Kiki Xuebing Wang: Translating an Internal Feeling of Contradiction

We had the pleasure of interviewing artist Kiki Xuebing Wang. Born and raised in China, Wang obtained her BA at UCLA in California. She is currently based in London where she recently graduated from the Royal College of Art, obtaining her MA in Painting.

The focus of Wang's practice began as she started to notice differences in values between her traditional upbringing in China and the consumerist mindset widely seen in the US. The luxury market became a fascination to her and would become the point of departure of her work. Although inspired by the fashion luxury industry, her practice is anything but superficial. The ideas behind her paintings go beyond the objects themselves to the point where the object presented loses its attributed value and desirability.

MAD54: Your paintings, although not obvious at first glance, are luxury items from the fashion world. How did you decide to start painting these objects?

KXW: I grew up in a China that is very different from today’s. Back in the day when I was little, I was taught that capitalism is evil. When I went to LA for my studies, my school was very close to Beverly Hills and all the luxury boutiques. Part of me really wanted to own these objects but part of me thought it was not right. Moving to London, I felt this was even more extreme. London is more dense than LA and I felt luxury items were everywhere. I wanted to explore this internal dilemma of wanting to own these items but at the same time thinking it wasn’t right. There was a struggle inside of me that I didn’t get to talk about with anyone so I started to explore this through my paintings. My aim is not to say capitalism is good or bad. I am just trying to propose the question through my work and trying to understand this internal dilemma.

Wang’s work’s point of departure begins with a luxury item that causes a strong emotion or struggle within her. Although her subjects are often objects of desire for a large percentage of the population, she decides to portray them in a different way. In almost an abstract manner, she plays with the composition of the object and uses color and lighting to create a certain aesthetic that is not often associated with luxury items.

“When you see advertising of these products they are always presented in great light and always made to look desirable. They use the best photographers because they want you to buy these products. If I make the object look exactly as desirable as in the campaign, where is the value in that?”

MAD54: Nowadays we see a lot of commercial galleries showcasing art that closely resembles luxury objects. The other day we came across some glass sculptures with Chanel bags encapsulated within them. What do you think of this type of art?

KXW: I can see the commercial value of the work and I can see why a gallery would want to show them. I think works like these look very desirable and people would want to purchase them. But I am interested in the language of painting. I like to paint in a subtle way, I don't like things that are too straight forward. If you look at the artwork and you get what the artist wants to do or intends to say straight away, I don’t think it's always a good thing. You don't need to be so literal. That's one of the reasons why I really like Virginia Woolf's writing. You can read her work over and over and get new ideas from it each time, that’s what I want to do with my paintings.

Wang talks about the need to experience a strong emotion to get herself to begin working on a painting. If well, luxury objects were the source of an internal dilemma and struggle, she mentions that once she begins to paint, the object becomes more or less irrelevant. She talks about creating a disturbance factor within her paintings. She challenges the gestalt pattern and uses light and color to create a feeling of suspense and disturbance. Wang draws inspiration from Italian horror films from the Giallo movement.

MAD54: You mention that you draw inspiration from Italian horror films from the 70s and 80s. What is it about these films that inspires you? What can we see in your paintings that departs from these films?

KXW: In horror films, when you hear a shot or a certain kind of music, you know something is about to happen, but you don’t know what. Those few seconds make you feel very unsettled.

I started to wonder why I was interested in these seconds of suspense. I did some research and came across an essay by Julia Krestiva “The Power of Horror”. She talks about horror being a feeling of abjection (the state of being cast off). In horror films it is the deciding time between life and death.You feel nervous for the person in the film and you don't know whether they are going to survive or not. I am interested in horror films and the feeling of unsettledness that they bring. It all ties back to the initial feeling I get when I am encountered with luxury objects.

Wang aims to capture these moments of suspense, unsettledness and disturbance in her works by using semi-abstraction, playing with the object’s composition and her use of “non-desirable” colors. She mentions that light also plays an important role in creating this feeling in both film and in painting. Not knowing where the source of light is coming from but seeing its effect builds onto the feeling of disturbance.

MAD54: Are there any other sources of inspiration for the use of light in your paintings?

KXW: Lisa Yuskavage plays with light in a way I find to be quite similar to the films I'm interested in. She uses non-traditional lighting unlike old masters. It is almost like a glowing box, kind of like a smartphone. Yuskavage paints mostly nude female figures but, to me, her work it's not about the figure, it’s about the painting. It is more about the light and the brushwork than what you first see. This is something I want to achieve with my work.

The journey of Wang’s work is as complex as the layers in her paintings. The genesis of her work begins with an internal dilemma and struggle between desire and rejection. When translating this feeling onto the canvas, she borrows from horror films which she describes as “actually not that scary”. Films from the Giallo movement, although meant to be scary, presented a beautiful aesthetic, in a way, parallel to the relationship between Wang and high-end fashion.

Kiki Xuebing Wang’s work has been shortlisted by the prestigious John Moores Painting Prize committee and is currently on virtually on view. Previous winners of the prize include David Hockney and Peter Doig. Wang is also an exhibiting artist at MAPA Fine Art on the current group show “Staying @live”.


Learn more about Kiki Xuebing Wang’s work on her website.