Liu Ye stands apart from nearly every other Chinese painter working today. His compositions invariably contain references to art history and pop culture, couched in a signature style that pits round-faced characters against subtle backgrounds full of inside jokes. To understand his work one must first know a little about his background.
Despite growing up during the Cultural Revolution, his artistic side was stimulated from an early age. He remembers the fairy tales his grandmother used to tell him in the evenings; his favourites included Journey to the West with Monkey King and Pig monster, and the Arabian nights. Gifted with a naturally inquisitive mind these stories inspired him to create his own fantasies as a child.
His father was an author of children's books and his mother a secondary school teacher. They kept a big black chest under a bed in his house that he was forbidden from opening. Left alone one day he secretly opened the chest to find a literary hoard of western and Chinese novels. It was politically dangerous to read such books in those days; nevertheless he developed voracious appetite for these literary classics and read the books surreptitiously many times. This experience undoubtedly helped in opening his mind up to the world of fantasy.
At the age of 15 he went to design school to study industrial design, a strict discipline which required rational thinking. He remembers, "technical drawing was the most fearsome subject for me. You have to dip the drawing pen in ink and then draw fine straight lines with the use of various rulers. Just a drop of ink and you will not score a pass for the work. When completed, it looks just like a print without any human touch. It demands no imagination, only accuracy". Later on he was to find the same cold emotion in Mondrian's paintings - which greatly influenced his later and current work.
An imaginative childhood and the structured rational thinking of his student days are two fundamental experiences which have influenced his work.
His paintings feature childhood memories, tales and childlike notions of happiness: the product of fantasia. Many of the figures in his paintings are children or if adult have childlike features, suggesting that the artist is reaching back into his own childhood for inspiration.
The first thing that strikes the viewer about his work is the simple use of vivid primary colours and the cartoon-like compositions. The influence of cartoon animation is clear, and he has even admitted that in his eyes the Dutch cartoonist Dick Bruna and the Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki are "personages as great as Da Vinci".
It is undeniable that his work is full of magical tension. In the The End of Baroque, this is highlighted by the conflict between innocent wonder and terrible disaster. The timeless, dreamy, fairytale nature of Liu's work, instils in us a sense of anxiety and horror, a trepidation often mixed with poetic tenderness and melancholy.
Liu Ye's preference for the primary colours is apparent in this painting especially. Vivid tones of red, yellow and blue are juxtaposed to create a visually striking effect. With different colours carrying associated meanings, Liu Ye's clear-cut choice of palette undeniably carries a message. Red for example being symbolic of Communist China, would have been a colour he visually experienced more than others as a child, it also has the obvious associations with anger, danger and bloodshed, but also in Chinese culture and symbolism, it is linked with good luck and success.
Liu Ye uses his fairytale canvases as an escape from reality. Unlike his contemporaries, he claims his work does not reflect off the ideology of contemporary Chinese society. His paintings are closely related to his personal growth and life experience in general, and tends to shy away from current socio-economic and political issues. He says he intentionally keeps distant from such associations, focusing on individualism and the self.
He admits that "political impact on art is unavoidable for every one of us". But in the context of the universe and common human emotions, he feels politics are insignificant. "Basic human sentiments such as humanitarianism, beauty, kindness and sadness are far more touching and important to me than any political concepts".
However, despite the artist's claims, behind the simple comic book façade of his work lies a wealth of hidden meaning. The major issues of the moment are never more than a step removed from Liu Ye's work, at once hidden and put into relief by his stunning painterly bricolage. Exactly what meaning Liu Ye is trying to convey is left for the viewer to decide.
He admits, "To others and myself, my paintings contain merely clues. The motives are hidden deeply in the painting itself. In fact I quite enjoy having others misinterpret my works. It is impossible for me to fully reveal my secrets to other people."
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