LOS ANGELES — Being different is never easy, more so when you live in an infamously restrictive and conservative Communist Chinese society. Born in a farming village of the Shaanxi province, Xiyadie (a nom de plume meaning “Butterfuly in Siberia”) turns traditional paper-cut art into colorful, risqué pieces dealing with gay love and life.
Xiyadie (pronounced Zhee-yá-dee) is currently exhibiting The Metamorphosis of a Butterfly at alternative art space Flazh!Alley Art Studio in San Pedro, California. Within 50 14-inch by 14-inch pieces created over the course of 25 years, the artist manages to cut out provocative scenes that make viewers take second, third and fourth glances just to make sure they’re seeing right. Are those two men getting hot and heavy? What kind of “natural pleasures” is the artist portraying in the piece of the same name?
Xiyadie’s papercut art makes viewers work to get everything straight (pun intended) in their minds, which makes it even more impactful once we realize what we’re looking at. The artist marks each of his works with a mythological beauty by using multi-colored papers, cut out to form flowers, butterflies and other symbols, as if to suggest that his works — as daring as they are — should still be seen as an extension of the traditional Chinese canon.
Like many gay Chinese men, Xiyadie is also a gay married father living in Beijing. His 23-year old was born with cerebral palsy and his 21-year-old daughter is a college junior; both still have no clue as to their father’s true sexual orientation. His works don’t confine themselves to the sexuality of gay life and his scenes illustrate life beyond the bedroom.
In the Red Door Series, Xiyadie cuts with painful precision the emotional battles that rage in the process of coming out to his wife. Gone is the artist’s playful rainbow-colored experiments. In their place, an angry red paper marks the alienation, hurt and sorrow he and his wife experienced and continue to struggle with every day.
Within The Metamorphosis of a Butterfly, one gets a clear sense of the artist’s exhilarating, clandestine joys and deep sorrows. He says his works weren’t made for profit, but simply for expression. “Paper cutting is my own spiritual world. It is my world. In [that world] there are no worries and sorrows, only peace and free imagination.”
Gallery owner Joe Flazh says acceptance of Xiyadie’s work has been overwhelmingly positive because the artist touched on emotions that are deeper than sexual orientation. “[Xiyadie] addresses subjects that are relevant to the LGBT community, but also to any person, gay or heterosexual, male or female and parents. Comments have varied from, ‘I understand this piece,’ to, ‘I remember going through situations like that with my parents or kids.’”
Universality aside, Xiyadie wisely used papercut’s inherent beauty to tackle a touchy subject that could have set off political bombs. “Despite the fact of the sexually explicit works, there’s no hint of pornography, sleaziness or exploitation about them,” Flazh says. And perhaps that is part of Butterfly’s charm. Rather than propel on us the cold, hard facts, Xiyadie flutters and expands our minds with a flourish.
The Metamorphosis of a Butterfly: A kaleidoscopic vision of life by a gay Chinese artist is on view at Flazh!Alley (1113 S. Pacific Ave., San Pedro, California) until July 14.
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