Emanating a refreshing succulence, Liu Wei’s towering Watermelon is a work of instant aesthetic and sensuous impact. As one of only a small handful of canvases in which Liu Wei depicted watermelons, the present work from 2004 is not only the largest; it is also the only work bearing the unusual dimensions of a traditional Chinese vertical scroll painting and the only one to adopt an extreme, zoomed-in perspective. The fact that Watermelon manifests as somewhat of an anomaly within Liu Wei’s iconic Cynical Realism oeuvre is testament to the artist’s unique artistic outlook and purist creative philosophy. Unlike many other important artists of his generation, Liu Wei is notoriously the most reticent, reluctant to attribute any meaning or purpose to his images; the artist simply paints what his mind and brush impels him to paint. The present Watermelon thus displays to perfection not only Liu Wei’s extraordinarily deft grasp of technique and his acute mastery of medium; it also encapsulates his prerogative to create art for art’s sake and his reveling in the simple delights and challenges of representation, texture, colour, and form. Bearing distinguished provenance, the present work was previously in the collection of award-winning Singaporean photographer and critic Chua Soobin, a friend of the artist.
Born in Beijing in 1965, Liu Wei studied printmaking at the Beijing Central Academy of Fine Arts and graduated in the watershed year of 1989. In the early 1990s, Liu Wei swiftly became known as a prominent figure of the Cynical Realism movement by way of his acclaimed Revolutionary Family series. These early works demonstrated a virtuosic blending of a wide array of influences – from Chinese calligraphy to Expressionism – that resulted in a unique stylized technique which critic Li Xianting called “expressionistic deformation” (Li Xianting cited in Chia Chi Jason Wang, in Liu Wei: A Solo Painter, Taipei 2012, p. 13). Vividly festering, Liu Wei’s deformed, grotesque, and ‘ugly’ images were interpreted by critics to espouse biting social commentary; as critic Lu Peng observed, “the rot in reality [Liu Wei] observed in reality was depicted as rot”, and that “ugliness became the first step in the liberation of his artistic images” (Ibid, p. 944). The success of Liu Wei’s “expressionistic deformation” is testament to his exceedingly accomplished painterly dexterity. Subsequent to the Revolutionary Family series, which received global recognition at the Venice Biennale in the early 1990s, Liu Wei's ensuing You Like Pork? and Swimming series in the mid to late 1990s reveal progressive maturation in the artist's technique, which can be said to achieve full virtuosity in his landscapes and still lifes of the 2000s.
The dominant hue of red in Watermelon serves as a superlative example through which to examine the development in Liu Wei's mastery over pigment and colour. Various shades of red appear in his earlier Pork, Smoking, and Landscape series: purplish, pinkish, flushed, and festering reds that were intense and caustic, employed to provoke and inflame. By the time Liu Wei arrives at Watermelon, the artist has attained a liberated mastery over his wielding of colour: here the red embodies a prismatic purity that is at once vivid and translucent. Compared to earlier works, which reveal heavy influence from Western Expressionism and carry strong pathos and discontent, Watermelon exhibits a return to Eastern culture and the quiet joys of life and existence. Such developments coincided with the artist's move to Songzhuang; in parallel to the move, Liu Wei dealt less and less with social and political reality and focused on a broader existential themes. Jason Wang observed of this period: “From this point forward Liu seemed to be more definitively cutting ties with the collective and political nature of Chinese contemporary art. As if in self-exile, Liu returned to the personal, becoming much more of a full-blown individual artist” (Chia Chi Jason Wang, in Liu Wei: A Solo Painter, Taipei 2012, p. 13).
The present Watermelon, created in 2004, encapsulates the originality and technical virtuosity of Liu Wei’s inimitable pictorial vision. In a rare departure from oil, the painting is executed in acrylic, which brings to life the unique aqueous texture of watermelon meat. The zoomed in, close-up view of the flesh of the fruit exhibits the full range of Liu Wei’s accomplishments in technique and brushwork; while the placement of the green rind in the composition, only just visible at the bottom edge of the work, was a deliberate strategy by the artist that further heightens the eccentric perspective and dramatic visual effect of the work. The inclusion of the metal spoon, positioned directly against the juicy flesh, poses a studied juxtaposition in depicted texture and further displays Liu Wei’s proficiency to consummate effect. Visually compelling in terms of its bold composition, its sumptuously rendered texture, as well as its ability to present colour almost as its own entity, Watermelon is a joy to behold as it revels in the possibilities of pigment and brush – a powerful example from one of the most distinctive oeuvres in Chinese contemporary art history.