Beauty in Erosion
The early 1990’s was a crucial period in the history of contemporary Chinese art—a period in which Chinese artists revamped the tradition of classical portraiture and created the two major 90’s artist currents of “Cynical Realism” and Political Pop”. Liu Wei is one of the foremost representatives of Cynical Realism, and this auction gathers two archetypal works from the 1990s, each of which represents an important period of the artist's career: Revolutionary Family Series (Three Figures) (Lot 1054) and No Smoking (Lot 1055).
Revolutionary Family Series (Three Figures), created in 1991, is a group portrait of three members of People's Revolutionary Army, including the artist's father, who stands on the left. This painting features the bright colours characteristic of the Revolutionary Family Series. The figures are portrayed in a generally realist style, though the artist's brushwork had already begun to grow more distorting and exaggerated. At the same time, Liu Wei's early works usually have figurative backgrounds, like the white clouds and shrubbery in this work, but Liu has diverted the form of this background away from reality. Indeed, the pattern in the background harks back to the propaganda paintings of the Cultural Revolution. This Pop style perfectly matches the political atmosphere of the early 1990s. This painting is one of Liu Wei's earliest works, and it is representative of Liu's participation in the 1993 Venice Biennale, a watershed moment that opened the doors between Chinese artists and major international art fairs. Two decades after the Biennale, among the avant-garde artists who successfully established their international reputation in this period, very few have stood the test of time and remained highly-regarded in the art world after two decades. Liu Wei is one of those rare artists who have maintained their influence in the new century. The 1993 Venice Biennale marked a major breakthrough in Chinese artist’s entry into the Western art world. This was facilitated by Francesca Dal Lago, a cultural attaché of the Italian Embassy, who was familiar with many Chinese artists. The Biennale’s organizer, Achille Oliva, also had considerable interest in Chinese avant-garde artists and met them in China through Francesca’s arrangement. With the help of critic Li Xianting, Francesca created a shortlist of artists from which Oliva would make his final decision. This process left a deep impression on Oliva, who recalled, “I ate and chatted with the ‘artists’, looked at their works and discussed with them. I did not select the Chinese artists based on a Western preference, but rather through the conversations we had.”1 In this way, a group of fourteen artists were chosen to represent China in Venice, including Liu Wei, Fang Lijun, Wang Guangyi, Zhang Peili, Feng Mengbo, Li Shan, among others.
These fourteen artists further represented the two major artistic currents identified by Li Xianting: “Political Pop” and “Cynical Realism”. For Oliva, an international curator from a Western cultural background, the two currents accurately reflected the social reality of China in 1990’s. As he said later, “‘Political Pop’ was a sarcastic critique of the system. Pop represented a more liberating artistic language with a social impact. Pop was also judgment on the political level, allowing art to bear a more liberating effect.”2 Like Political Pop, Cynical Realism also represented freedom and liberation, although it used a pessimistic form of expression to critique and satirize political realities.
In fact, after the Revolutionary Family Series, Liu Wei's creative style began to change. In 1996, he created a total of 52 small-sized works: the You Like Me, Why Not series. With an intense and festering painting style, he used this series to create portraits that showed people's ugly side. The use of pink as the main colour in this series is consistent in his later work as well; meanwhile, his brushwork had become more bold and expressive. Two years later, his style had developed further. Liu reached a peak of sorts in 1998, when he created his No Smoking series of large-scale paintings, including the present lot.
In the No Smoking series, Liu ceased painting images of the outside world and shifted his visual focus to spiritual exploration of the self. This introspective approach was well suited to the artist's rich inner experience. As the artist himself has said, the past is the past, but the common inner life of people is eternal. We see that No Smoking, like the Revolutionary Family Series, utilises pink as a key tone, but puts more emphasis on the state of Liu's life in Songzhuang. Secluded in Xiaopucun, Liu spent his days drinking tea, catching fish, playing table tennis on an antique table, eating and drinking well, smoking cigarettes, and painting. This leisurely and contented lifestyle allowed Liu to become more relaxed and free in his style. The strict rhythm of his brushwork in earlier paintings gave way to uninhibited and carefree daubing. He outlined portraits in pink layers of varying depth that betray some elements of Expressionism. No aspect of the tableau is fully realistic, but at the same time, the spirit of the painting is easy to grasp. Those familiar with the artist know that when Liu Wei paints, it is always with his brush in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Thus these paintings titled No Smoking are clearly a small jibe at the artist himself. Though the features of the person in the painting are blurry, the two eyes are quite sly, with a self-satisfied look that genuinely expresses the stress-free state of mind that Liu enjoyed during his life of seclusion. So-called political trends and cultural movements were a distant memory. No Smoking is a classic work of Liu Wei's return to the individual and the inner being.
Liu Wei graduated from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1989 and is a representative artist of the post-89’ period. Along with Fang Lijun, another representative painter of Cynical Realism, they have fully captured the ethos of the 1990’s. The two debuted together in an eponymous exhibition in 1992, earning the attention of critics within and beyond China, including the Hong Kong gallery-owner Johnson Chang. Chang invited Liu Wei to participate in the exhibition “China’s New Art Post-89,” which toured internationally in 1993. Afterwards, Liu Wei was invited to other major international events, such as the 1993 and 1995 Venice Biennales and the 1994 São Paulo Biennial. In technique, Liu Wei boldly departed from the official aesthetics of the time, abandoning socialist realism for an insouciant figurative style that renders his subjects bizarre or even ugly. Comparing Liu Wei’s early and late works, we find that his style, beginning in an almost complete adherence to realism, gradually became loose and free, indicative of sensibilities unusual among his contemporaries. In contrast to most contemporary Chinese art of the 1980’s, Liu Wei’s works are free of ideological baggage or an artist's responsibilities; irreverent mischief is his attitude in life and art alike. Thus his paintings have a clear intellectual tendency towards the nonchalance of "Cynical Realism" identified by Li Xianting.
1 New Weekly, June, 2010
2 “Cultural Nomadism Is Important——Dialogue Between Zhu Qi And Achille Bonito Oliva”, 2010