Liu Yes fantastical paintings represent an imaginary world where fiction meets reality. A world informed by his experiences of growing up during Chains Cultural Revolution and studying for a Master of Fine Arts in Berlin. A fascination with how ones childhood can define future destiny.
"I am building a world for myself with my paintings," Liu, forty-two, explains. "Everything and everybody in my paintings have a relationship with each other. This world is developing slowly and gradually; the figures in my paintings are like characters in a film. I don't know where the story will lead. But there is only one leading role in this long film, and that is the artist."
Like scenes from a feature film with various subplots, Liu's paintings assemble a cast of diverse characters. Schoolgirls with small bodies and moonlike faces, wearing green skirts and white blouses, are viewing Mondrian paintings; an elegant Hans Christian Andersen is standing in the Danish snow; and the Grimm Brothers' Snow White is freezing to the snow-blanketed spot. But as with fairy tales themselves, something sinister sometimes creeps onto Liu's canvases. In Who's Afraid of Madame L, a pretty woman dressed as a schoolgirl holds a cane with her outstretched hands, while in Night, another young woman sits cross-legged, looking vulnerable and isolated in the midnight-blue background, wearing just white panties and one red shoe. The facades of childlike innocence are punctuated by these allusions to adult sexuality. Moreover, the story-telling aspect of the paintings is heightened by Liu's employment of a lush palette favoring reds, yellows, and blues.
Indeed, Liu's predilection for using primary colors can be traced to his childhood days in Beijing, when he would paint airplanes, cannons, warships, the sun, and sunflowers. "I grew up in a world of red: the red sun, red flags, red scarves, with green pines and sunflowers often supporting the red symbols," Liu says. Yet it was the books that were banned under China's repressive regime that were to fuel his imagination. His father, an author and illustrator of children's books, who was compelled to spend much of his time toiling in the countryside under Mao Zedong's policy of forcing intellectuals to do manual labor, kept many books hidden away in a black chest under his bed. Even though Liu was forbidden to open the chest, curiosity eventually got the better of him.
"One day when nobody was at home I opened the chest and found a great number of books," including Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales, tales by Alexander Pushkin, Anna Karenina, War and Peace, Journey to the West, and The Water Margin, he recalls. "It was politically dangerous to read such books in those days. However, these fantastic stories with their beautiful illustrations opened a new and wonderful world to me. I remember when my father brought back a book of master drawings, which had several pages covered by white paper. I was so curious to see what was behind the white paper that I held the pages under a light. They were all study drawings of naked women!"
Besides the make-believe world of fairy tales, Liu is equally attracted to the "strict and rational thinking" of philosophy. He positions his art at the interplay between these "two extreme poles of thinking." His interest in rationality harks back to his studies of technical drawing at the age of fifteen when he focused his daydreaming [mind] on drawing fine, straight lines. Despite the monotony, the exercise taught him an exactitude and "strictly controlled passion" that he later recognized in Mondrian's paintings, hence his habit of paying tribute to Mondrian more than to any other artist.
Liu's interest in Western art and his opportunity to study at the Berlin University of the Arts from 1990 to 1994 distinguished him from many of his contemporaries in the Chinese art scene. As the art historian Pi Li puts it, "The major difference between him and his contemporaries was that he did not go through the period of rage around 1989 [following the Tiananmen Square massacre], nor did his works contain elements of 'collective' images."
While other Chinese artists were venting their anger against the communist state, Liu was soaking up the winds of change as the Berlin Wall came down, touring Europe's art museums, studying - among others - Klee and Vermeer, and experimenting with large-scale cement paintings. "Then one day I destroyed all my cement paintings and said to myself, 'I am not a German expressionist, I am me!'" After this imitative lapse, Liu channeled his energies into formulating his own pictorial language.
When he returned to Beijing in the mid-90s, he found that the capital was already in the throes of modernization. "There were only around one hundred private cars in the early '90s, but when I came back there were already more than one million," Liu notes.
Alongside China's transition into a market economy came increased artistic freedom and a general shift from collectivism to individualism that expressed itself mostly through Political Pop, Cynical Realism, and Gaudy Art. Against this backdrop, Liu's uplifting, humorous, and unique style, subtly referencing "pulp noir" and classical Chinese landscape traditions, quickly attracted the public's attention.
After further honing his skills during his residency at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam and an internship at Delfina Studio Trust, a private foundation in London, and exhibiting his works in Hong Kong, China and Europe, Liu is becoming one of the most collectible Chinese artists. One of his paintings, for instance, sold for close to $477,500 in April at an auction of Contemporary Chinese Art at Sotheby's Hong Kong, commanding the sixth-highest price. But Liu tries to remain cool-headed about his growing success while lucidly mentioning the seller's role in the life of an artwork. "Before my painting is sold, I don't think of it as being finished," he states.
Just as he imagines the life of a painting beyond its execution, Liu believes that art travels from the past to the present and the future. Drawing a comparison between art and childhood, the stage of life that intrigues him most, he says, "What you do in the future should be mapped out in your childhood. We cannot make a time machine to keep our childhood, but art is a time machine."
And yet part of Liu's mind is still that of the fascinated youngster discovering new things. Through the layered textures of his art he aims to capture "rhythm like jazz music, atmosphere like Federico Fellini's films and structure like Luis Barragan's buildings." As Liu concludes, "Seeking beauty is the last chance for human beings. It's like shooting at the goal; it arouses an emotion that is wild with joy."
- Anna Sansom