I wish I could explain my fascination with Leon Xu’s paintings by referring to the great, bygone masters of light and shadow, only I know very little about art history. My obsession with Leon’s work grows out of how it makes me feel, and I can only describe that in terms of what those feelings remind me of: a friend’s story where you can visualize almost everything but definitely not everything. A beautiful song dopplering out of a passing car; it’s gone just as you recognize it. A mental screenshot from a movie you haven’t seen since you were a teenager. A face across a smoke-filled room; you can’t make out whether they’re in agony or ecstasy. Something remarkable that you try and take a picture of, only it looks wack on your phone. You keep the picture anyway, as a reminder of what you once saw.
The revelation that you can be happy and sad at the same time. When I first saw Leon’s paintings, I didn’t expect to be so moved by paintings of cars. I was entranced by how he’d poured his talents into carefully making everything look so hazy, the world viewed through a streaked windshield. They felt so intimate, these still moments from a fast life, all these flashing glimpses into the private cosmos of his 1989 Toyota Celica. The masterful spray of colors, the bodega flowers riding shotgun, the brilliance of the sun: all of this felt so joyful and possibility-rich, a reminder to pay attention to all the sensations around me. But Leon’s paintings felt tinged with melancholy, the way a certain shade of light in Chinese restaurants makes me melancholy. Everything feels fleeting. The flowers are already dead, the light will never look the same as it did a few blocks ago. There are no lines or borders in Leon’s paintings, just these wondrous, meticulous blurs that come into focus from a distance, and the effect is realizing that you’re not looking at a painting about reality, but about memory. These were paintings of meadows and fields, various angles of a car, a cool sign, a bouquet; these were paintings of memories, and of that moment when you recognize you are seeing something special. It happens to all of us, we just don’t know how to capture it. And then you realize that Leon’s paintings are invitations, not to ride along through his past, but to recognize the splendor of your present. He’s trying to pass on that chill you feel when you witness something unexpectedly sublime, whether it’s the sun hitting just right off the dashboard, or a neon sign slicing through late-night mist. Most of us never notice.
The paintings of Empty Orchestra mark a fascinating turn in Leon’s own story. They suggest an artist in search of new horizons. Maybe he’s got a little more paper now, he’s gone new places and seen things he’s never seen before. He’s searching for quiet and visions of escape. But he always returns home. Back behind the wheel, only the night sky never looks the same. There’s one painting in particular that I kept returning to. The artist is outside. You’ve experienced a scene like this before, the enchanting sun drawing you into nature. As with all of Leon’s paintings, I want to get as close as possible, to take in the minute details, to look at each flower petal individually, only the closer you get, the more washed-out and abstract it is. A few inches away: still too close. So I step back, I find the focus, and I keep stepping back, to take in even more of it, until I’m back in the world, and everything looks different now. – Hua Hsu
Leon Xu was born in 1995 in Zongshan, China, and raised in San Francisco. He received a Bachelors of Fine Art from University of Pennsylvania, and a certificate in Painting from Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. This is his second solo show with the gallery.