Jordan Xiang is a Chengdu based artist whose work blends the shadowy surreal of the subconscious with the vivid reality of her surroundings to capture the excitement and anxiety of a life in constant flux. I first heard about her work through a mutual regular at Chengdu’s Little Bar, and was curious to see it in person. However, nothing prepared me for the inherent strangeness of materials present upon entering her studio. Clippings of black, formless shadows contrast sharply with colorful cut-outs of her favorite cartoon characters, neon jellyfish are suspended next to anatomical portraits of bloated body parts, and even the occasional architectural blueprint can be found all plastered together on the white washed walls. As I came to find out, this varied content seems to mirror her own artistic process and journey. For those living in China, her work seems to resonate with the comfort that comes from finding security in the unknown.
In fact, her artwork seems to thrive off of this clash of content. “I actually embrace uncertainty, I’m not afraid of it” she says. “Uncertainty is a universal human emotion experienced by everyone across cultures, but we always choose to overlook it. Repression and denial are ugly; uncertainty is okay, really. I want people to know that.”
With work hanging in the The Gallery of the Arts University Bournemouth in the U.K. and elsewhere, Jordan utilizes a multi-media approach that employs everything from oil paints, ceramics, and even fully functional toilets to take her viewers on a journey of exploration between the strange and the simple and the underlying similarities between the self and our surroundings. Throughout her art career, her medium seems to shift based on her interests. I ask her if she always wanted to be a painter.
“I’ve always wanted to be an artist.” She corrects me. “Even before I can remember, I made art with whatever I could get my hands on. My parents told me stories of how I colored their mattress with markers when they weren’t home, then used the sheets to cover it back up. The next day I would cut my mom’s jewelry and retie it. I couldn’t stop messing with my parents house.”
I ask if they were angry with her artistic expression. She laughs.
“Not angry, just annoyed. They eventually signed me up for art classes outside of the house.”
She tells me how her reputation as an artist continued to grow as she grew up. In middle school, people from all around would visit her classroom and ask her to draw pictures in their notebook.
“Sometimes they didn’t even know me.” She says. “They asked me to draw pictures of them, or of animals, or even of teachers they hate.”
At the mention of teachers, her face brightens.
“I can draw people in unflattering ways.” She adds, still smiling. “I enjoy grotesque things.”
This is apparent in her work, which spans the spectrum from cute to frightening. Her use of visceral imagery such as naked bodies and floating, faceless figurines often evokes feelings of discomfort. Yet, she juxtaposes these seemingly strange visions with soft hues of blue, pink, and green to temper the atmosphere and help the audience approach her artwork. This combination lends her pieces an almost primitive, intentionally childlike quality that is crude yet refined, but ultimately hard to define. She continues to tell me about her path in high school and eventually college, where she initially studied landscape architectural design.
“My dad is an architectural engineer, and he kind of convinced me to take a practical path in art. But the whole time I was studying my B.A. I wasn’t into it. I would always sneak away to hang out in the Fine Arts studio with those students.”
As she was completing her mandatory courses for architecture, she committed all of her spare time to her own artistic endeavors and created a separate portfolio of her own design. This paid off, and she was accepted for a Masters of Fine Arts at the University of Bournemouth in the U.K., where she began to experiment with huge canvasses and even larger ideas.
Totaling over 250cm x 200 cm in height, her painting “My Palm,” was later added as part of a larger exhibition on display at Bournemouth that showcased her signature style of bright colors, obscured boundary lines, and the ambiguity of what she calls “fleshy subjectivism.”
When asked if her perspective on art changed through a European education as opposed to a Chinese one, she nods. China is in a constant state of growth. It’s chaotic and messy. Symbols inevitably clash, lose meaning, or become warped; and because of this fact she explains how Chinese artists take their art seriously in an almost aggressive way, Art for Art’s sake.
“Grad school made me slow down and constantly reflect on on my own central themes and try to put it into context. It was annoying because sometimes, there is no reason. There is no why. The painting reveals itself to me. So when I attended these classes, I struggled a lot to define my own uncertainty, which felt strange.”
Jordan’s artistic process is a messy one. She admits she doesn’t have a distinct method for starting or finishing a piece, but rather lets it come naturally. She even avoids naming her works in case she changes her mind later. It is this precise, almost auto-reflexive quality that lends an open atmosphere to her varied styles of painting.
“I consider my practice to be equally improvisational, spiritual, and emotional.” She says. “I follow my instinct, and allow for the process of revision and alteration. I love to discover the harmony within the chaos as I’m painting, and look forward to seeing the final work myself.”
Jordan’s flexibility across forms often results in the overlapping of various elements to create symbolic and interactive works of art. In one such exhibition titled “Private Viewing” she placed a fully functional toilet in a room to explore the meaning of an art studio. By surrounding the toilet with caution tape, she represented the distance and connection between the audience and her art, and on the walls she scribbled childish, crude drawings. This runs parallel with her themes of primitivism, playfulness, and even anxiety. After all, using a bathroom is usually a private affair, and using one in public is a mortifying idea to many.
When asked if she has a central theme that defines her work, she struggles to find an answer. After several minutes of discussion, she elaborates on her artistic statement.
“I am interested in exploring the relationships that exist on a macroscopic and microcosmic level, like how stars resemble cells in the body, or galaxies the swirl of a sea-shell. The macro world consists of microcosmic existences played out in infinity, like an outward spiral. Seen the other way around, it can also be an inward spiral, toward the self. And I believe that is equally as important. The outward and the inward exploration.”
After saying this, Jordan nods her head.
“This is how I view the larger picture in my head now. But I’m still uncertain, maybe even unsure. I can change my mind in five months, and that’s okay, too.”
When asked about her future in art, she is equally unsure.
“I embrace the uncertainty and welcome the unknown.”
Jordan currently works at the Sichuan College of Architectural Technology, where she lectures on Landscape Architecture. She hopes to find another residency abroad sometime next year. Her work can be found here: https://qiaodanxiang.weebly.com
Additional Works by Jordan Xiang