The girl is wrapped tightly in a gray coat that gives her an adult look. She carries a suitcase and an umbrella, appearing against an abstract background or a skyful of wind-driven snow. A sense of imminent departure pervades the scene, and the echo of a sigh almost seems audible from behind the canvas, fitting perfectly with the title […] Leave Me in the Dark.
A mesmerizing vision suffused with stillness and mystery, Leave Me in the Dark from 2008 is an epic masterpiece – one of only four monumental single-panel canvases featuring a figure created by Liu Ye. The other three include Smoke and Sword, the two works that currently hold the top two auction records for Liu Ye, as well as Gun, which resides in the M+ Sigg Collection. Whereas the other three were created in the early 2000s, Leave Me in the Dark was created in 2008 and demonstrates a marked shift: gone are the cherubs, cheeky sailors and little girls rendered against deep red backgrounds; in their place, a lone female traveler emerges like an exquisite apparition from the icy depths of a snowy night. After creating the present painting, Liu Ye returned to the motif in 2009 and 2010 in much smaller dimensions, demonstrating the importance of this incipient piece within the artist's oeuvre. The enthralling painting is imbued with conundrums: first, while rendered in a straight-on perspective in a rigid geometric framework, a soft dimensionality pervades; second, in spite of its immersive dimensions, weightlessness permeates; and third, while the tableau is stark, minimal, wholly stripped of narrative, it exudes a rich aura of drama and fantasy. Seamlessly combining figuration and abstraction without comprising either, Leave Me in the Dark is a superior paradigm imbued with the timeless poeticism unique to Liu Ye’s art.
Born in 1964, Liu Ye studied at the China School of Arts and Crafts and then at the Berlin University of the Arts in Germany. While in Europe, Liu Ye’s influences were diverse, ranging from works from the early Renaissance, Jan van Eyck in particular: “the painting was so small, yet so intense” (the artist cited in “Liu Ye in Conversation with Philip Tinari”, in Christoph Noe, ed., Liu Ye: Catalogue Raisonne 1991-2015, Germany, 2015, p. 45), to Johannes Vermeer, Giorgio Morandi, Balthus, Giorgio de Chirico, Piet Mondrian, Klee, and Magritte, amongst many others. Digesting a plethora of styles and techniques, Liu Ye honed his technical capabilities and refined his own unique surrealist style, one which, as Zhu put it, was uniquely positioned between the Flemish tradition of Stilleben (a world of equipoise and stillness) and Pop. Per Zhu, Liu Ye sensed in the Flemish painters “the appeal of language that transcends temporality and regionalism”; while for him, Pop’s influence “manifested in his appropriation and displacement of art-historical images as readymades, leading over the course of his career to the creation of many works which […] can be viewed as an ongoing, hidden dialogue with the artists he is fond of” (Zhu Zhu, “Only One Gram”, in Christoph Noe, ed., Liu Ye: Catalogue Raisonne 1991-2015, Germany, 2015, p. 17).
Created in the late 2000s, Leave Me in the Dark manifests as the culmination of subtle yet significant developments in Liu Ye’s preoccupations with his figurative subjects. While Liu Ye’s earlier paintings from the 1990s were populated by chubby children, after the turn of the millennium an intriguing development occurred: the increased depiction of female figures, often portrayed in erotic dispositions. For critic Zhu, Liu Ye’s engagement in sexuality is one that, like the paintings of Balthus, transcended sexuality, or were “made to address formal needs” (Ibid, p. 26). Zhu further elaborates on how the theme of the human body “became a nexus that triggered visual and aesthetic rapture, lending focus and intentness to his gaze. Along with this thematic change, he gained a new understanding of the Flemish painters’ Stilleven. Once more the charm of Vermeer, like a jewel in darkness, sent forth its profound and edifying rays” (Ibid). Towards the late 2000s, the element of overt sexuality was abandoned; as Zhu writes, by the time of Leave Me in the Dark, “the girl is wrapped tightly in a gray coat” (Ibid). Concurrent to letting go of the shock component of eroticism, Liu Ye further softened his aesthetic, stripping his canvases of narrative elements, yet somehow retaining a potent aura of drama. In Zhu’s words: “His picture forms became simple and inward-looking […] the picture plane was focused on one or two figures, and large color blocs that verged on monochrome were used in the background. Such spare handling of background falls somewhere between the abstraction of Mondrian and the leaving of white space in traditional Chinese landscapes” (Ibid).
Executed in 2008, Leave Me in the Dark further coincides with two separate series by Liu Ye: the ‘Snow Scene’ series and the ‘Bamboo’ series; accordingly, the painting incorporates to perfection Liu Ye’s unique modus operandi of implicit geometry. Center to the tableau is the tapering trapezoid of the lady’s coat, accompanied by almost perfect rectangular blocks for her arms, legs, and suitcase. Juxtaposed against the severe horizon line of the snowy ground, the perfectly perpendicular geometry of the painting is broken only by the gentle curves of the lady’s oval shawled head, whose immaculate symmetry is abruptly disturbed by the elegant sweep of her dark fringe. Already influenced by Mondrian’s rigorous geometric abstraction early in his career, in the 2000s Liu Ye went one step further to internalize and assimilate Mondrian’s emphasis on visual theories, employing strict strategies of delineation, segmentation, portioning and partitioning of space. The artist himself declares: “The appearance of Mondrian’s paintings within my own paintings is spiritual. His paintings are so pure, relying only on the most basic of colors, and vertical and horizontal lines. I, too, want to engage in the problem of purity”. While his works are categorically non-abstract, Liu Ye utilizes the geometric outlines of figurative objects for use as abstract line and form, mapping out compositions that are imbued with precise balance and correspondence. Such efforts result in a curious tension and interaction within the compositional framework, lending Liu Ye’s canvases a sense of still yet dynamic harmony and equilibrium. Quietly compelling and progressively riveting, Leave Me in the Dark invites endless intrigue and wonder, presenting a riddle of aesthetic inquiry while invoking the secret realm of our private imaginative worlds.