Contemporary Asian Art


Liu Wei
B. 1965
signed in Chinese and Pinyin and dated 1995/2, framed
oil on canvas
170 by 150 cm.; 66 7/8 by 59 in.
Zustandsbericht lesen Zustandsbericht lesen


Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner


Germany, Bonn, Das Kunstmuseum, China Zeitgenӧssische Malerei, February - June, 1996, p. 158
Singapore, Singapore Art Museum, Chinese Contemporary Paintings - Singapore Art Museum, 8 May - 22 June, 1997, p. 88


Liu Wei, Red Bridge Gallery, Shanghai, China, 2008, p. 64, pl. 28


Liu Wei
Purely Pictorial

Liu Wei has always stood out strongly among contemporary Chinese artists. Regarded as a representative of Cynical Realism, he participated alongside Fang Lijun in the first exhibition on this artistic current in the early 1990's. Afterwards he was to invited many important overseas exhibitions and venues, including the 1993 Venice Biennale; "Mao Goes Pop" at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney; "China/Avant-Garde"; and "China's New Art, Post-1989," whch toured internationally. After his second invited showing in the Venice Biennale in 1995, Liu Wei turned against his times. In an era dominated by Political Pop and symbolism, he abandoned social themes in favor of an exploration of pure pictorial interest. A Good Dog (Lot 888) from 1995 represented this dramatic shift in Liu Wei's artistic career, his retreat from the external world into the individual and personal life. The painting reflected Liu Wei's personal circumstances at the time. But subject matter was not his foremost artistic concern. Liu in fact cared more about painterly method and handling of the brush. A Good Dog registered this important shift in his aesthetic vision.

After graduating from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1989, Liu Wei began the Revolutionary Family series at home. He took inspiration from his own life, particularly the image of his father as an officer in the People's Liberation Army. Stylistically, Liu Wei boldly departed from the realism that was mainstream at the time, and instead chose an carefree alternative manner that tended to deform his subjects to the point of ugliness. Such seemingly destructive and irreverent painting style garnered him increasing attention. On the other hand, his subject matters tended towards mischief and lightness. His figures were mostly his friends or people he encountered in everyday life. The famous art critic Li Xianting categorizes him along with Fang Lijun and others as "Cynical Realists" and a new generation of artists after the 1989 "China/Avant-Garde" exhibition. According to Li, after the 80's "idealism that attempted to save and reconstruct Chinese culture with modern Western thought came into widespread doubt, people seemed unable to find a coherent world." "Boredom and meaninglessness came to be the feelings most true to life at present."1 This nihilistic attitude was the precise antidote to the fervent worship of philosophy of the previous decade. Unlike artists of the 80's, who wanted to engage with the soul of the nation, Cynical Realists were more interested in protecting themselves with bored disengagement. Graduated in 1989, Liu Wei captured the zeitgeist of 1990's China and became the leading figure of the Cynical Realists along with Fang Lijun.

These avant-garde artists laboured in near obscurity in their country in the early 1990's, but received the recognition of a group of expatriates, who were impressed with their technical finesse and their non-Western aesthetics and promoted them to foreign exhibition organizers. Liu Wei's first major exhibition, "Liu Wei, Fang Lijun" was co-organized by Enrico Perio of the Italian Embassy and the critic Francesca Dal Lago in Beijing Capital Museum. On this occasion, Liu Wei introduced his Revolutionary Family series and successfully garnered national and international critical attention, including that of the Hong Kong critic and gallery owner Johnson Chang. Chang invited Liu Wei to participate in the international touring exhibition "China's New Art, Post-1989" as well as several very important international exhibitions afterwards in which the Hibiscuses Emerging from Water and Beauties Frolicking in Water series appeared, including the 1993 and 1995 Venice Biennale's and the 1994 São Paolo Biennial. As a contemporary Chinese artist, Liu Wei became an international sensation.

In 1995, as his fame grew, Liu Wei moved into Songzhuang. Pursuing an individualistic aesthetic vision, he innovated his painting style. Works from this crucial period were clearly different from the Revolutionary Family series, with a more insouciant style, a viscous feel in the brushwork, and an unreserved attraction to grotesque imagery. For Liu Wei, his work from previous years was firmly in the past. Once he had ascended the international stage and experienced the outside world, he became paradoxically even more grounded in his personal circumstances and able to draw on them for his art. At the same time, Liu Wei gradually reduced his period-specific symbols and freed himself from the need to showcase particular images. Instead he became more preoccupied with the accumulation and exploration of pictorial interest. Consequently, Liu Wei stopped meticulously composing his pictures, and social issues faded into the background. Many details of his personal life entered his canvases, and his brush began to exert a poetic energy. He first completed the Do You Like Meat? series of six paintings. After returning to China from the 1995 Venice Biennale, he further created such works as the Born in Beijing in 1989 series, including the important A Good Dog, which symbolized his artistic and philosophical transformation.

Liu Wei loves dogs. His pet dogs Panther, Dudu, and Flower Roll have appeared on his canvases since 1994. In the current lot, a dog stares directly and frontally in the center against a black background. Its spirited eyes are generously endowed with human emotions. We witness Liu's signature style: the brushwork allows the pigments to drip freely, leaving a seemingly haphazard, wet, and sticky painting surface. The background is filled with symbols and letters resembling printing, as in Born in Beijing in 1989. At the same time, A Good Dog also portrays traces of Liu's Pop painting series like Revolutionary Family and Beauties. Liu's idiosyncratic brushwork, already visible in A Good Dog, will develop from an impression of moist stickiness to that of full-blown fetidness, which is among the stylistic characteristics for which Liu is most widely known. With his talent and emotion Liu Wei is able to elevate decay into an aesthetic. As critic Li Xianting puts it, Liu's "rotten" passages blossom into flowers.

Turning life into art, Liu Wei is perceptive about everyday life. Indeed he is someone who truly knows how to live well. He leads a serene pastoral existence in a quaint village mansion entirely built in wood. He designed his own crooked passageway and had a pond dug in his garden to lead water into his house. He keeps different kinds of flora and fauna. He also enjoys collecting old furniture, from a desk made of golden-thread nanmu to redwood chairs, as well as many unidentifiable household knickknacks from antique markets. Even the main door to his house dates from the Qing dynasty, with decoratively carved waves. He usually leaves it unlocked, putting into practice traditional Chinese moral ideals. Artifacts and fragments from the Wei and Jin dynasty lay about in his house; any household accessory can be a piece of antique. All this is to make life more pleasurable and textured.

Liu Wei believes that painting must strive towards extremes and cannot be lukewarm. If it is to be pleasurable, then let it be as pleasurable as possible; if it is to be grotesque then make it grotesque to the utmost. True art strikes the viewer to the point of pain and addresses only what is essential and salient. A Good Dog reveals what lies "behind the image itself"-just as the painter goes beyond mere form and realizes his own words in his creative practice.

1 Li Xianting, "Apathy and Deconstruction in Post-'89 Art: Analyzing the Trends of 'Cynical Realism' and 'Political Pop'", 1992

Contemporary Asian Art