H arnessing the power of paint as a medium, Liu Guofu (b. 1964) draws viewers into the philosophical spaces between shadow and light. Melding the language of Chinese art with techniques of Western painting, Liu’s abstract brushwork reconfigures colour, form, and light. “How to have abstraction without abstract painting was the question that marked the beginning for Liu Guofu," writes philosopher and art critic Dr. Xia Kejun of the Nanjing-born artist. Through his canvases, viewers arrive at a spiritual experience. As the artist says, “Art is noble, important, and offers deep spiritual solace because it transcends reality.”
A graduate in oil painting from the renowned Nanjing Institute of Arts, Liu’s paintings have been exhibited in various countries across the world, from France, Germany and Italy to Switzerland, Hong Kong and Mainland China. His works are held in the collection of Shanghai Art Museum, Jiangsu Provincial Art Museum in Nanjing, and Zhuzhuong Museum of Art in Beijing, MGM Cotai Chairman’s Collection in Macau, as well as private collections.
Ahead of the exhibition “Liu Guofu: Requiem” at Sotheby’s Hong Kong Gallery, Felix Kwok, Sotheby’s Head of Modern Art, Asia, sat down with the artist to discuss the philosophical underpinnings in Liu’s artistic practice.
When we talk about the work of artists from the 20th or 21st century – particularly the work of Chinese artists – we see that their sources of inspiration or academic systems often shifted from Chinese traditional art towards a Western aesthetic and teachings of modern and contemporary art. How do you view Chinese traditional art or Western art? Where do you think their value lies?
We have never before experienced the globalisation we are seeing today. However, we must stay on high alert against this homogeneity, keeping our distance and really think about it. The focus or core value of art should be producing a feeling of difference and unfamiliarity. In other words, from the 1980s onwards, we absorbed the Western present – modern art, a hundred-year-old modern culture. As creators of art, we must ask ourselves a profound question: Even as we build something, how should we distinguish that from what existed or the cultural experience already built?
I think that the past and the present have always been questionable categories for me. We always clearly distinguish present and past, good and bad, new and old. If we think that today has value, then how will we see it tomorrow? Traditional Chinese art – such as painted pottery from the Hongshan Culture more than 6,000 years ago, later bronze vessels, and wall paintings like the early Dunhuang murals – makes up what we call a “traditional aesthetic”. Such a traditional aesthetic may seem outmoded or decadent, but this is really not the case.
Western modern art also has an issue with demarcating the past and present. We can’t really determine a correct way to define the past and present as points in time or as a formulation. I have never believed in distinguishing past and present. Good and bad are the only true distinctions in art. To me, this incorporates your own understanding of art, and your existing cultural experience. What’s most important is that we have never experienced globalisation in the way we are right now, as a collective confrontation of humanity’s existential questions. What’s important is how we present our humanity or our most important emotions in our art.
When you seek inspiration or observe the outside world, what kinds of observational methods do you use? How do you conceive of beauty?
What’s most important in art is an expression of individuality. That’s why E. H. Gombrich wrote that there is no such thing as art, there are only artists. Works of art, such as paintings, are just the release of or a reference to the artist’s spirit. Works show what kind of person made them—his inspiration, his way of thinking, his values, and his aesthetic. I have never focused too much on the works themselves. I’m more interested in artists because they make the works.
Works of art, as well as our actions and ways of thinking, are controlled by the deeper awareness inside us, so what’s important is the person, not what we want or the wonderful result or future we have planned. People will always dream and have high hopes for the future, but those are just dreams or fantasies. If you want those wonderful things to become reality, you must be very realistic, very practical, and very concrete. Particularly in art, you need a noble soul to confront and convey these things.
You once proposed the idea of “the useless stroke” [無用之筆], and we wanted to know more. Can you tell us what that means? How did you come up with the idea?
It’s like “the use of uselessness” [無用之用]. It’s a Chinese view of the world or way of conceptualising art, which comes from ancient philosophers such as Laozi and Zhuangzi. For me, the use of uselessness attempts to evolve from what exists, from Western expressionist, abstract expressionist, and modern conceptions of painting. First of all, this idea is built on creating something different from the structured experience of existing painting. In other words, when you’re sharing your creative idea or foundation, can you provide a plausible defence that your work is unlike the existing Western structural logic? Personally, I seek out that foundation in ancient philosophy, and the use of uselessness is clearly reflected in my work and practice.
