Mention Liu Xiaodong and one thinks of the movement known as New Generation Art. Brought under the spotlight by art critics in the early 1990s, this trend in the art world signified the end of the ’85 New Wave Movement as well as the corresponding discussions about “absolute principles,” “universal soul,” and the other lofty ideas that defined that earlier movement. Artists were eager to shift their focus from the grand questions of humanity to the current conditions of their individual lives, from the sublime of spiritual life to the prosaic goings-on of everyday life, from the gaze of a bird’s eye view to close-up observation. Precisely because of this shift, the paintings of Liu Xiaodong from the early 90s became representative of New Generation Art. Although it may appear as though Liu’s paintings use the language of realism to portray the mundane nature of daily life, in examining the subjects in his paintings – subjects who are overcome with boredom – we as the viewer not only discover the mood of the artist himself, but the atmosphere of boredom that he creates becomes the very takedown of social realism’s “typical” subjects and “typical” people. Liu’s interest lies in the exploration of life itself. He says, “I enjoy discovering scenes within ordinary life. I choose scenes that engage my curiosity.”
2004 marked a transition in the methods of creation and concepts behind Liu’s works. Deviating from his previous compositions, Liu began to place his subjects against the larger backdrop of society. During the process of this transition, painting from life began to play an important role, yet Liu’s method does not resemble traditional methods of painting from life, which were frequently done in the studio, quiet, undisturbed, facing a still life or a model. Instead, Liu frequently chooses to work in large, social settings, transforming still life into a type of action. In fact, the process by which he depicts the live scene is also the very process of his observation of social reality and of the attitudes and moods by which we exist. Liu’s objective is to present the real lives of average people within real environments. Painting from life on the one hand allows the artist to avoid the addition of grand narratives as well as the nonobjective process of “post-production”; and on the other hand, it allows the artist the most direct, authentic, and intimate way to access details. This method, however, does not obstruct the active role of the artist. On the contrary, the artist acts as agent in deciding what type of live scene to capture, what subjects to depict, these choices loyally communicating Liu’s attitudes. He says, “Through painting, I can express a perspective. And that’s all. I don’t have the right to change any of it. All I have is a perspective, I can’t do anything else. This is different from traditional painting from life – I possess a value system, a world view…I want to appear right at the scene where social problems are manifested.”
Liu’s 2009 work Family Party (Lot 13) prompts the viewer to recall Liu’s 2006 large-scale, representative piece Warm Bed No. 2, painted from life in Bangkok. In the work, Liu depicts about ten female prostitutes in different postures, the disorderly scenery seemingly pointing to their disorderly lives. Family Gathering, on the other hand, presents a warmer scene. Five young women are depicted with extremely relaxed postures, surrounded by warm colour tones and soft toys. The atmosphere of the scene is almost like that of a joyous and harmonious family gathering. But, an ashtray in the foreground, the women’s revealing clothes, and their careless body language also point to something a little less innocent. These women seem to be waiting for something, and in the scene’s warmth, there seems to be an inexplicable yet dark ambiguity. This sort of careful directness is the very representation of the artist’s position. He has frozen this image on the canvas for the viewer. Although in the process the artist does not make any value judgment and leaves the viewer to interpret the painting, it is this very subtle balance between being present yet detached that reveals both human nature and the reality of life. Also, the ambiguity in the painting dances across the slightly cold and indifferent faces of the subjects. To be able to capture these expressions while painting from life – a method that leaves little room for intentional planning – the artist must be quick in his observation, and swift and confident in his brushstrokes. Liu’s paintings are thus a testament to his excellent technique. Baudelaire in his writings on modern aesthetics once expressed his admiration for “the artist who depicted modern life.” Art critic Karen Smith has since used this title in praising Liu Xiaodong’s insight into modern life. From this perspective, Liu’s works in the 21st century have long since transcended the boundaries of New Generation Art and have taken on deeper and more far-reaching meanings.
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