< Exhibitions
Fleur de Peau
Xie Lei
Mar 1, 2024 - Apr 13, 2024
March 1, 2024 - April 13, 2024 Fleur de peau is Xie Lei’s second solo exhibition at the gallery. Though Lei was born in China, he has lived in Europe for long enough to gather inspiration from painters “who clear a space for other elements than their own”, in Foucault’s words. As the recipient of a mystical attraction to painting in his childhood, he visits this limitless space whose horizon is always expanding. He did not rush headlong into it, however. He fumbled in the dark, and learned. Learned to see. Bit by bit, his eyes adjusted to the dark abyss and learned to distinguish gems and their refractive properties, their invisible power.

In this vast expanse, he found strength, and freed it. There is mise à jour in Lei’s paintings; birth itself. The paintings come from afar, drawn from the depths of a dream, or perhaps a coma. A slow revelation that bided its time before stepping into the light. The paintings tear apart the fixity of Western rationalism, then revive it with the artist’s Oriental imagination. They are paintings of dreams.

Dreams are, by their very nature, open to interpretation. Lei’s paintings are open, made from reserves, fragmented dis- positions, blind perspectives and levitating bodies. They are open, in the same way a wound is open. They reveal the hidden, the unnameable. Unnameable not because it has no name, but because it is unknown to us. It is an unknown world made visible by putting together pieces of psychoanalytic myths. Between desire and impotence, these paintings straddle the line between the forces of life (desire, ecstasy, appearance, revelation) and those of death (finality, decay, disappearance).

The works jump back and forth between anguish and joy, a precarious balance between desire and rejection, half-words and sighs, face-to-face with death. Lei brings together extremes: he shows and hides at the same time, revealing with one hand and obscuring with the other. In this antagonistic movement, he looks for a sign to express the essence of things, as did the Chinese painters of old, but also Matisse, whose constantly restarted drawings aimed to arrive at the unity of things.

For Lei, this movement of appearance and disappearance is inflated by breath. It can be felt in all his works, and seen directly in some of them. One might notice a fluid, a vapour passing from one mouth to another. Breathing out stale air, breathing in fresh air; a Taoist teaching. Something that is fundamentally present in all of Lei’s paintings; a mysterious force pushing from the image towards the world. It emerges from the void, coupled with loss and uncertainty. Lei uses shortcuts, misalignments, slips and erasures to reveal these images. They already existed – long before we did. These paintings are Nietzschean and Taoist at the same time. There is dance, there is agony:“I say unto you: one must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.” This was written by Nietzsche, but it could just as easily have been Tchouang Tseu.

Paintings of dreams are paintings of extreme sensitivity. They are paintings of touch, of sensuality: fleur de peau, skin like a flower. It is a world of delicate hands which bring, collect, caress, enclose, embrace. The skin of the lover, the beloved, but perhaps also of a washed corpse. A skin flowering with fungi. A skin in moult, in flux, challenging the boundaries between kingdoms.

Lei’s paintings are inhabited by hybrid beings. Passing through light, to eyespotted skin, the men – because there are only men to be seen – often present as bodies on fire. Burning bodies... a concept we find among poets such as Rimbaud, Artaud and Hölderlin. There is an analogy to be drawn between Lei and these writers when one considers his refusal to create easily digestible paintings and his ambition to renew a style of art that is alive, and therefore divisive. As with the visionaries, there is a certain kind of fire that permeates Lei’s works – even if the colours are mostly cold in tone. Instead of green, we see emerald or jade, and instead of ochre we see sulphur yellow.

Lei’s paintings are constantly on fire. Even in the darkest of his works.

It is not by coincidence that a running theme through this exhibition is the kiss, whether that be a kiss of love, of farewell, or perhaps of betrayal. In Dürer’s 1508 engraving ‘The Kiss of Judas’, one can see the beginnings of Lei’s themes. Love and farewell, love and betrayal. Another recurring theme is nudity. It is constant, systematic even. To show the body naked is to reduce it to its simplest yet most common expression. It calls back to the idea of the original man – a man whose gaze is hard to meet.

The eyes are closed, the faces blurred, turned away, shrouded in darkness. No way of looking at the painting can enable us to enter through the well-known artifices of classical painting. Here, we remain witnesses. Witnesses who look but don’t touch. Witnesses who want to pierce the veil of painting and go au-delà – beyond – to use the title of Lei’s exhibition at Fondation Louis Vuitton. To go beyond the confines of reality.

So there it is: a painting of a dream is a painting of reality. It resembles a great divide, and that’s exactly what it is. It is a paradoxical encounter: Xie Lei’s paintings are religious art. Religious art that runs against the current. It is Saint Thomas sticking his finger into the wound of Christ, Adam talking to the serpent, the head of Saint John the Baptist offered on a platter, Saint Sebastian riddled with arrows. An annunciation without the Virgin Mary.

An epiphany.