A Living Chinese Artist Bonds With a 19th-Century French Poet

As a teenager, the Chinese artist Tao Siqi was fascinated by the words of Charles Baudelaire, the French poet who was not exactly known for imagery of sweeping landscapes and cities in the rain.

But it was not until a few years ago, when she reread his erotic and often bleak “Les Fleurs du Mal” (“The Flowers of Evil”), that she decided to translate his searing words onto canvas. Nine of those paintings will be on display at Frieze New York at Capsule Shanghai’s booth, more than likely turning heads with their almost fluorescent colors on canvases as large as 3 feet by 4 feet.

“The first time I came across Baudelaire’s poetry was in middle school or high school, since my father had a copy of ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’ in our home,” Tao, 29, said in a recent video interview. “When I first started painting, I wasn’t inspired by his poems, but I revisited them as I got older and became immediately inspired.”

“Les Fleurs du Mal,” originally published in 1857, is a collection of poems about eroticism, death, suffering, original sin and immorality. Scandalous in its day, it’s considered a major work of French literature and has inspired many modern poets. Baudelaire, who lived a decadent and often lonely life, frequenting bars and brothels, traveling the world and smoking opium, died at 46 in 1867. But this is what fascinated Tao.

“I was very intrigued by Baudelaire’s life,” she said, “and I was impressed by how he depicts lust with such audacity and freshness. There is some very direct imagery in his poems, and I wanted to translate that imagery in my paintings.”

That approach has led her to conceive these works — the collection for Frieze New York is titled “Possession” — with specific colors that she feels best represent the poet and his subjects. Tao has used a harsh greenish yellow to depict bondage in “Torment,” and a jarring red to convey dominance and submission in “Grace.” Even the softer yellow in the more gentle image “Lie With Me” signifies an undercurrent of uneasiness.

“The colors in the paintings are consistently either fluorescent yellow or red, and Baudelaire writes a lot about carcasses and blood, so I’ve always associated red with his poems,” she explained. “I had a solo show at Capsule three years ago, which included a lot of warm and comfortable colors. That’s not the case this time, but I still want to create a surreal and dreamy experience, both beautiful and comfortable.”

For Capsule, which is based in Shanghai — it also recently opened a second gallery, in Venice, to coincide with the 60th Venice Biennale — the works that are headed to Frieze New York reflect Tao’s willingness to take risks.

“It’s her first time working on large canvases, as her narrative is becoming more intense and complicated,” Zhiyi Zhou, the director for Asia at Capsule, said in a recent video interview. “We’ve watched her grow and become more daring in both her approach to a subject, the size of her works and a sense of taking risks that aren’t always about pleasing a commercial audience.”

The Frieze New York booth seemed like the ideal occasion — and setting — to give her a platform, Zhou said.

“Siqi had had solo exhibitions in New York in 2021 and 2022,” Zhou said, as well as a group exhibition at the Museum of Sex two years ago. “So we expect the audience at Frieze New York to be familiar with her work,” she added. “We feel this is a good fit for the New York audience because of the diversity of the culture and the openness.”

The presentation of Tao’s paintings at Frieze is also honoring Baudelaire’s words, Zhou said. The booth will have one section with metal mesh curtains, and instead of showing the works against typically white surfaces, Tao will paint the walls. One canvas, with a mirror attached to its back, will rotate on a metal stand in the center of the booth.

“The mirror and painting will have a dialogue, and the visitor can engage with it by looking at it on one side and then seeing themselves on the other side,” Tao explained.

Zhou said the booth’s décor was meant to work with Tao’s daring approach.

“There will be leather sofas reminiscent of human flesh and carpets of animal fur to echo the theme of the booth, which addresses the animalistic nature of human desire,” Zhou said.

For Lumi Tan, the curator of the Focus section at Frieze New York, which promotes new galleries and overlooked artists, Tao’s works are an ideal fit.

“Focus has traditionally been a space for discovery at Frieze and was always equated with emerging artists,” Tan said in a recent phone interview. “As the fair landscape has developed and grown, it’s also now for older artists who have made their mark in a different way.”

One example is the pairing of Tao’s paintings with photographs by Stanley Stellar, who is famous for depicting gay male sexual decadence in New York.

“We have Siqi’s hypersexual paintings compared to very explicit photos by Stanley Stellar of the New York piers from the ’70s, and in color for the first time,” Tan said. “We’re building relationships in this section between emerging artists and older artists, which is very important.”

For Tan, Tao’s works are a radical take on Baudelaire’s erotica nearly two centuries later.

“Being a young Asian woman is a historically fetishized subject,” Tan said, “and by referencing a historic work by a white French poet from the 1800s, these paintings are a radical new reclamation of that stereotypically submissive position. She takes control and reframes the narrative.”

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