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Ice Skating , 2020, 48 x 36 inches, oil on canvas.jpg

Han Xinyu, Ice Skating, 2020, Oil on canvas, 36 x 48 in. (91 x 122 cm)



"The spectator...the lover of universal life enters into the crowds as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy. Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself."

— Charles Baudelaire (1863)

Growing up in two of the most crowded metropolitan complexes in the world, Shanghai and New York, the experience Han Xinyu has mostly perceived is loneliness. As the nineteenth-century French poet Charles Baudelaire identified in his essay The Painter of Modern Life (1863), Han finds herself being a flâneur observing modern urban life. As the dilettante wanderer of the common street life in the modern city, Han believes being alone is no longer about loneliness, but a status of an individual.

Alienation is the central subject in Han’s practice, to her, it is the impact of modern city life upon the human psyche. Wondering and cruising around the city, Han keeps her distance from the crowd she observes to avoid the shock-induced anaesthesia brought by the overwhelming sensory bombardment of life. Her paintings display the discourses of modernity and mass consumption. The wealth of sights and eyes with mobility capture the culture of display, offering a window into leisure, idler, and glamour, at the same time isolation from the crowd.

Han’s oeuvre is a personal visual diary to keep a record of various aspects of everyday life the artist encounters. The depictions are both realistic and imagined. She meanders around the city, and unbridles herself into the seemingly familiar and sentimental environments. Han’s painting embodies observational powers and humanistic approaches. Such artistic tendency together with the brilliant colour and richly textured surfaces embellished in Han’s work resonates with the depiction of everyday life by portraying ordinary people engaged in common activities which flourished in the 16th-century Flemish paintings. Unlike historical paintings that record and interpret the grandeur moments of an individual or a particular event, genre painting demonstrates figures to whom no identity can be attached either individually or collectively. Han’s Ice Skating series particularly reflects a similar sophisticated artistic design as the Flemish master Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Hunters in the Snow (Winter). While the works demonstrate the artist’s attentive eye for detail and attest to her direct observation of the winter scene, they are not simply re-creations and reflections of everyday life. The brilliantly organised and controlled composition reflects the transient power of Han’s insightful vision of the cityscape at the same time embodies a great extent of material reality, emotional capture and atmosphere rendering.  She ingeniously captured the instantaneous tension of the contrast between the dynamic and static. 

As the keen observational eye of the modern city, Han practiced a contemporary version of the 19th-century French Impressionist’s plein air painting. Her ceaseless steps somehow evoke Claude Monet’s experience of drifting through the Argenteuil Basin on the boat as his ‘floating studio’, allowing them to observe and document the scenes from a distance. The urban setting in Shanghai and New York is where Han experiences a phantasmagoria, captivated by the theatrical spectacles, artificial busyness and all the bizarres and grotesque. To keep up with the bustling market, the gaudy proms and parties, and the blatant and clamour streets, Han endlessly observes the city with the gaze of the flâneur as the poet of the street. As Walter Benjamin put in a 2004 article in the American Historical Review: “[the flâneur] was a figure of the modern artist-poet, a figure keenly aware of the bustle of modern life, an amateur detective and investigator of the city, but also a sign of the alienation of the city and of capitalism.” Thus, the flâneur becomes the external eye examining conditions of modernity. The meaning of disassociation and self-exile in Han’s paintings separates the surroundings from her own state of being. With the deconstruction of capitalism, and consumerism within urban life in her works, Han however reflects a state of perpetual loneliness and a window to the unconscious mind as an introspection of interiority.

Seeing New York as the city of inspiration, Han Xinyu sometimes shares a similar composition and colour palette as Edward Hopper in presenting their evocative distillation of urban experience with strongly defined lighting, cropped perspective and isolated figures. Different from Hopper’s expressive use of fluorescent light playing upon the curved geometric forms and still isolated figures which proposed a snapshot-like composition, Han’s painting possesses a sense of immediacy both in perception and in the application of paint. She simultaneously combines the shifting and static state of figures, as if making up different impressions of the surroundings in mind together as a collage generated by computer instead of simply reflecting the social realism. The distorted compositions and perspectives of Han’s work suggest a voyeur’s eye, which, in parallel with the artist’s alienation and introspection of her own subjectivity towards the world. 

Ziyi Liu is a researcher and curator based in Hong Kong and New York. Completed her BA and MA in History of Art from the Courtauld Institute of Art, Ziyi’s general schematic interest is deeply embedded in the topic of cultural transaction and how the two-waycommunication has promoted a transcultural interpretation of its interrelated object production and reception.

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