Cheng Xinyi - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale Hong Kong Thursday, March 30, 2023 | Phillips

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  • “Where colour is concerned, I want it to be pleasing and slightly disturbing at the same time – so that it triggers a specific moment with feelings.” 
    — Cheng Xinyi

    Cheng Xinyi’s murky, melancholic and sensual paintings are intimate snapshots of her life, experiences and encounters. Human subjects – with a predilection for young men – are often portrayed by the Wuhan-born artist as fully naked or only partially covered by clothes, looking pensive and slightly low-spirited, with at times an almost resigned expression.


    Goodnight, Thomas, painted in 2013, elegantly encapsulates this mélange of feelings: it depicts a clothless male figure from head to chest, whose blue mood seems strengthened by the cold tones of the green, greyish-azure and yellow background. Thomas’ head is tilted to one side, his drooping eyelids appear reddish and darker than the rest of the skin. A prominent, subtly sultry detail that instantly catches the attention of the viewer is the abundant body hair: the man’s eyes are surmounted by an arched unibrow, his face is framed by a short, thick beard and a full moustache, his brown and straight mane of hair is styled in a mid-length haircut, and a coat of hair copiously grows all over his chest, bringing out his bright pink nipples.


    Intimate Portraits

    “I do like to paint eyes – but painting the mouth determines if someone is happy and sad; it tells too much directly. I don’t like that. I like people being absorbed in what they are doing. I look to make the emotions and the mood with the colours and brushstrokes instead of with an expression on their face.”
    — Cheng Xinyi

    In Cheng’s paintings, the subjects that are portrayed on canvas are mostly her friends. The prevalence of young men reveals the artist’s fascination with the theme of masculinity as a social construct: ‘I’m interested in how men deal with their masculinity and how they respond to other people’s feelings’  i, she stated in a 2021 interview. Thomas, a recurring character in her paintings, also appears in the homonymous piece Thomas, made in 2013, and has become a sort of male alter-ego for the artist along the years.


    The hypnotic, chromatically balanced background, made of sombre nuances and irregular rectangular shapes, testifies to Cheng’s admiration for the work of the German-born painter Josef Albers, which has significantly influenced the way she uses colours and light in her paintings. Cheng explains that it was the discovery of Albers’ book Interaction of Colour (1963), with its different combinations and tonality, ‘which made me want to play around with getting the colour palette to fit certain moods and emotions. But I also think adopting these colours was a way of saying goodbye to my past, which was a very traditional training at a Chinese college’. ii


    In particular, for its chromatic choices and its geometric composition, Goodnight, Thomas resembles Albers’ painting Homage to the Square: Apparition, made in 1959. The piece is part of a series that the German artist began in 1950, which occupied him for 25 years. By playing around with the shape of the square, the Bauhaus professor experimented with the contrasts and the optical effects created by the juxtaposition of multi-coloured quadrangles.



    Left: Josef Albers, Homage to the Square: Apparition, 1959
    Solomon Guggenheim Museum, New York.
    Image: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation/Art Resource, NY/ Scala, Florence, Artwork: © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    Right: The present lot


    Cheng’s way of playing around with colour on canvas is purposefully unnatural, as her intention is not that of faithfully representing and imitating reality. Instead, her choice of colours intends to convey very specific emotions to viewers. And, since Albers’ approach to painting taught her that all the colours are in relation to each other, she covers her canvases with many stratified layers of paint, to finally achieve a moment in which all tones seem to have found a balance that makes them work together.


    “I like to imagine that my characters exist in a three-dimensional space, I really want them to have a sense of volume. When I paint, I still think about sculpture, Bernini’s sculptures, for example. I want the surface to be very smooth.”
    — Cheng Xinyi

    Moving to Baltimore, and from there to Amsterdam and Paris, played an important role in Cheng’s coming of age as a painter. A student at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, where she studied sculpture, the Chinese artist attended the Maryland Institute of Art for her MFA, and then spent two years in a residency at the prestigious Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, to eventually land in Paris. In the French capital, Cheng found her maturity as an artist, and – she explained – refined her iconic pictorial style: ‘the light is really special in Paris. I love the sunsets, and the fact that the light looks different in every season. I believe that the light is a really important part of my painting too. Living in Paris has undoubtedly influenced my practice’.  iii



    Collector's Digest


    • Born in Wuhan in 1989, Cheng Xinyi is one of the most promising Chinese contemporary artists. She describes herself as a ‘painter who’s fascinated by emotions, desires and power dynamics’  iv. She studied sculpture at the Academy of Arts & Design at Tsinghua University and obtained an MFA at the Maryland Institute College of Art. From 2016 to 2017 she took part in a two-year residency programme at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, to then move to Paris in 2017, where she currently lives and works.

    • In 2019, Cheng was awarded the illustrious Baloise Art Prize 2019 of Art Basel. In 2021, some of her paintings were exhibited at the Parisian Bourse de Commerce, as part of a series of works coming from the private collection of the French billionaire businessman François Pinault.

    • Among her most recent solo exhibitions are Xinyi Cheng at Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, (4 November 2022 – 28 January 2023); Seen Through Others at Lafayette Anticipations, Paris (23 March – 28 May 2022); The Horse with Eye Blinders at Hamburger Bahnhof—Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin (10 December 2020 – 6 June 2021).



    i Cheng Xinyi, quoted in Duncan Ballantyne-Way, ‘Xinyi Cheng: “I’m interested in how men deal with their masculinity’’’, Exberliner, 3 June 2021, online

    ii Cheng Xinyi, quoted in Duncan Ballantyne-Way, ‘Xinyi Cheng: “I’m interested in how men deal with their masculinity”’, Exberliner, 3 June 2021, online

    iii Cheng Xinyi, quoted in Maxime Têtard, ‘Xinyi Cheng / Interview’, Pinault Collection, 7 July 2021, online

    iv Cheng Xinyi, quoted in Fiona He, ‘Xinyi Cheng, ANTENNA SPACE 天线空间’, Artforum, online

    • Condition Report

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    • Description

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    • Provenance

      Private Collection, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      New York, Thomas Erben Gallery, Soft Haze, 7 July - 5 August 2016



Goodnight, Thomas

oil on linen
94 x 94 cm. (37 x 37 in.)
Painted in 2013.

Full Cataloguing

HK$600,000 - 900,000 

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Charlotte Raybaud
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong Auction 30 March 2023