Rebecca Wu’s “Blue Murmur” at Marvin Gardens was a quiet yet powerful debut, showcasing her masterful manipulation of oil paints to evoke a poignant sense of time and memory. Each composition, featuring distressed patinas and earth-toned hues, drew viewers into the artist’s personal recollections and transformations of everyday objects into emotive, nostalgic motifs.

Drawing inspiration from her childhood in rural southern China, where humid summers and leaden skies shaped her visual sensibilities, Wu’s evocative palette, evident in works like “Red Mirror, and Sneaker and Slipper,” captures the damp, blue-green atmosphere of her memories. Her technique of layering dry oil paints without liquid medium adds depth and a uniquely weathered quality to her paintings.

In this exhibition, Wu forged a new visual lexicon from her personal history, offering a universal meditation on memory and the passage of time. Through her skillful depictions of everyday objects and use of nuanced light and color, Wu transforms her intimate reflections into a profoundly resonant body of work.

Xiangjie Rebecca Wu, Red Mirror
Xiangjie Rebecca Wu.
Red Mirror, 2024.
Oil on wood panel. 20 × 16 in.
Image courtesy of Marvin Gardens,
photographed by Elisabeth Bernstein.

Rebecca Wu’s Exploration: From Childhood Memories to Universal Art

Clare Gemima: Rebecca, oil paintings like “Red Mirror” in your tranquil debut solo “Blue Murmur” wear a somewhat distressed patina, evoking an undeniable sense of the passing of time in many of the work’s compositions. How do you achieve this with the mediums you use, and what is the impetus behind this material decision?

Rebecca Wu: The red mirror depicted in the painting came from my grandmother’s house, and in those days, many homes had red mirrors like this. It is a fragment of my own childhood observation. The centered composition makes the mirror, an otherwise ordinary object, demand a certain amount of attention and adds significance to this mundane household object. The yellowish light in the bathroom warms the space, while the earthy tones evoke a natural sense of nostalgia. I remember growing taller and taller and seeing more and more of myself in the mirror.

The red mirror depicted in the painting came from my grandmother’s house, and in those days, many homes had red mirrors like this. It is a fragment of my own childhood observation.

Mirrors have a contemporary meaning of exposing self-consciousness and existence, and in my painting, the emptiness of the mirror and the reflected tiled wall on the other side represent the questioning of the self. We always expect to see ourselves reflected in mirrors, but the empty mirror only evokes the viewer’s uneasiness of having lost the self.

Reflections on Color Palette and Memory

Clare Gemima: I am also curious if your color palette, specifically in your use of darker, earthier tones, relate to your memories of the weathered, eroded cliffs and the humid air along the Yangtze River in China? 

Rebecca Wu: I grew up in a rural southern village on the Yangtze River in China, and the environment definitely had an impact on my colors. Summers in the south are always humid because the rainy seasons soak everything up. Sometimes, even when it’s not raining, you can feel a wet film covering your skin that you can’t shake off. I remember that the summer sky was always a leaden gray, and the rooms were shrouded in a dull blue-green light.

In my painting “Blue Window Green Wall,” the blue glass represents a common window from my childhood. Sunlight would enter the room through the blue glass, so the home was always clouded with blue air. I later learned that the popularity of blue glass was due to a flaw in Chinese glass technology at the time, but it did become an important element in my color perception.

Clare Gemima: Additionally, could you elaborate on your utilization of bluer, occasionally muted, and gray tones evident in other still lifes such as “Sneaker and Slipper” (2024)? Similarly, in pieces characterized by more subdued colors like “Cabbage Butterfly II” (2024), how does your variational color palette contribute to the overall emotional resonance of the exhibition?

Rebecca Wu: As I said before, the blue glass, the pale gray sky, and the humid air became the genesis of my desire for blue and gray to be used extensively in my paintings. On humid summer days, you naturally see that dim blue-green atmosphere in a room without lights on, and this light play is exactly what I depicted in “Sneaker and Slipper” (2024). My grandfather’s military sneakers and my grandmother’s slippers are unforgettable pieces of my family memories, even if they seem almost boring and pointless. The somber colors will naturally give a feeling of dreaminess and melancholy. People might think I’m using these colors because I want to make the work seem nostalgic, but they are actually depictions of real scenes.

The blue glass, the pale gray sky, and the humid air became the genesis of my desire for blue and gray to be used extensively in my paintings.

In “Cabbage Butterfly II,” 2024, I started to expand my color spectrum and not limit myself to blues and greens, even though I’m really addicted to using them. The use of warm colors is still based on how I felt about the objects in my childhood home space. The heavy, dark crimson lacquered furniture and the damp, worn wood shades express the origins of my color sensibilities. Even in using warm colors, the touch of dampness and the rusticity of the materials I paint are still a part of my memories and feelings of home.

Xiangjie Rebecca Wu. Blue Window
Xiangjie Rebecca Wu.
Blue Window, Green Wall I , 2023.
Oil on wood panel. 36 ​​× 48 in.
Image courtesy of Marvin Gardens,
photographed by Elisabeth Bernstein.

