Through the Spirit Screen



Text / Lee Ambrozy


In "Through the Spirit Screen," the layered psychohistorical surfaces of Qiu Jiongjiong’s paintings are brought before us, collecting more than six years of his painterly output. A constellation of characters, real and imaginary, populate these scenes in which Qiu chronicles his hometown of Leshan during early 2020 and also intersect with his film biopic A New Old Play (2021). Through this complex juxtaposition of storyboards, scene graphs, character sketches, and monumental painting we can observe in detail how Qiu's film making cross-pollinates his painting practice and vice-versa, coalescing into a visual universe that belongs him alone. You are invited like Alice, to step "through the looking glass,” and see the world through his eyes.


The film A New Old Play (2021) serves as the exhibition axis, it recaps his grandfather’s life as a Sichuan Opera performer and chronicles the tumultuous events of the 20th century. Some of these personalities are a constant theme in the artist’s oeuvre, and in the paintings (created before, during, and after it’s  filming) reveal an expansive cast of eccentric and madcap personalities. They delight and fascinate, as they reveal the artist’s incisive observational skills into contemporary society. Working in a wide variety of mediums, oil, ink, marker, oil pastels, pencil, and mixed media, he takes on classical and Old Master Painting themes, reinventing them for his own temporal, geographic and cultural context, sometimes reversing gendered power imbalances, but always localizing, and democratizing tropes from western and Chinese art history. Every medium he wields conforms to his style with equal mastery, from the traditional media of painting to time-based media like film. His robust artistic practice responds to the everyday viewer––those people he paints from the street––just as much as it is responding to the painterly ambition that drives him. Qiu is driven by a technical imperative, the desire to surpass his own abilities, to work out the minutia of the visual macrocosm he has carefully crafted.


Qiu Jiongjiong’s stylized cosmos emerged from his unique, self-taught hand, with an aesthetic that achieves form in the accumulation of paint layers, while it is rooted in a psychological inquiry into his subjects and observational prowess. Qiu’s lens on the world has depth. If painting can be been theorized as “world-making” ––spaces and universes created and demarcated by the frame––Qiu bleeds his world into that of the moving image. The wooden frames around his canvases are like the edges of the screen monitor: they act as portals into a world in which Qiu is the master. And like his films, Qiu's paintings measure time, but in his paintings, this unfolds not through the moving image, but with the accumulation of time trapped in the layers of paint, an index of the artist’s labor.


The intensity of Qiu’s painting practice is most apparent when beholding his canvases with the naked eye, and "Through the Spirit Screen" is a rare opportunity to see the culmination of his recent work in such a grand setting. While Qiu has absorbed from both Chinese and Western masters, he doesn’t shun the grotesque, or the vulgar. Perhaps it is because he is self taught that he can disregard the formal training of the academy, ignoring stylistic conventions and privileging raw expressions. His distinct style is a twist on mimetic realism, his surfaces undulate with just as much volume and texture as the fiercely independent yet charming characters who populate them (appeal to him). To "read" a canvas here is as much of a journey as it is a transformative experience.


A specialist in Chinese art from the ninth through eleventh centuries, Lee Ambrozy is a Ph.D. candidate at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, where her research examines how images from nature circulated within early urban China’s art and material culture. She has more than fifteen years of expertise working with contemporary art within China, and obtained her M.A. at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts with a thesis discussing the nationalist uses of traditional ink painting under Mao. She was editor and translator of Ai Weiwei's Blog (MIT Press, 2011) and editor of the first publication of seminal modern art texts in Chinese, Inside the White Cube: Artforum Fifty years of Art Criticism (Sanlian Books, 2017). She is currently based in Detroit, where she writes, curates exhibitions, and translates on occasion, adapting to the changing cultural landscape in the Post-Pan- demic world.