In 1990 Liu Xiaodong had his first solo exhibition in Beijing and the show was a resounding success. Visitors were highly impressed with the fresh and dynamic formal qualities of his work: the fluidity of his brushstroke, his unique color choices, and his compositional strategies. But it was the artist’s forceful turn toward the frank depiction of scenes from daily life that was most startling. It had been many years since an artist had addressed this subject matter so openly, and Liu Xiaodong’s work represented nothing less than the birth of a new realist tendency in Chinese contemporary art.
The fresh, immediacy of Liu’s works have less to do with his relaxed and expressive painting style than with his choice of subjects. His early works began as snapshots of friends and family, usually portrayed at play, and his familiarity with their features and activities enabled him to go straight to the heart of a mood, a relationship, and setting. The artist’s motivation is to distill the essence of individual personalities, to capture the specific quality each person projects and to harmonize this specific individual or narrative with the overall composition.
Over the years, Liu’s inspiration draws on a broader cache of senses and reflects the dramatic changes taking place in contemporary China. Familiarity with specific individuals became less important than an engagement with the attitudes and activities of contemporary society, even as his focus on individual people remained. Computer Leader (1996, Lot 125, offered as Property from the Collection of Dan and Kazuyo Friedlander) is an excellent example of both earlier and later tendencies in the artist’s work. The socio-historical roots of portraiture, the scale and painterly drama of this particular work, and not least the painting’s title may lead us to assume the sitter must be the Chinese equivalent of a Bill Gates or Larry Ellis. Instead, the sitter was an ordinary computer technician, an acquaintance of the artist in Beijing in the mid-90s whom he photographed in his workplace. Liu was interested in this man because he recognized the importance of computer technology in developing the new China; such ordinary technicians are the backbone of the country’s advance into the modern world, its nameless leaders, its anonymous heroes. The portrait is therefore a brilliant conflation of individuated realism (the artist does little to improve the slightly feminine and plump features of the sitter) and the symbolic function portraiture has served for centuries.
Lovers (1995, Lot 161) is another wonderful example of Liu Xiaodong’s style and subject matter. The painting is not modeled after the artist and his wife, the painter Yu Hong (whose work is also offered as Property from the Collection of Dan and Kazuyo Friedlander, Lot 127), but after characters from the controversial film So Close to Paradise (Guniang, Biandan). In 1995, Liu Xiaodong and Yu Hong were close friends with Wang Xiaoshuai, one of the leading “sixth generation” filmmakers in China. Banned for several years in mainland China, So Close to Paradise examines the condition of rural-to-urban migrants in Chinese metropolises, their social marginality and the radical changes to their lives and identities amidst the corrupt underbelly of “market socialism.” Here again, the identity of the “sitters” takes on a hidden symbolic function, which adds to our appreciation of the painting’s seemingly uncomplicated narrative and beauty.
In 1993 Liu Xiaodong went abroad for the first time in his life. This period in the United States was beneficial to the artist as it put American culture in perspective and focused him on the specific characteristics of the evolving Chinese situation. Painted the year of his arrival, In Brooklyn (Lot 163) depicts what appears to be a simple, festive occasion, portrayed with the honesty and wry precision characteristic of the artist. His straightforward take on the world is equally evident in Bathhouse No. 4 (2000, Lot 162), an expressive if matter-of-fact image from a Beijing bathhouse, in which the drips of paint that run down the image wittily mimic the subject matter. The series of bathhouse works, of which there are some half-dozen, was inspired simply by the artist’s interest in the figure, the bathhouse providing ready source material for his investigation.
Liu Xiaodong is among the most impressive and influential painters of his generation, and with his retrospective this past spring at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, his work is becoming increasingly well known in the United States. With critical insight and compassion, the realist course Liu Xiaodong continues to pursue offers an intimate view of the full range of life experiences in contemporary urban China.
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