- Liu Wei
- Mao Generation
- oil on canvas and crafted wooden frame
- 123.5 by 103.8 cm; 48⅝ by 40⅞ in.
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, The Ullens Collection, 3 April 2011, lot 856
Acquired by the present owner from the above sale
France, Beziers, Espace Culturel Paul Riquet, Et Moi, Et Moi Et Moi...Portraits Chinois, 11 Jun - 18 July 2004, pp. 6, 33
Liu Wei, Red Bridge Gallery, Shanghai, China, 2008, p. 50
An Eight Year Journey
Painting just goes in tandem with my living. It is restricted neither by forms nor by outside constraints. I use my hands to paint my heart. --Liu Wei
Following the controversial closure of the China/Avant-Garde exhibition in 1989, the art scene in China in the early 1990s was one of critical change and development. The grand narrative of the '85 New Wave movement had lost its momentum in the new decade, and a young group of artists were searching earnestly for a new direction and approach, turning their focus on the happenings of their daily lives. It is within such an environment that the movement of “Cynical Realism” emerged. As Taiwanese curator Hu Yongfen mentioned in his essay "Liu Wei’s", “Chinese art history at the time (of the early 90s) had given way to a new generation, one that grew out of a collective life and the only one that could portray the independent facade of contemporary art”.1 Among them, Liu Wei is considered to be the earliest and most representative artist of the group.
Upon graduation from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1989, Liu Wei commenced production of his celebrated Revolutionary Family series. These paintings harness Liu Wei’s penchant for incorporating scenes of daily life into his work. Friends and family wind up as models for the artist, frozen onto the canvas at a quotidian moment under his satirical hand. In Brothers, a work executed in 1990 and a precursor to the current lot, Liu Wei depicted himself and his brother as infants, sitting in front of a portrait of Mao and wearing open crotch pants. In an era where people lived and breathed Mao Zedong, Liu Wei's painting was at once a depiction of everyday life and a playful commentary on society. When a friend fell in love with Brothers and asked Liu Wei to produce a replica, Liu Wei laughed and said he could never imitate anyone, not even himself. Nevertheless, Mao Generation (Lot 1029) emerged, painted over the course of eight years. If the 1990 Brothers represented the compact and rigorous style of Liu Wei's early years, then Mao Generation combines the exaggerated figurative forms of the artist's early period with his later, more Expressionistic abstract style. Thus the painting more closely resembles the iconic Liu Wei style we are familiar with: relaxed brushwork, spontaneous daubs of paint, with a hint of impudence and defiance. Originally trained in printmaking, Liu selects frames for his pictures and loves to extend his compositions by carving the rest of his figures and details onto them - a feature demonstrated in the current lot. Thus, albeit in theory a “replica”, Mao Generation is truly one of a kind.
According to the influential Chinese art critic Li Xianting, the nineties represented two major artistic currents: “Political Pop” and “Cynical Realism”. For Achille Oliva, the organizer of ‘The Road to the East’, which was part of the 1993 Venice Biennale, the two currents accurately reflected the social reality of China in nineties. Just like Political Pop, Cynical Realism represented a more liberating artistic language with a social impact. Political Pop was also judgment on the political level, expressed as a sarcastic critique of the system. Li, who had been an active curator with close connections to artists since the eighties, called the third-generation artists who emerged in the 1990’s as “rascals”, “The ‘rascals’ are fundamentally different from the two preceding generations of artists. They believe neither in the governing system of meanings nor in any effort to construct new meanings through resistance. Instead they pragmatically and realistically confront their own helplessness. If they can rescue anyone, it is themselves. And a sense of boredom is the rascals’ most effective means to undo all shackles of meanings.”2 The nonchalance of the figures in Liu Wei’s early Revolutionary Family Series is precisely a manifestation of this boredom.
A major representative artist of the post-'89 period along with Fang Lijun, another representative painter of Cynical Realism, Liu Wei fully captured the ethos of the 1990s. 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. By representing Chinese art of the 1990s, Liu Wei has made a profound impression in the Western art world.
1 Hu Yongfen, “Liu Wei’s”,《Liu Wei- A Solo Painter》, 2012
2 Li Xianting, “’Post 89’’Art’s Meaning: ‘Cynical Realism’ and ‘Political Pop’ Analysis”, Open View: Coming Out of a National Consciousness, 2010