Clare Gemima: Your paintings exhibit a unique snapshot quality, capturing quiet and reflective moments. Please discuss your technique of using dry oil paints and mixing your colors without adding any liquid medium. How does this method enhance the layers and textures of your work?

Rebecca Wu: The capturing of fleeting imagery and objects reveals themes of memory and the passing of time. I began by studying the technique of glazing, which led me to the use of transparent and opaque colors. Overlaying requires the use of medium oils to blend the colors layer by layer, but at the end of the process, different layers and amounts of oil will result in an inconsistent oil finish. The different reflections of the paintings were very unsatisfying to me. 

Moreover, the surface of overlayed oil paintings is very flat, and it was at that time that I started to hope to develop some texture on my surfaces. This led me to give up on oil mediums and start to paint directly with transparent colors instead. The completely matte finish gives the paintings a more earthy and rustic quality, too. Although the later developments of the technique seem to be a reversal of what I did at the beginning, I feel that my early work with glazing gave me more confidence in my use of complex colors.

Clare Gemima: In some instances viewers can see past areas of paint to the point where the work’s panel becomes apparent. Can you describe the gestures and techniques you use when applying oil paint to your surfaces?

Rebecca Wu: Although I’m not using glazing, I still quote glazing’s technique for transparent and opaque colors. I use opaque colors in the first layer of underpainting and often the complementary colors of the final rendered color. The contrasting colors create a vibrating hue that evokes a complex psychological emotion. I don’t know how to describe my brush technique, but I can only say that I imagine that my brush is my finger, and I touch the surface of each painting affectionately as if I were touching an aging or aged object. 

Temporal Markers and Everyday Objects

Clare Gemima: Objects such as a pack of cigarettes, mirrors, and shoes serve as calculative markers of time throughout “Blue Murmur.” How do these objects function within your paintings to convey the ephemeral nature of memory? What deeper meanings do these temporal markers hold within the context of your own personal narrative?

Rebecca Wu: In fact, all objects can be time markers. When I live with objects, they become pieces of my life and part of my time. These objects are common household items. Cigarettes belonged to my grandfather, and I remember that when I was young, the male elders would keep a pack of cigarettes in their chest pockets; there were also red plastic mirrors that everyone had in their homes in those days, and I saw myself and the space that I lived in through those mirrors. All the objects, when I did spend time on them—even if it was just gazing at them in a daze—became markers of my time.

Xiangjie Rebecca Wu. Cigarettes
Xiangjie Rebecca Wu.
Cigarettes, 2024.
Oil on wood panel. 14 × 11 in.
Image courtesy of Marvin Gardens,
photographed by Elisabeth Bernstein.

Clare Gemima: Could you elaborate on your selection process for these moments? What criteria did you use to determine which memories to depict through painting your time markers? 

Rebecca Wu: I paint a selection of works into a series. Sometimes, I’ll concentrate on painting domestic spaces and objects; other times, I’ll focus more on landscapes. It can be interpreted as a poem, where I use each painting as a word or a phrase, and then a series can, by virtue, come together as a poem. Each painting can be shown individually or put together with all the paintings to become a narrative without a specific plot. 

By drawing these images, I want to link the space and history of the past and, at the same time, form a new visual language based on these images and objects to express loss and time.

Clare Gemima: How do you balance the intensely personal nature of your work with the desire to create a connection with your viewer? How do you ensure that the intimacy of your work acts as a doorway for others to share in these moments?

Rebecca Wu: I did have a concern that because the objects and spaces chosen for the work were from my hometown, its locational specificity would be too much for the viewers to empathize with. But that’s not really all I do with paintings. By drawing these images, I want to link the space and history of the past and, at the same time, form a new visual language based on these images and objects to express loss and time. I also believe that although the spaces we live in are not identical, we still have similar and empathetic feelings about them.

Rebecca Wu’s Solitude in Artistic Creation

Clare Gemima: The solitary act of painting is central to your creative process, allowing you to engage with your memories with sincerity and without the need for external validation. How does solitude impact the intimacy and authenticity of your work? What does solitary engagement mean to you as an artist?

Rebecca Wu: I think every painter who has faith in their painting can be solitary. After all, a painter needs to dedicate a lot of time to their work, and that time is often spent alone. For me, solitude is not a bad thing because I will always have a lot of time to spend with myself and consequently have time to think a lot. Solitude in painting is not just a state of artistic creation, but I think it is also a prerequisite for artistic potential. It makes me dig out the material for creation from within myself, and the authenticity of the work and the self become the object of my examination. Therefore, whether I think about solitude from a personal or professional point of view, it allows me to continually recognize myself.

Xiangjie Rebecca Wu. Cabbage Butterfly II
Xiangjie Rebecca Wu.
Cabbage Butterfly II, 2024.
Oil on wood panel. 12 × 12 in.
Image courtesy of Marvin Gardens,
photographed by Elisabeth Bernstein.