That Certain Buzz: hold me again, in the jadeite gaze at Ginny on Frederick

Review / August 2022

That Certain Buzz: hold me again, in the jadeite gaze at Ginny on Frederick
By Jacob Barnes

       Art likes symbols. Among the various iterations of symbolic representation that proliferate through contemporary art are the metaphor (the bug represents the man), the simile (man is like a bug), and the analogue (bug is to man what man is to God). These are useful, if not didactic; they allow us to use art towards scrutinising ends, while generally absolving both the artist and the viewer of all that nasty stuff that comes with introspection and reflection; the symbolic functions as a rather useful divide that spares one the full weight of identificatory reckoning. This is not so much a slight towards symbolism as it is a nod towards the lubricant that greases our viewing experiences: if good art, much as good literature often does, explicitly reminds us of how hard and complex life is, we likely wouldn’t go around hanging it in our houses. At least we can close books.

But art also likes the ineffable. The upshot of visuality is that you can express relationalities that evade verbal articulation; that nestle tightly into the gaps between words and meaning. This, I think, is what people mean when they say that art is “charged”: it has a certain buzz to it that evades true description. If one were keeping score, this too is why we are so attracted to art: it can engender that funny, tingling feeling we get in our bellies when we like something but just don’t know why, or more weightily, when we feel a portion of our own subjectivity is distilled.

Enter Tommy Xie, the Chinese-born, London-based painter now the subject of a solo exhibition, titled hold me again, in the jadeite gaze at Farringdon’s Ginny on Frederick, running until September 3rd. As is quickly evident, not least due to the proliferation of Taoist totems which appear throughout the paintings, Xie does not shy away from symbology. On a first read, a number of those symbols can be deciphered: religion is like family, the watchful eye of god(s) represents the mother, nakedness is to clothing and propriety what adolescence is to maturity and kinship.

But in doing this, playing this one-to-one association game, the viewer becomes acutely aware of a kind of excess of meaning; a remainder which refuses subsumption. Yes, perhaps there is some truth to these initial, rather facile readings, but what Xie is doing is so much bigger: the artist deploys and then redeploys symbols, giving ample space for contradiction and slippages in meaning, both of which illustrate the immense complexities of interrelationality and our own comprehension of those personal webs. What’s more, these symbols deftly gesture towards the varied organisational strata which subtend these connections: the family, the community, the state. In other words, the omnipresence of a god may represent the vigilance of a mother, but it also suggests a relationship to the state, while the mother, corporeal as she is, has a bodily relationship to the state not entirely unlike the subject’s. What is that relationship, and what is the subject’s relationship to their mother’s body? And where does religion fit back in? If you found that complicated, you’re getting my point. More importantly, it probably better reflects your own diverse set of relationships which govern your life. 

Xie’s own queerness, too, is not to be overlooked. This isn’t so much due to any kind of sexual thrust in the work—nudity and intimacy abound, but I’d hesitate to call these sexy or explicit images—but because of the intellectual indeterminacy that queerness as an identity and ideology makes space for. Taking into consideration the role of power and control in Xie’s work, Moe Meyer’s writing on queerness is applicable here: “Queerness can be seen as…a much wider application of the depth model of identity which underwrites the epistemology deployed by the bourgeoisie in their ascendancy to and maintenance of dominant power.” That is to say, nonspecificity, not only in the genders of the works’ subjects, but much more broadly in the application of meaning, creates an epistemology that is much more circular than it is linear. Finally, perhaps, Xie has left the dialectic in ribbons—the proposition of “either/or” seems entirely inapplicable to these works. With that said, one’s understanding need not be so heady: much of the thematic tenseness of the work, that around surveillance and belonging, is underscored by the difficulty of openly identifying as queer in China today.

If this has yet to made clear, let me put it in no uncertain terms: you have to see this work. Not only because it’s a wonderful show, but because Xie’s work wonderfully encapsulates the breadth of what visuality can do; how it can hold many meanings at once, and thrive under the prospect of contradiction. This is, indeed, what art is meant to be.

Image Credits:
1-4. Courtesy of Ginny on Frederick