I’ve talked about the useless stroke, which doesn’t have a goal. It’s not constructive and it seems casual or random, but it does follow a natural growth pattern. It is a free state of being that does not pursue a particular result or clear purpose. I think that this lack of clear purpose and sense of freedom are fundamentally different from the rationality that exists in Western art, from a planned way of making full use of a material. In rejecting any kind of well-considered plan, the use of uselessness allows the work to organically or chaotically follow my creative process. It’s a natural, deeper state that gives rise to something important. I think that something unfamiliar or unexpected is crucial for works of painting or the creation of painting.
Can you share your views on abstract art and how your work has gradually developed from something more representational into something now more abstract?
Science and art are two important pillars guiding humanity forward, and innovation is a core value for both. Unfamiliarity or difference is relative to existing visual experience. When looking at modern art, beginning with Cézanne, van Gogh, and Gauguin more than a century ago – if we want to simply start it there – and continuing to all of modern human civilisation, I look for these two things. If we have a good grasp of art history and understand something about the work, when we look at a painting, we can quickly tell if that difference is present.
No two works in the world have exactly the same imagery, regardless of who made them or their relative merit, just as every human on earth looks a bit different. If we simply focus on this kind of difference, then the discussion is meaningless. What I’m talking about is an understanding of the value of existing art or artistic standards, or of painting itself. I believe that there are two key things to understand about the value of painting: Is the style or language that you offer on a canvas different from what others have contributed? This kind of art or painting meets a fundamental value threshold, so this sense of unfamiliarity or difference is the most important thing when we judge a work of art.
Abstraction began with the modernity of Cézanne, van Gogh, and Gauguin, which we can identify with some certainty. Abstraction is always relative to the representational. The most important thing in art is contributing something that didn’t previously exist in the world. Art is noble, important, and offers deep spiritual solace because it transcends reality. I am wary of using a real form or borrowing an image from a real scene to speak about something profound, or whatever humanist, philosophical, poetic, or sociological energy I hope to convey. We often think of painting as tremendously powerful. It doesn’t really have as much energy as we think it does, so we often need to return to painting as a medium.
Abstraction – or that set of values – has become quite fixed. For abstract artists or for me personally, representation does not begin from or become involved in art. Art should be something that reflects our ideals or something that exists between imagination and reality. Strictly speaking, the work should provide ordinary people with things that they would not easily observe or see in real life, or a wonderful or sublime situation that they could not grasp intuitively. Only abstraction can meet the need for this depth. In other words, abstraction rejects real situations, so important art must build an interesting, non-representational, and idealised state that keeps its distance from reality. Only abstraction can bear that weight.
How would you characterise your creative state right now? Specifically, we’re exhibiting work from your recent creative period, so what do you hope to express with your current work?
For artists, creative periods tend to be things that other people see. You think that there’s been a big change, but from another perspective, it’s not as clear-cut. What’s important is not really how much you’ve changed, it’s the direction that you’ve tried to develop within the existing cultural context, or the things that you’ve chosen to explore.
For me personally, there is no before and after, no past, present, and future. What’s important is working to elevate your own understanding, including your understanding of art. This is certainly related to your times, your age, or your cultural context. Because I exist in this time, I cannot present or articulate these circumstances. As Su Shi wrote, “Why can’t I tell the true shape of Lushan? / Because I myself am on the mountain.”
Can you tell us more about the conception and selection of the works in this exhibition?
These works were not created or designed individually for a specific time and place; they are a period in my larger creative journey. More precisely, the works I am now showing at Sotheby’s are concrete manifestations of my understanding of art or my understanding of the value of art.
Some of the works have never been exhibited before or appear new in some other way. For this exhibition, I’ve included some paintings of flowers and plants. Although I’ve painted these subjects before, I am presenting them in a new way. With the flowers specifically or my previous Pervasion, Open Space, Empty Cold, and other series, I simply identify them or fix them in that state as part of the creative act. Personally, I see no difference among them; I see a whole world in a single flower. When I paint anything, whether that is a person, place, or object, I’m not depicting the thing itself. As I said before, the representation of the real world has nothing to do with art for me. All of the subjects are intended to communicate a feeling; I’m simply using my subject to say what I want to say. Things that I think are worth saying can be reduced to basic, universal human emotions. I think that my work is quite tragic overall because I think that life for anyone is tragic. At every stage in life, we must confront the joy and sorrow we experience, and I hope that my work conveys the inherent, shared human emotions felt by a sensitive, noble soul.
“The most important thing about art is that it can contribute to the world something that is insubstantial. Between fantasy and reality, it can offer consolation to the deepest of a man’s soul. Only in abstract form and construction, can the weight of such intangible state be borne.”
24 August - 8 September 2023
Weekdays | 10:00 AM–6:00 PM
Weekends | 11:00 AM–5:00 PM
Sotheby's Hong Kong Gallery
5/F, One Pacific Place, Admiralty