The Art

In Art in Smog, the art transcends time and place. Su Xinping and Xia Xiaowan are key voices in the film as they explore society and human nature. Chen Hui offers her keen observation of the personalities of the people around her. Mushi, an ardent painter, shares his reflections on life, faith, and art.

Su Xinping

Su Xinping’s works reveal his quandaries as old ideals are lost and new ideals have not proved meaningful.

Dialogs. Over the years he has drawn and painted many images of “dialogs,” where he faces himself, or his shadow, or an image of his earlier ideals, questioning what to do.

Obstructions. Many of his lithographs from the early 1990s depict a horse, or sheep, hemmed in by barriers, whether wooden posts, wire fence, or wall. The free spirit of nature encounters the reality of manmade constructions.

Chasing Things. The Sea of Desires series observes and critiques the mad rush for money that swept the country as China opened its markets and emphasized economic growth. Socialist ideals of community were replaced by capitalist dreams of riches. Ironically, while seeming to critique the crass pursuit of materialism, Su Xinping himself was becoming very wealthy.

Jaded. His Toasting series takes a harsh look at the bloated, inebriated, self-important players in the material world of China’s elite circles. Su Xinping himself belongs to that world, so his view is of an insider. With more than fifty paintings on this theme, sent out to exhibitions and collections throughout the world, he offers a sense of self-loathing as well as a critique of the high life.

Rushing Person No. 1 (奔波的人), Oil on canvas, 250 x 250 cm, 2010.

Forward March. This red figure striding forward represents Su Xinping himself. He says he is going forward, a bit dazed but purposeful, not being able to see what lies ahead. He has repeated this painting a few times, with slight variations, as demand for his works in international exhibitions has outpaced the inventory of paintings in his studio.

Desolate Landscapes. In recent years, Su Xinping’s work reveals the desolation of the world he travels, as a solitary figure walking in a vast eerie landscape. He has been exploring abstract images of barren mountains and ominous clouds. We sense his solitude in keeping an independent view while navigating a ghostly, apocalyptic environment.

Xia Xiaowan

Xia Xiaowan seeks to understand deep human nature, to recognize what drives people to do the things they do, and thus reveal why the world is the way it is. His incisive perception, deft draftsmanship, and vivid imagination create for us an uncanny world, in which we recognize certain truths.

Burning (灼), Oil on canvas, 97.5 x 103.5 cm, 1994.

Burning. At the beginning of his love affair with his student Chen Hui, he clearly shows himself in pain. Not only is his face dark and tortured, but there is a jarring light in the background, which he explains has the shape of a mushroom cloud. As a child, he had seen people celebrating China’s first successful atomic bomb test, and he wondered why there was so much joy over an instrument of great destruction. Likewise, although blissfully in love, he was aware of the potential harm it would cause…to himself, his family, and her family.

Special Angles. Xia Xiaowan challenges the normal perspective on things. In the mid-1990s, while others around him were going abroad and trying to get rich, he was toying with new ways to look at the world, perhaps from beneath people’s feet. He is not one to follow the crowd; he perceives humanity from his own vantage point.

Spatial Paintings. In the mid-2000s, Xia developed a way of making his paintings exist in 3 dimensions. He added depth by painting each layer of a 3-dimensional form, or scene, on multiple sheets of glass placed one behind the other. From the front the spatial paintings look like holograms, a 3-dimensional illusion. From the side, one sees only the physical edges of the glass sheets, separated by uniform gaps. This technical development to his painting boosted his international recognition. His spatial paintings have included portraits, landscapes, twisted human forms, and other imaginative explorations.

Portraits of the Other. One theme he has pursued through spatial paintings has been the idea of transcendent others, whether traditional gods, space aliens, or other powerful creatures in popular conception. He has merged different portraits together, such as Jesus and Shakyamuni, to see what will result. He finds that gods are congruent with each other; they are compatible. It’s humans who clash.

Installation of Legend (传说), The Floating Figure (漂浮的人形), and The Wilds (大荒野), at Xia Xiaowan’s solo exhibit in Beijing, October 2015.

Legends. For his 2015 solo exhibition Rotation (自转) at the Beijing Minsheng Art Museum, Xia worked for more than 6 months on a mural-sized work, drawn in color pastels on 132 sheets of 55 x 74.7 cm paper. The work was conceived in three sections: Legend, The Floating Figure, and The Wilds. It was an orchestration of the many themes and forms that have accompanied him throughout his painting career. These include references to traditional Chinese legends, as well as popular art legends (e.g., Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol), and spirits, skeletons, floating figures, and primordial swirls of earth and sky. He suggests, perhaps, that the narrative of humanity is a never finished legend.

Running Away. This headless running figure has appeared over the years in Xia Xiaowan’s work, first as a background figure in his 1990 painting How Sad, then as a stand-alone painting, Escape in 1998, and then as a spatial painting, Run in 2009. Xia says he has been an escapist since childhood: when frightened or confused, he will run away to his own hiding place, and not face the challenges of real life.

And what a rich world he has brought us from his hiding place!

Detail from Legend, 2015, color pastel on paper.

Chen Hui

Chen Hui observes the people around her, in the city, in the suburbs, and especially in the margins between urban and rural communities. She gives form to her emotional sensitivity through painting.


Mushi has been enamored of modern art since he was a teenager, reveling in its validation of the independent, individual free spirit. After life’s unexpected turns, he continues to find much to explore in his internal world  and its relationship to the universe.