucknell University.

The campus’s proximity to New York proved to be a stroke of well-timed fortuity when Xie’s works in Charles Cowles Gallery began to receive national recognition. His work has been acknowledged across international lines—in Canada, China and Korea.

In 2009, Xie joined Stanford’s art department faculty. Beyond his teaching responsibilities, Xie is busy with his two current solo exhibitions— “Layers: Recent works by Xiaoze Xie” at Chambers Fine Art, in New York, and “Amplified Moments,” a collection of his works from 1993-2008 at the Knoxville Museum of Art in Tennessee.

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