Rainer Maria Rilke
Liu Ye’s Boogie Woogie, Little Girl in New York from 2006, featured in the artist’s first solo exhibition in the United States in the same year, presents a poignant, theatrical vision. Seen from behind, a little girl stands directly in front of New York. 1941/Boogie Woogie by Piet Mondrian – the first of only three works that Mondrian began and completed during the time he lived in New York. Assisted by the Mondrian’s geometric window-like composition with an open center, the set-up in Boogie Woogie, Little Girl in New York not only evokes the Renaissance notion of painting as a window on the world but engages in particular the trope of the romantic image of a figure seen before an open window and gazing into the distance; see, for example, Balthus’s Girl at a Window (1957). Such scenes are imbued with an intrinsic mystery, ambiguity and theatricality: is the figure staring out in hope or in sadness? Does the window suggest confinement or freedom and possibility? Either way, the very act of contemplating the canvas implicates the viewer in a quietly delicate voyeurism – one that draws us into the enigma of the scene whilst also holding us back, as we are wary of disturbing the figure’s quiet reverie. Liu Ye’s Boogie Woogie, Little Girl in New York is thus a superlative work in line with the artist’s celebrated visual lexicon that engages in dialogue with art historical and cultural references. Instilled with the quiet secretiveness of Balthus, whom Liu Ye often paid tribute to in his works; invoking the haunting verses of Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who was often preoccupied with the imagery of windows and whose work Liu Ye was also known to admire; and directly referencing an important work by Mondrian, the present painting manifests the consummate intertextuality that powerfully defines Liu Ye’s oeuvre.
Literary and narrative-dominated scenes have always played a prominent role in Liu Ye’s paintings. 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. 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, which flourishes from a powerful foundation of imagined and fantastical narratives.
In the 1980s, while studying at the China School of Arts and Crafts, Liu Ye received a strict orthodox artistic education 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; whilst honing 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 recurrently into his paintings, Liu Ye enters into profound artistic dialogues with artists such as Mondrian and Balthus and even with his past and future selves.
The present Boogie Woogie, Little Girl in New York is a prime example of such intertextuality. Apart from the aforementioned likeness to Balthus’s works of young ladies before windows, this work is a direct homage to Mondrian’s New York. 1941/Boogie Woogie. In so doing, Liu Ye references not just Mondrian’s aesthetic but the personal, cultural and historical background surrounding the Dutch artist’s creation of the iconic Boogie Woogie works. In the early 1940s, Mondrian had just fled Europe from World War II to seek refuge in America, and upon his arrival he became enthralled with American jazz and the Boogie Woogie in particular, which refers to improvisational, syncopated piano music that originated among African-American musicians and became popular in New York jazz clubs during World War II. During his first night in Manhattan, Mondrian heard this music, and, as he later remarked to Sidney Janis, he decided to “put a little ‘boogie woogie’ into his pictures”. The resulting works, with flashes of color and rhythmic arrangement of lines, became ironically known as Mondrian’s Boogie Woogie paintings – works that are significantly more intricately designed, colourful, and optically engaging than his earlier works. Inspired by the sights and sounds of Manhattan, the Boogie Woogie paintings embody the dynamic energy and structural sophistications of the modern metropolis. Under this context, one imagines Liu Ye’s first encounter of New York and his own sense of wonder and rapture that is fully embodied by the present painting. Whereas Mondrian said around the time he created his Boogie Woogie works: “The city must be sublimated in the painting – the whole [of] city life must reflect in it”; when observing the present mise en scène of Boogie Woogie, Little Girl in New York, one becomes compelled to declare that Liu Ye sublimates not just the city, but a multiplicity of art historical references, and indeed a universal sense of wonder, mystery and curiosity, within.
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