I grew up in a world that was covered in red – the red sun, the red flag, and red scarves.
Striking in palette and captivating in composition, Red No. 3 is a quintessential and defining Liu Ye painting from the artist’s Golden Era – without question amongst the best of his prolific and accomplished practice. The painting features a plenitude of some of the most iconic visual traits and motifs that Liu Ye is celebrated for: first, the little girl in a short skirt, a recurring character in Liu Ye’s oeuvre; second, the sword in the girl’s hand, which was featured prominently in the masterpiece Sword – the current record-holding piece by the artist that was created around the same period; and third, the deep saturated scarlet color field, also employed in Sword, to name but a few. The brilliant shade of red is one that evokes a collective memory – one that resonates deeply with an entire nation and which holds supreme significance for Liu Ye. The current work is the third work from a series of three square red paintings of the same size, all created in 2003 – as the finale of the miniseries, Red No. 3 is the only work featuring the sword and the piece exhibiting the most sophisticated rendering of Song dynasty inspired landscape. Combining in equal parts Western and Chinese influences, and striking a sublime balance between figure, landscape and background, Red No. 3 manifests the consummately unique surrealist whimsicality that so powerfully defines Liu Ye’s oeuvre.
Shortly after his birth in Beijing in 1964, Liu Ye was sent to the countryside with his father, an author of children’s literature. Growing up against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution meant that Liu Ye’s childhood was one where the thoughts and minds of an entire generation of intellectuals were audited and censored. As a result, the young Liu Ye explored the world with a sense of secretiveness, acutely aware of both its joys and its perils, enjoying his limited freedoms in private whilst m. Maintaining a submissive posture to authority. At the tender age of four, Liu Ye discovered banned books hidden in a secret suitcase in his house, and this suitcase became a glimmer of light within a dark and forbidding castle. His favourite book, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, tells the story of a portrait that allowed its subject to retain his youthful appearance despite the passage of time and horrific experiences. This story laid the seeds for Liu Ye’s creative career, in which literary scenes have played a prominent role.
In 1980, Liu Ye gained admittance to the China School of Arts and Crafts. Like other Chinese artists of his generation, he received a strict, orthodox education in the arts while simultaneously experiencing the dramatic opening up of his society and the arrival of influence from the Western cultural world. In such a complex and contradictory environment, Liu Ye developed his own highly unique visual lexicon that drew on the styles of Mondrian, Vermeer, and Klee. After graduating from the Mural Painting Department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, he traveled to Germany to continue his studies and became infatuated with surrealist and metaphysical artists Rene Magritte and Giorgio de Chirico. These repeated changes in environment compelled Liu Ye to adapt and refine his style; he honed his technical ability, he continuously sought to resist the past while also acknowledging its value. As a result, intertextuality is a core defining facet of Liu Ye’s corpus of paintings, which feature dreams within dreams, paintings within paintings, and plays within plays. By integrating defining motifs from various sources recurringly into his paintings, at times overtly and at times surreptitiously, Liu Ye enters into profound artistic dialogues with artists such as Mondrian and Balthus and even with his past and future selves.
Red No. 3 is a prime example of such intertextuality, being part of an extended series of red-toned paintings that feature recurring characters. The short-haired little girl first appears in a red painting Viewing the Painting from 1999 – a highly narrative work featuring a lush Song background landscape similar to the present work. Viewing the Painting features another little girl – one with long hair in pigtails – who appears in the monumental Sword, 2001-2002, Liu Ye’s current record-holding work; while our short-haired girl appears in the Smoke (2001) and Gun (2001) – two other works from the series of monumental horizontal red paintings. By the time it came to the three-part Red series from 2003, from which the present work originates, Liu featured exclusively the short-haired girl in all three works, employed the square canvas that he had by then become known for and condensed his treatment of the landscape, saturating the background in pure red abstraction. Within the Red series, Red No. 3 evinces the most vividly poignant and endearing composition – the only one to feature the famous emblematic sword and the one which displays the most consummately rendered background landscape with delicate sfumato. Like the very best of Liu Ye’s creations, an enigmatic ambiguity and mysterious ambiance hovers, presenting to viewers a riddle of wisdom and philosophy whilst invoking the secret realm of our private memories. In spite of the ominous sword, the brooding red atmosphere as well as the cliff that recedes into menacing dark shadows, a magical visual enchantment of escapism seeps through, achieved through Liu Ye’s exquisite lightness of touch; in the artist’s own words: “I wish that each of my paintings only weighed one gram”.