Chinese-American Artist Xiaoze Xie Captures Moments Amplified and Unplugged

When I first read a description of Xiaoze Xie: Amplified Moments, a new show at the Knoxville Museum of Art on view through May 15, I expected it to be challenging. After all, the first comprehensive U.S. exhibition of work by artist Xiaoze Xie (roughly pronounced Shau-zuh She-ay) consists of more than 30 paintings, drawings, and installations driven by a media-of-politics theme—especially timely considering our visual bombardment by global new sources. And challenging Xie's work is, but not in ways I had anticipated. For instance, his subject matter is generally less thought-provoking than his means of arriving at the works themselves.

Born in Guangdong, China, in 1966, Xie experienced the military aggression that crushed student protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989. He subsequently decided to drop his study of architecture and switch to painting, moving to the United States in 1992. Although Xie—now a U.S. citizen and art professor at Stanford University—is often referred to as a "Chinese" artist, he's more accurately called "Chinese-American," and his media-derived images depict politicians and uprisings throughout the world.

However, power and political upheaval are not as significant to Amplified Moments as viewers might be led to believe. What seems to interest Xie more than the "why" of protest and revolution is the "what"—he is fascinated by visual chaos and the density of crowds with flags hoisted high, a surging mass resembling pixels prior to becoming pixilated. In other words, that which is political in Xie's work is not insignificant, but it primarily serves as a vehicle for visual expression within a specific period of time.

One particularly striking installation titled "Flags and Banners: A Century of Student Movement in China" (1994) is an orderly large-scale grid made up of eight panels showing images of soldiers, crowds, etc., with one panel painted a solid Communist/blood red, a red-tipped pole leaning against it.

Xie also presents us with "Order (The Red Guards), 1999," a piece that has 33 projecting squares—most red and appearing to float in front of a long stretch of wall. Its dominant feature is a drawing on a huge scroll-like roll of paper that spills onto the gallery floor, illustrating a trashed library-of-sorts. "Order" is blatantly symbolic, and like Xie's other installations, it doesn't necessarily evoke strong responses to censorship or other forms of suppression per se. Rather, it addresses how we communicate and interpret ideas within a particular cultural context.

Xie's "Untitled (Being and Nothingness No.1)" from 2007 is part of another group of images, this time a six-part grid with two adjacent same-size canvases. Here, Xie has painted books adrift in space, their covers somewhat visible—works by Nietzsche, Laozi (Lao Tzu?), Marx, Sartre, and others. That the titles selected are significant philosophical literature is clear. What's not so clear is why the artist has chosen to break apart what reads so strongly as a single image—books painted orange, luminous within darkness and suggesting both intellectual intensity and physical flammability. Of course, division into rectangles could signify limitations imposed on free thinking or the incompatibility of certain ideologies, as with "Flags and Banners," Xie makes no attempt to veil the symbolic.

Numerous paintings and ink-on-rice paper drawings from Xie's Theatre of Power Series (@1995 - 2008) are on display, as well. Among other things, the series depicts Chinese leaders at the U.N., Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and an entire passel of power suits in Xie's "November 5th, 2004 (Bush Cabinet, 2nd Term)." However, Xie's presumed attempt to render recognizable figures as frightening falls flat, the politicians appearing rather soft and neutral (and if Cheney can't be made to look menacing, something is indeed wrong).

What's odd about "November 5th" is that it's not an image of an image. Instead, people shown gathered around an enormous conference table with light and sound apparatus hovering above seem to be in a televised session, making "November 5th" an exception to Xie's usual twice-removed approach. Nor do Xie's two video installations quite fit—one documenting throngs of people attending an event, the other showing subway commuters with printed media, and both a bit ho-hum.

Museum-goers traversing the gallery much as Westerners read words—from left to right—view work dating back almost 20 years and in mostly chronological order, an arrangement through which a fundamental shift is evident. Many of Xie's pieces derive from photographs that become photographs printed in newspapers or magazines, and finally, paintings or drawings of those images. In that sense, Xie's earlier work seems to be "about something," whereas his latest work simply is. And that transformation is not just a matter of Xie going from black and white to color or from images of images to images of newspapers, archival folios, and other material containing images.

In Amplified Moments, Xie has expanded his initial efforts to include addressing the very transmission of information, and his non-specific images often seem more emotionally charged than his images portraying people and their actions. When Xie's folded newspapers—throw-away media in the contradictory archival settings of museums and libraries—are given form with stunning precision, they come alive as paintings (as for that precision, I apologize that space won't allow a discussion of Photorealism).

So, is Xie making a point about representation and our perception of what's real when he deviates from rendering an actual event and instead renders an image of an event? And in rendering "media itself," is he distilling elements of past work into essential, pared-down images relevant to us all? One could call it subjective objectivity. Or is it objective subjectivity? Hell, let's call the whole thing off. But if we do, we'd not know Xie's work and where his artistic path has led him—and we'd be all the poorer for it.