Liu Ye: Temptations
1 September 2006
"Temptations," Exhibition Catalogue, (New York: Sperone Westwater, 2006).
The paintings in Temptations, the most comprehensive exhibition of Liu Yes work to date, achieve a variation in visual rhythm that reels viewers in and out like fish on a line, caught in a net of pictorial intimacy that remains entirely constant. Although the artist claims that such a small handful of works provides but a glimpse of his intent, it is surely evidence of his vision and core message: a sort of Peter Pan in Neverland, where Peter has matured into a contemplative yet articulate young man, well on the way to constructing a private philosophy of life. By gently entering these works, we uncover the threads of Liu Yes personal journey as an artist and the traces of all periods of his development to date.
All major influences are to be found here, from the early appropriation of Mondrians patterns, to the later admission of Miffy-- the much beloved and immediately recognizable bunny created by Dutch artist and graphic designer Dick Bruna-- as a guest star on the regular cast of characters. One recurring allusion is to 1930s modernism, after which Liu Ye claims the light went out on great innovation in art. In this regard, we have as evidence the painting of a lonesome Miffy in the dark, communing with a Malevich squareno sweet dreams for this insomniac perplexed perhaps by what art has become. There are no sacred icons in this groupinstead, there is a clear emphasis on famous beauties and the stars of childrens stories. This last group of characters is so well known that they no longer seem like figures of someones imagination: indeed, we know them almost more intimately than we do the actual celebrities of today. It is this familiarity, our fondness for these characters, which is our undoing before the tempting scenarios Liu Ye offers.
Within this group of new works, the paintings of Snow White, the girl in her dancing red shoes, and the portrait of Hans Christian Andersen perhaps initially seem somewhat apart from the others. Coincidentally, in the year that people around the world celebrated the bicentennial of the Danish storytellers birth, Liu Ye embarked upon a series of paintings derived from Hans Christian Andersens great body of fairy tales, including these three paintings. In truth, as a source of inspiration, the universe of Hans Christian Andersen brought Liu Ye full circle, straight back to the world of his childhood, one possessed of a dark, perilous secret. For, contrary to the experience of most Chinese children of his generation, during Liu Yes formative years, he had been introduced to and become entirely familiar with the oeuvre of this extraordinary storyteller.
Liu Yes father worked as an author of childrens books. Although this was an era where even childrens reading matter was thoroughly controlled by political ideology, Liu Senior, as a member of the work unit of the childrens press, had access to a library of childrens books from around the world which included anthologies of stories from authors like Hans Christian Andersen.
Liu Ye has said that his father was a skilled writer but never illustrated the books he wrote. Perhaps this accounts for the fathers willingness to encourage the artistic talent that his son displayed at an extraordinarily young age, almost as soon as he could hold a pencil or brush. Slightly later, a childhood game resulted in an accidental injury to a neighborhood buddy causing Liu Ye to shut himself up at home, wracked with guilt at the thought of hurting a friend. To distract him from the trauma of the incident and the consuming remorse that ensued, Liu Yes father risked the wrath of his superiors to sneak home several volumes of Hans Christian Andersens fairy tales for his son. If you ask Liu Ye when he decided to become an artist, he immediately invokes this time of self-imposed isolation from the outside world. As in every good fairy tale, the cloud that hung over Liu Ye did have a silver lining: receiving these books was like opening the wardrobe door and stumbling into Narnia
an interpretation that causes him to laugh, for as he explains, the unassuming, yet imposing door fronting the closet where the family books were concealed of necessity, was almost identical to that of the famous wardrobe.
Settling down with a selected volume, Liu Ye would find himself whisked off on the wings of imagination into a realm of fantasy, where good and evil battled, in which the pure of heart triumphed, and where those alive to the beauty in life could uncover a treasure-trove of riches. Later on, under his own steam, Liu Ye swapped emperors and princesses, match girls and magical animals, for Lewis Carrolls wonderland, delighting in its talking rabbit, rapacious queen and questionable potions. Then there were snarks, and giants, pirates and crocodiles; fantastical blends of human characters and invented creatures in utterly kooky landscapes. In their own way, each of these tales exerted an influence on Liu Yes art. Not in a direct manner, per se: rather, all of these stories point to the prism of purity through which children view lifegood for goodness sake, bravery in the face of even the most scary thing an author can throw at their hero or heroine, for it is always innocence of heart and the courage to follow ones convictions that save the day.
