Liu Ye as Chinese artist is an epithet dwindled by the obsessive mention and extensive discussion of the set of trademark motifs he regularly wields in his paintings. Vermeer, Mondrian, Bruna, these are names unfailingly present in any discourse pointing to the artist. To distill and to locate allusions, patent or subtle, within his compositions have become a routine. Perhaps a more interesting exercise, rather than to trace every single motif to its source, is to identify and process the paradoxes between conflicting elements so impeccably achieved in his pictures. It is only upon considering the composition as an integrated whole, a coherent entity, instead of a sum of multiple symbols, a pot-pourri of discrete constituents can one truly appreciate Liu's uncanny ability to conflate his diverse influences and convert the result into a personal art. What is even more interesting in this case, Liu Ye's Portrait of Qi Baishi (Lot 104) is the larger of only two works ever made by the artist of the modern Chinese painter. Qi Baishi, in fact, is the only Chinese artist to have ever been portrayed by Liu Ye. Exceptional in its clear intention of homage as well as scarcity, Portrait of Qi Baishi constitutes a rare and uncharacteristic instance in which Liu signals unabashedly and tenaciously at his Chinese identity.
Smiling tenderly as he tilts his head to his left, Qi Baishi is here a kind, old man, looking benignly over the lands below. He stands undisturbed and unruffled, despite the saturation of the skies and the distant mountains behind him in an overpowering wash of crimson. The clouds in such an ominous red against an equally saturated blue sky produce an even starker contrast. A fleet of fighter jets, aligned toward a common target, are in flight. It appears that one is down, either shot or malfunctioned, and it swiftly descends in flames. So threatening yet still so composed, so dramatic yet still so neat, the composition is a classic feat of balancing information with form—Liu Ye has once again told a fantastic story in his inimitably rational way. Yet amid the rationality lies always a dash of childish imagination—clad in a flowing long robe of traditional design, bestowed with a calculated likeness, Qi Baishi is nevertheless caricaturized. Though the object of profound reverence, Qi would not escape the artist's personal style. Solemn yet playful at the same time, the modern master is installed squarely in the center of Liu Ye's interior theatre.
Essay after essay, curators and critics underline and praise the artist's singularity against the existing canon of Chinese contemporary art—though he cannot be subsumed into any blanket movement that is documented in textbooks, he has carved out his indelible place in the visual history of contemporary China. Portrait of Qi Baishi, however, is one of the most culturally consistent compositions ever presented by Liu Ye. Drenched in red, one of the three primary colours so doted by the artist and the chosen hue of revolutionary China, the rolling hills are given layers and depths over vast plots of irrigated rice paddies. Through and through a product of the shanshui (mountain and sea) paradigm reminiscent of literati painting of the Song, the setting coalesces beautifully with the deified presence of Qi Baishi, an heir to classical Chinese art. Holding a staff in one hand, a hulu (gourd) in the other, resting on a cluster of clouds, Qi Baishi is given even wings as if to represent him as a beloved immortal of Chinese folk legend. Most palpable of all is not the presence of all these references but the lack of the usual suspects. In Qi Baishi Knows Mondrian, the painter is perched on a stone cliff and holding a Mondrian book instead. Possibly the picture most resonant with the artist's ethnic, cultural and historical identity as Chinese ever created to date, Portrait betrays an exclusive moment of inadvertent patriotism. Liu Ye would go on to appropriate sparingly themes derived from classical Chinese art in the ongoing evolution of his own art. Created back in 1996, Portrait of Qi Baishi marks the nascent step of this lingering impulse.
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