The subjects in Xinyi Cheng’s figurative paintings exist in blank spaces, uncluttered by details that might supply a reality effect. Despite their sparseness, “I spend a lot of time on my backgrounds,” the Paris-based painter said when we spoke on the phone this past February. “It’s usually the first thing I need to figure out about a painting.”
In place of sweeping landscapes or fussy interiors are buttery layers of muted monochrome colors. Her favorite hues are “sophisticated grays,” which provoke undefined yet specific feelings and permit a certain struggle with light. These backgrounds contribute tension— which Cheng calls a “guiding principle of creation”—to her paintings. “I search for the sexual nature of desire that holds a painting together and makes you feel immediate to it,” she says. In her encounters with both her own work and that of other artists, she seeks a physical response.
Cheng derives her subject matter from an eclectic range of sources. One painting, Old Stories Retold (2022), depicts the bodies of three men trapped in water with disturbingly vacant facial expressions. Recently exhibited in a solo show at Matthew Marks, the work draws on 20th-century Chinese writer Lu Xun’s short story “Forging the Swords.” That haunting and surreal parable concludes with three severed heads bobbing around in boiling water. Incroyable (En route), 2021, portrays three long-faced men staring out at the viewer from a convertible, a sunset blazing behind them. The painting’s composition is based on a ’90s Saturday Night Live sketch, a silly segment in which Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell, and Chris Kattan nod their heads in sync to the Haddaway song “What Is Love” while driving from one place to the next, crashing a high school prom, a wedding, and bedtime at a senior home along the way. Cheng’s painting transfigures the campiness of the music video into a searching portrayal of a midlife journey to recapture something of the past. In Smoked Turkey Leg (2021), a shirtless man gnaws at a long, barren bone with primal exasperation and a ferocity reminiscent of Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son.
In our conversation, Cheng emphasized her interest in the inexhaustible questions that paintings can pose, listing examples with simultaneous urgency and reverence. Can she paint the abstract idea of somebody disappearing? How about the specific physical experience of falling through space and getting caught in a net? Can she use unnatural colors to render a face, and make those colors seem utterly natural? “The studio has always been my space for solving the formal issues these questions produce,” Cheng says.
Right now, Cheng is focused on creating a new body of work to answer her latest set of questions, which include how to represent a head with feathers and how to create her own composition inspired by Edvard Munch’s “Jealousy” series. She is enjoying her new studio in Charonne, where, she says, she finally feels she has enough physical and mental space to work.