Optimists might wish us to believe this quality to be a universal childhood truth. The fact that fairy tales apparently recognize neither national border, nor cultural boundary, nor linguistic barrier, would seem to support this idea. But what if at a certain moment in history, socio-political circumstances contrived to make childhood disappear, in a puff of smoke or the wink of a witchs eye? Such was China in the 1960s and 1970s, at the height of Maos reign, and in the throes of the destructive forces of the Cultural Revolution. As a firsthand witness to his fathers work, Liu Ye understood from a tender age just how vulnerable childhood innocence is to compromise.
Looking back now, after a time of change brought about by the open door policy, it is hard to imagine what this must have been like. During recent decades, attitudes of respect and awe toward learning and toward the value of education across Chinese society-- which were once the core of traditional cultural values-- have been resurrected. Within the new context of present-day society, the illustrated picture books that were created during Maos reign to align with his ideological directives seem like handbooks on good behavior tailored to boy scouts. Yet for almost two decades, these socialist-informed parables were the main focus of primary instruction: no fantasy, no wild imaginings, no giants or witches, fabulous beasts or talking animals, just common sense reality with all its vicissitudes and asperity, appended with a whole cargo of optimism. Nothing less than political dilemmas of enormous import for individual survival presented in the guise of ecumenical morality tales.
Tellingly, in 2003, Liu Ye made a painting of Lei Fengthe model young pioneer in Chinas communist mythology who sacrificed everything for the nation, whose deeds, like those of every good boy scout, were selfless at every turn. Without doubt, Lei Feng was a good boy whose compassion for his Chinese compatriots and earnest vivacity impelled him to do the right thing whenever the opportunity arose. Equally, we have no quarrel with accepting the function that folk heroes fulfill in the broad public consciousness in periods both bleak and trying. Lei Fengs devotion to the cause of New China politics and socialist aspirations became the stuff of local legends, but even then the dubious rhetoric of the language was conspicuous. Any boy who dared, however innocently, to question the tenor of the emperors new words, would either find himself off with his head or down in a dungeon with the dragons. One senses that even as a child, Liu Ye harbored conflicted emotions about the nature of the childrens books his father was required to illustrate.
Liu Yes doubts as a child about the texts of the Cultural Revolution also perfectly demonstrate what it was that Mao feared about bourgeois western literature. To Mao, it was a tinderboxPandoras boxcapable of inciting independent initiatives and pursuits even if the lid was lifted only a crack. According to Mao, the worlds imagined by literary minds could hardly compete with the socialist utopia. Of greater contention were the counteractive value systems and visions of individual autonomy they unerringly reinforced. Were these not entirely at odds with the need to shed individual wills, and to relinquish the individual sense of existence that was essential if socialism was to triumph?
By the early 1970s, as Liu Ye began to learn to read, the Cultural Revolution acquired a particularly bitter edge following the death of Lin Biao, a prominent leader in the Chinese Communist party, in 1972. At this point, the majority of educational institutions had ceased to function. All vestiges of the long and grand cultural tradition of China, imperial, feudal China, had effectively been eradicated. Liu Yes world was one of turmoil, trepidation and conflicting faiths: there was a general willingness to believe in the ideals of the new policies tempered by doubts as communities were split by struggle and individuals were encouraged to betray old friends, neighbors and even family members to demonstrate loyalty to the party. All this was impelled by insecurity and the fear of persecution rather than a true, selfless faith.
Although the greater part of his time was devoted to his governmental task of writing socialist fables for children, Liu Yes father also worked quietly on his own texts. Liu Ye is vague on the subject, but concedes that they involved adventures in lands populated by talking animals. Echoes of Orwells Animal Farm they werent, but they were at least one mans private escape from the torments of reality. Liu Ye senior sadly died when his son was very young, just after the Cultural Revolution came to its abrupt end with Maos death in September 1976. In his paintings, Liu Ye has found a way to keep his fathers imagination and memory alive, for the characters that populate his canvases reference the world of fairy tales and childrens books that his father shared with him when he was a child.
