Back in Fashion: Exploring the Rococo with Xu Yang

Xu Yang, The Admirer, 2020. Oil on linen, 180 x 145 cm.

There is a saying that in not knowing your past, your path forwards can become muddled and unclear, and consequently there appears a loss of direction. Naturally this statement speaks to the history attached to one’s own past actions and possessions, which set out to determine our future outcome, as well as preserving the sacrosanct nostalgia of the past. However, it does not offer any remedy to the threat of determination in our lives caused by the reverential regard we place within this past, nor does it address the ability to excavate the past and replace it with an altered version. But why should we change our own experience? Why should we rupture what has been laid out by us, for us?

Xu Yang addresses this question with the re-imagination of past actions, bringing a fresh perspective to her past in an attempt to build upon the nostalgia felt for childhood. In moulding her own past to a new form of art that is rooted within Rococo-style, Yang has managed to open up new ways of dealing with contemporary issues by excavating her experience. In doing so, Yang creates large oil paintings, possessing lavish brushstrokes that detail flowing Rococo attire, alongside deep red and royal gold hues that accentuate and frame her work. Combined with the focus on Yang’s past actions, the paintings seem to occupy an ethereal space, neither directly situated in the present, nor in the factual past, the works enjoy a liminality that enables them to slip through the history of art at will.

The space created by the paintings invites the viewer to contemplate their own past actions, and to place their own experience into the prism of self-reflection and excavation. The figures within Yang’s work allow this new beginning for her audience by being depicted with blurred out faces, which offer the viewer a mirror for them to project their own experience onto the works.In addition to this, the female figures within the paintings stand confidently in their own space, forcing the viewer into the uncomfortable position of an unwarranted voyeur, and in turn to question their own outlook.


Xu Yang, I Found My Way Through, 2020. Oil on linen, 110 x 140 cm.


The following interview between SuperGlue and Xu Yang goes into further depth, with the artist explaining her artistic process as well as how she engages with this month’s theme.


SuperGlue: In your statement, you assert that “to resuscitate is to speak to our contemporary moment”. I wonder if you could expand upon this point, with regards to how your art looks to bring life back to our present by addressing history, and in a sense, bring about a new beginning? 

Xu Yang: I admire the Rococo period; behind the massive dresses and the wigs that the upper-class women had, it was the daring to be who they are. For me, it’s a form of drag. I believe that we need to bring this back into our contemporary society, to ignore the rules of regulations and moralities that tell people how to dress as who they are and to remind people of their position. I never wore skirts or lip sticks when I was a teenager, so being able to express myself is what I was missing from my teenage hood. That’s one of the reasons why I am so obsessed with the madness of Rococo, and drag culture. I am using it, as a working-class girl from a small town in China, because I believe, ignore the skin you have, who you are, it’s just a construct. I am doing the things that no-one would expect a small town Chinese girl would do. 

SG: The Rococo era in France is often much maligned by art historians, given its break from enlightenment ideals. However, what is often overlooked is the importance of female patronage of art during this time; how does your work address femininity?

XY: My work is different from male gaze. Historically, female figures are portrayed as decorations, they were designed to show off their beauty and body. In one famous example, ‘The Swing’ by Fragonard, you could argue that the female on the swing is teasing the two guys and she is in her own control, but nonetheless, the males in this painting are treating her as if she is something to play with. My works depict females alone in their private space, dressed, looking away from the audience, as that is their private space, therefore putting audiences into the position of a “peeper”. Our gender in-equalities nowadays derive from problems left over by history, for example, American only had their first female Vice President in 2020 and my home country China has very little female politicians. This is not because females have less leadership skills, it is because we have been told historically that females can’t be leaders, and even their words cannot be trusted. I believe by portraying historical women differently I hope to remind people what caused the position of females in our society today.  


Xu Yang, Flowers and the Skull, 2019. Oil on Linen, 26.8 x 36.8cm.
Xu Yang, Flowers and the Skull, 2019. Oil on Linen, 26.8 x 36.8cm.
Jean-Honore Fragonard, The Swing, 1767. Oil on canvas, 64.2 x 81cm. Courtesy of the Wallace Collection, London.
Jean-Honore Fragonard, The Swing, 1767. Oil on canvas, 64.2 x 81cm. Courtesy of the Wallace Collection, London.


SG: Could you tell us a little bit more about the form of your works? They often vary from paintings, adorned with wonderful brushstrokes of pink paint, to print on velvet in If You Can Choose Only One Thing 10072019, to most recently including a jewel on your work in Female Identity 05012021. How do you think form affects your art works, and how can it offer the viewer a transition into new ways of seeing?

XY: I use materials that I feel attached to, like jewels or velvet, things I found exotic and always liked when I was little, but never had a chance to own. Each time I’m making with materials like that it’s like a way to make up for what I was missing. I knew I wanted something else besides black or navy trousers or just school uniforms from when I was a teenager. I am also attached to great master paintings from Morisot, Monet, Sargent, Velazquez, Boucher and Sorolla, I paint oil in a more traditional way, fat over thin, and turps wash [technique used for achieving a semi-transparent layer] as the base layer; to use oil paint is a meditation for me, every time I paint I feel like I am travelling to time far away.  

SG: In your paintings, the figure is often looking away, void of the human, real-life face and tends to be represented with their face blurred or masked. What is the thinking behind portraying these figures in this way?

XY: For me, faces are identities. It’s the most straightforward way we use to recognise someone. To blur their faces is a way to erase their identities, so it’s easier for the viewers to project themselves into my paintings. Another reason is emotionally, because it’s easier for me to engage with the work when I am painting. I see every painting that I make as an altered version of myself, but I cannot portray the 100% likeness of myself; when I tried, they could look like me, but I feel unfamiliar and I cannot engage with the face, because it seems that I can always find stuff that’s not like me within the painting. So, I blur the face away to create a mirror for me and for anyone to project themselves into my works. 

SG: In your most recent work, I Found My Way Through, 11112020, we get a glimpse of a face for the first time, yet it is the face of a doll. What is the significance of this? 

XY: I wanted the doll to look like a doll, my parents didn’t buy me dolls when I was little, my auntie did, and that was a very long time ago. Now I have lost them all, because my mum thought they were taking up too much space. The two dolls I had were in pink rococo styled dresses, like Marie Antoinette, and they had faces like that, big round eyes and tiny nose and lips. So, I painted this doll from the dolls I remembered, a bit cartoon-like with features of Marie Antoinette. But the figures who I believe have some attachments with the doll have their faces blurred in the picture frame or in the vase, and she is the figure that I wanted to portray.

Xu Yang, Touch, 2020. Oil on linen, 27.8x 22cm.

SG: Given that performance is considered in your work, do you consider your own self to be creating the works, or does it come from an altered version of yourself? Moreover, do you have to be in this form in order to create your work?

XY: My works are from me; the current me and the current me remembering my past, but all the most direct and honest export of who I am as a person. The works are the altered versions of myself.

SG: Finally, how has the past year affected your output? How has your art reacted to this? And what is coming up for you as an artist in 2021?

XY: When the first UK lock down happened, I was just finishing my degree from the Royal College of Art, London. I did not have a studio, so I tried to make more performance works at home or in the park, I learned to adopt the environment and do what I can with what I have. I also got featured in a lot of online opportunities since then. Now I have a studio, I try to go to the studio every day. I think 2021 will be a very exciting year, to begin with I just had my first museum show in Beijing, and I am having a group show in Beijing and one group show and one duo show and one show in London in 2022 lined up, I think it’s a brilliant start for me as an emerging artist.

Follow Xu Yang for regular updates on her progress as an artist @_xu.yang_