The Ullens Collection - The Nascence of Avant Garde China


Liu Wei
Signed in Pinyin and Chinese and dated 1998, framed
oil on canvas
170 by 170 cm.; 66 7/8 by 66 7/8 in.
參閱狀況報告 參閱狀況報告


China, Macau, Contemporary Art Centre of Macau, FUTUROE Chinese Contemporary Art, 2000, p. 35
Brazil, São Paulo, Museu de Arte de Brasília, China- Contemporary Art, 2002, p. 88
France, Beziers, Espace Culturel Paul Riquet, Et Moi, Et Moi Et Moi...Portraits Chinois, 11 Jun - 18 July 2004, pp. 9, 32



Born in Beijing in the year 1965, Liu Wei graduated from the Department of Printmaking at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Among the very first to be inducted into the pantheon of internationally renowned contemporary artists, Liu Wei was always considered to be an exceptional talent among and by his generation of the 1960s. His Revolutionary Family propelled him into superstardom. Painting flowers in a caustic style, as if he were manually corroding the plant, has effected profound impressions on all who lay eyes on his works. After an early phase where he persistently shrouded his canvases with only dark greys and blacks, Liu Wei delved into a prolific period producing exquisite landscapes of graduated greens. Upon the conclusion of his Landscape Series, the artist surprises with a corpus of works on paper. Pencil, pen, charcoal, crayon, watercolour, ink, the artist employed many materials to carry out a multitude of experiments on this new medium. The capacity of paper as a receptacle of Liu's unbridled creativity is fully exploited, resulting in a host of previously unseen effects. The artist also mastered works of reiterative abstraction in pencil. Expansive canvases adorned with fine, intricate brushwork possess an infinite tension that can be traced directly back to the artist himself. Buttressed by a keen understanding of traditional Chinese culture, Liu Wei has interlocked Eastern with Western painting techniques and enhanced by his impeccable skill, managed to even transcend the two so as to reach an inimitable perfection he can claim as his own.

Liu Wei's facility with the brush has been apparent since his teenage years. Upon graduation from the Academy in 1989, he commenced production of his celebrated Revolutionary Family series. These paintings harness Liu Wei's penchant for incorporating scenes of daily life into his work. Friends and family wind up as models for the artist, frozen onto the canvas at a quotidian moment under his satirical hand. Mao Generation had a precursor New Generation, executed in 1992, where he and his cohort were all loafing around in trunks before a portrait of the Chairman. The generation of the 1960s lived and breathed Mao Zedong—a scene juxtaposing his likeness against a legion of trunks is ordinary, yet subtly mocking at the same time. A friend fell in love with New Generation and asked him to produce a replica, hence the creation of Mao Generation (Lot 856). Liu Wei jokes that he simply cannot replicate, be it others or even himself. The two works differ on many levels—while New Generation retains the artist's early tautness of brushstroke and caution of expression, Mao Generation boasts liberal brushwork and an overall nonchalance, a style that has grown to become Liu Wei's trademark. Originally trained in printmaking, Liu selects frames for his pictures and loves to extend his compositions by carving the rest of his figures and details onto them. The frame of the work was crafted in 1992, and includes Mao Zedong above and his five generals below, one of them Liu Wei's father. Though in theory a "replica", Mao Generation is truly one of a kind.

Born in 1989 Beijing (Lot 857) was executed in 1995, not long after Liu Wei had moved into Songzhuang. After the hype resulting from his participation in the Venice Biennale and the São Paulo Biennale, the artist deserted the raucous Yuanmingyuan and settled in a private space of serenity and sanctuary. In this new environment, Liu Wei was able to make slow but sure steps toward breaking new ground in his art. Three pink babies bearing an uncanny resemblance to the artist himself occupy the center of Born in 1989 Beijing. Their plump bodies and bent knees are matched with fluids sprayed into the spaces between, as if a current of energy is coursing through the composition, the same one that was coursing through all the other works produced during this phase, such as Do You Like Meat?, another Born in 1989 Beijing, etc. Saturated with gradated hues of pink, the paintings are charged with a fervent pulsation. The year 1989 holds much significance in the history of modern China; "Post-'89" represents a pivotal moment in the explosive development of Chinese contemporary art. Between Revolutionary Family and Born in 1989 Beijing, a correlation with the sociopolitical atmosphere of the time can be identified in Liu Wei's early works. His later works, on the other hand, rummaged through the maker's mental landscape. Allusions to society melted away overtime, the artist found himself disinterested in image representation but engrossed with the investigative potential in painting.

Since Revolutionary Family, Liu Wei has woven daily life into his imagery, and doing such he has built associations to the times in which these works were created. Starting with No Smoking Series, however, he has redirected his vision from the external to the internal. The artist has stated himself, there are many things in life that pass, but the human psyche is eternal. No Smoking (Lot 858), inherits the pink colours of Revolutionary Family, Born in 1989 Beijing, yet it exceeds expectations through an inclusion of the artist's disposition during his days at Songzhuang. It was truly a time of leisure—Liu Wei would fish everyday, drink tea, play snooker, drink wine, eat well and of course, paint while smoking. Out of a relaxed frame of mind comes productivity. Painting with a slack, lenient hand, Liu Wei imbued his pictures with an expressionist quality. Any of his friends will tell you that painting and smoking take place simultaneously when he works. In creating No Smoking Series the artist jokes at his own expense. Though his facial features are obscured, the protagonist reveals an assurance in his eyes and displays a comfort in his own skin. In seclusion, Liu Wei could paint for himself independent of ensuing political upheavals or dominating trends in art and culture.

Though having majored in printmaking and exceptional at Western painting, Liu Wei always knew that his loyalty lied in classical Chinese painting. Already in his academic years, the artist produced guohua works with ease and ingenuity, infusing the traditional with the contemporary. Paper held a special fascination for Liu as to him, "paper has always been the most appealing medium for me, the concert of paper and ink culminates in a sort of nostalgia, an inexplicable aura. Just touching the paper, sometimes even licking it, brings sensations and sentiments that cannot be found elsewhere." Paper has never been a supplement to canvas, in fact, paper is fraught with Chinese history, its classicist tone and literati flavour. Flowers (Lot 859), a 28- leaf paper scroll, is set against a Chinese landscape in its entirely. Subject matter ranges from vegetables, flowers, birds, eagles to Chinese or English text. Nude bodies figure heavily throughout the scroll, permeating the composition with a patent eroticism. Executed flawlessly by classical standards, the landscape incorporates all existing strokes in its rendering.  Serving as a backdrop to the naked figures that embody modernity, Liu Wei has conflated temporal as well as spatial distances. While the mountains and waters represent a lofty conservatism, the nudes interrupt in their unabashed exposure with aplomb and temerity.

Straddling themes of politics, history to daily life to self-introspection, Liu Wei's body of works offers much in meaning and concern. If one should say that Liu Wei first made his name out of the elements of stylistic language, painting medium, thematic content, then the present Liu Wei, an older and matured Liu Wei, must be engaged in silent metamorphosis. The hovering specter of classical Chinese culture has materialized into a firm presence in his art. The artist's awareness of this transformation within himself has further fortified his resolve in this direction, one which is unfettered by prevailing art movements or popular styles of the moment. Liu Wei's artistic journey remains long and winding—many possibilities lie hidden in the many nooks and crannies of the road toward new and exciting discoveries.

The Ullens Collection - The Nascence of Avant Garde China