Xingzi Gu’s Dreamlike Portraits of Youth

Xingzi Gu is a young painter who depicts a vaporous realm in which the solid and ethereal overlap. Combining delicate lines and bleeding clouds of luminous color, Gu depicts her youthful figures in a dreamlike world where intimacy and loneliness feel inseparable. In “Orange Bedroom” (2023–24), we see a frontal view of two nude figures on the left side, their eyes closed, one leaning against the other. Both are smoking. Above them hangs a yellow lamp, while on the right, architectural details are painted in sooty blacks atop the glowing orange-red ground. While the lamp suggests the space of a room, the architectural renderings posit the possibility that no barrier between outside and inside exists. Although physically touching, the figures inhabit separate interior worlds. 

“Orange Bedroom” is one of eight paintings in the artist’s debut exhibition, Xingzi Gu: Pure Heart Hall at Lubov gallery. I became interested in Gu’s art when I was invited to critique students in the MFA program at New York University in December 2023. What struck me about the artist’s student work was how little it intersected with the trends in the New York art world. I learned that she was born in China to artist parents and that she had attended both middle school and high school in Whangaparaoa College in New Zealand, studied art at the University of Auckland, and was on a one-year exchange program at Stony Brook University, New York, before transferring to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. At NYU, Gu dealt with subjects she has continued to explore: isolation, adolescence on the cusp of physical change, and intimate relationships between youths and older generations. While the imagery sometimes bordered on sentimentality or cliche, in her best works she made the themes into something more affecting and loaded. 

In recent work, Gu continues to examine the conditions of disaffection and powerlessness as felt by people who are in their 20s or younger, something she achieves by using color symbolically and developing different levels of legibility to suggest that reality is layered and disconnected. It is not farfetched to connect this subject to the present state of China’s youth, who are aware of the increasing scarcity of job openings for college graduates, but I also think this view is too limiting. This is one reason I find the work so engaging — through painting and drawing, Gu evolves her inspiration into something larger and more open-ended.  

In “Sunny, mild afternoon” (2023–24), Gu depicts a young girl wearing a faded violet dress and carrying a backpack. She is centered in the painting, her feet touching the bottom edge. She seems to be walking on the street, the flowering branches of a cherry blossom tree forming a roof over her head. The juxtaposition of the young school girl and cherry blossoms forms the heart of the painting. In traditional Chinese culture, cherry blossoms are associated with femininity — and the yearning for love. What does the future hold for the girl? What possibilities await a young woman growing up in the gerontocracy of China, or for that matter in the increasingly intolerant United States, where Florida has passed a law banning Chinese citizens without green cards from buying property in the state?

While “Sunny, mild afternoon” never directly refers to these circumstances, it allows for the connections to be made. The doors of the future may be opening, but what does it mean to pass from the relative freedom of childhood to a life of obeisance to powers that care little for your well-being or happiness. This awareness, and the attendant anxieties and feelings of loneliness, haunt Gu’s paintings, imbuing them with sentiment but not sentimentality.  Living in the diaspora, Gu is fully aware of being adrift, guided only by her art. 

In “Lili Pond” (2023–24), a blue-haired, bare-chested adolescent boy in checkered pants or a towel poses against a vaporous green ground with a horizon line near the top of the canvas. Is he in a landscape or a dream? Ducks seem to float on either side of him. Ducks mate for life, and are a symbol of love and fidelity in China. Will the boy find a lifelong partner? Is that what he wants? While this may have been a goal of earlier generations, it is less so now. 

Gu’s subjects belong to either Gen Z or Gen Alpha. They were marked by the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, terrorism, and continuous global conflict. She does not allude to any of these world events, but she summons the sense of isolation that seems prevalent among people under 30. Even when we see a couple in a moment of intimacy, as in “Untitled (Cherry Coke or Ocean Flame)” (2024), there is something disquieting about the diaphanous atmosphere and the use of red and mauve, suggesting blood. The red sky above the two young people lying together infuses the scene with a sense of impending doom, and defines a view that appears cut off from the world. The tension between moments of quiet joy and inevitable calamity is riveting. 

Xingzi Gu: Pure Heart Hall continues at Lubov gallery (5 East Broadway, #402, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through July 13. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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