Perhaps the main element of childrens stories identifiable in Liu Yes painting is the ability to make absolute absurdities seem entirely natural for readers/viewers of all ages. Fairy tales in particular rely upon such acceptance to carry the imagination out of the physical realm and into all kinds of wonderlands from Oz to Narnia and beyond the looking glass. Where everything is plausible, anything is possible. And this is perhaps why the debut of Miffy seems like the most natural choice in the world for the artists central character. Liu Ye suggests that we might see the character of Miffy as a stand-in in for himself, but the characters he paints can also be seen as his comrades in arms: the supporters of his journey through the world of art, just as the Scarecrow, Lion, Toto and the Tin Man kept a comforting pace with Dorothy as she ventured into the unknown. \t
Where as a child Liu Ye became accustomed to finding solace in his imagination and with his imaginary friends, it is unusual to find an artist who is so independent within contemporary art circles in China. Perhaps this is because Liu Ye never directly engaged with political posturing as was the trend among the older generation from the late 1980s to the early 1990s. He also studied abroad in Germany from 1990-1994 and although his experience was not unique, it did take him out of the claustrophobic circles at home, and provided a chance for the artist to stand on his own. The result is that Liu Yes work has never aligned with the label of Chinese avant-garde, a feat of which he is rather proud. Liu Ye has always been taken seriously for the quality of his art, for its distinctive vision and content, as opposed to the members of the early avant-garde in China who were uniformly grouped together for their political stance and ambitionsviews that were inspired and perpetuated by the overtly politicized motifs they elected to deploy.
Looking at his broader oeuvre, one might describe Liu Yes paintings as his own private anthology of experiences, made public because ultimately he follows an urge to communicate as great as that of any author of childrens books we could mention.
Motifs recur: among them, the long-haired temptress, who seeks to seduce with her delicate limbs and baby doll features. Liu Ye implies that her beauty, great though it is, is fragile, fleeting, and that it is this fragility that induces the impulse to assert, to control and dominate, either using feminine wiles or the whip which he has her carry on occasion. Liu Ye explains that the little girls, those of the delicate almost tearful features of Strawberry, are but younger versions of the loquacious nymphet, in an age of innocence before she becomes aware of the fact that beauty fades. She is sweet and soft in her most youthful incarnation, but bitterness snips at her the older she gets. But how beautiful the body, the silhouette, the profile, and the delicate hues of her skin
especially in Night. Feminists might denounce a man who creates and contemplates such images on the charge of being a voyeur, of indulging in his own fantasies, but to know Liu Ye is to know his capacity for empathy; he is on his heroines side, not against her.
Even where a number of the new compositions are apparently familiar in terms of the juxtaposition of child and artwork and the carefully balanced handling of primary and secondary pigments around the color wheel, there is a distinct change in the texture of paint in the new works. Liu Ye has never aimed to incorporate an idea by simply blocking out the forms of a composition with pigment. He once wondered aloud if the finely tuned linear structure of so many of his compositions-- in terms of physical space, the abbreviated anatomy of his figures, and the annotated planes of the objects upon which they fix their gaze-- was informed by his training in graphic design. Yes, most likely the experience can be seen in his preference for clean lines, and in a certain neatness of physique in relation to the color that gives this mass. But in the final analysis, while he acknowledges the graphic influence, it earns less credence than does the fascination with the simple forms that speak volumes about his past and personal experience.
Here in the new works, we find a looser play with paint as a delicate wash, almost like a glaze, covers the base white ground that shines through with a soft luminosity. Though the earlier works would not be described as hard, heavy or opaque, the sense of light in these recent pictures suggests a growing ease with both the subject and the medium. There is even a role for incidental marks: a soft stream of excess liquid falls like a silent tear at the feet of the little girl contemplating her own New York Boogie Woogie. Is she moved by the purity of the artwork that confronts her? Is the tender stirring of awe prompted by the innovations of genius? Perhaps, for Liu Ye adheres to a faith in art for arts sake, in an aesthetic that transcends its moment, its geographical boundaries and the ideological doctrines of a national framework. We can say that Liu Ye is a contemporary artist who is Chinese but in terms of the contemporary Chinese art label, he is a round peg that cannot be squeezed down to fit such a square pigeonhole.