Contemporary art from China has been one of the most talked about topics over the past three years. Its rise is an unprecedented phenomenon in the art world as skyrocketing prices do not just concern one or two artists from China, but more than two dozen have been claimed as the undisputed stars of the market. We have become used to seeing works with the portrait of Mao scrutinized under every angle, about the fast paced industrialization and its negative consequences or pieces challenging the traditional art establishment. Amongst the artists working in China today, and who have become the subject of increasing attention from Western and Chinese collectors, is Liu Ye (b. 1964), a painter who is standing out from his contemporaries. His style is immediately recognizable largely inspired by childhood memories that he rearranges into a different context. If his paintings seem harmless and easy to read at first, on closer inspection they become rich in meaning with various interpretations. A talented artist, Liu Ye has created a universe of his own that is expanding with each story told. It is a pleasant encounter to share the work of Liu Ye and his stories. He discusses his career in more details with the Asian Art Newspaper.
Art Asian Newspaper: How did you achieve your present style?
Liu Ye: Before going to art school and whilst I was an art student, I tried out and experimented various styles, and explored numerous possibilities. As I went to study in Berlin, I was very much under the influence of new German Expressionism. However, I slowly realized that it was not my style, and did not reflect my personality. Also, I was quite homesick and felt a strong urge to paint something that provided a certain link with home: That is how I started to paint images relating to my childhood. I was longing for the period when I was a child, and my goal was to get away from German Expressionism, and paint in what I would call a simple way.
AAN: Can you define simple painting?
LY: My understanding of a simple painting stands in opposition to everything I had learned and seen: in my mind, everything I had been taught and been exposed to became overwhelming, and in a certain way quite confusing. Therefore, I decided to forget about everything I had acquired, and start anew. In that way, I was able to paint what I really felt, and what reflected my true personality.
AAN: In Berlin you were longing for childhood. Can you describe your childhood in Beijing?
LY: As my father was writing childrens books, I logically grew up surrounded by a lot of books. He wrote fairytales, plays for children, and at home he kept a great number of books with stories from Europe or China and, of course, I read most of them these stories had a great impact on me.
AAN: A rabbit or a girl is often present in your paintings. Who are these characters?
LY: The rabbit-girl actually refers to Dick Brunas Miffy, a very popular character in Holland. As I lived in Amsterdam eight years ago, I got to know Miffy, and I immediately fell in love with her, perhaps because I recognized myself in her. Although Miffy is a rather simple character and does not seem very intelligent, she is actually extremely clever. I instantly loved her and I was quite moved by her. In all the paintings featuring Miffy, I actually portray myself. It is quite similar to Alfred Hitchcock, who appeared briefly in all the films he directed. The girl is related to the memories of my childhood, but she is also connected to my present reality.
AAN: Many of your paintings have a plain background. Is there a specific reason why you choose monochrome?
LY: I am intrigued by minimalism in general and by the work of Barnett Newman in particular. I follow a similar approach by painting my main character, and deliberately surrounding it by a uniform and monochrome background in red, blue or yellow a very interesting combination.
AAN: Your characters are often pictured in what seems to be a small space and in a static pose. Why is that?
LY: It is true that a lot of my paintings show a girl in a rather static position, but I must emphasize that I have also completed pieces that depict movement and motion. However, the characters just end up being static without me having any precise explanation for it.
AAN: A number of your characters have a neutral look and seem, in a certain way, quite lonely. Is there a connection to your own life?
LY: Indeed, my paintings give the impression of a certain loneliness. This loneliness does not reflect my personality, except for the fact that I want to be all by myself when I work in my studio. I do not even have an assistant. It is impossible for me to work while anybody else is present in the studio. In that respect, I prefer loneliness if we want to call it that way as much as I prefer social contacts with the outside world when I am not busy in my studio.
AAN: In regard to Miffy, have you been influenced by Japan or by Japanese Manga?
LY: My paintings are influenced by all different cultures be this Japan and to a larger extent Asia, Europe, America or Africa. For example, in Africa, the sculptures are in standing position and hardly show any movement, an element that can frequently be found in my paintings as viewers often notice that my characters are quite static. The way I portray my characters has more to do with their feelings from the inside than with what is visible from the outside. It is quite similar to the African sculptures, which with their static position do not necessarily reflect reality, but rather an inner state, an inner feeling. In India, I was very much influenced by the sculptures in the temples, the approach the Indians have to life, which is also reflected in their art. They live according to their philosophy with much less stress than in Europe or the United States. In America, there is this unlimited optimism, which as an artist is a huge asset.
AAN: Which artists have influenced you?
LY: My influences are diverse: Piero della Francesca, Lucas Canach, Chardin, Vermeer, Mondrian, and the Minimalist movement, these are just a few examples my list is quite long.
AAN: Some of your paintings refer to Mondrian. What is the attraction?
LY: Although Mondrian is seen as an abstract painter by most people, to me he is a painter whose work has a quiet and calm quality to it. Even when I take a break from work in my studio, I very much enjoy looking at his catalogues, as I find his work very relaxing.
AAN: In many of your paintings the colours blue, yellow, and red dominate the palette. Why is this?
LY: I find that red, blue, and yellow are the basics of colour. I personally like the simple quality of these colours. This does not mean that I limit myself to these colours in all my paintings: I also rely on more complex colours in some of my works.
AAN: After studying in Beijing and Berlin, why did you decide to go to Amsterdam?
LY: I had actually not finished my studies in at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. That is why I decided to finish my curriculum in Berlin and get my Masters of Fine Arts. Later on, as I had already returned to Beijing, I had the opportunity to take part in a residency programme at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, which I was very eager to attend. That stay had nothing to do with any additional studies, but it was a year where I could develop various projects and concentrate on my work.
AAN: How did your art evolve after your stay in Berlin and Amsterdam?
LY: When I arrived in Berlin, I didnt know which direction to follow. I was surrounded by so many techniques and so many styles! Two years into my studies, I finally tried to forget about everything I had learned and I had seen around me to complete simple paintings as I explained earlier. In Amsterdam, I had time to deal with my work, which was wonderful.
AAN: A few of your pieces, under a simple content relate to historic events like painting Banned Books referring to the Cultural Revolution. Have you ever had difficulties in terms of censorship in China?
LY: No. I am not using my paintings to make any comments on politics. I find that art should not interfere with politics because I see art as something universal, and not as something emanating from a specific country. My art has nothing to do with my political opinions. If we look at Mondrian for example, he lived through World War I and World War II, but never completed one single painting describing the war or referring to it in any way. My art is mainly about beauty, feeling, and hope.
AAN: When you mention hope, can you be more specific?
LY: I hope that my art will speak to people from all different backgrounds, whatever their origin, their race, or their political beliefs. I do hope my art will stand out for itself, and not because it is addressing a certain community or addressing specific issues. I have no interest in being solely recognized as a painter for a Chinese audience. Art should be universal, and it is my hope that my art crosses boundaries of all kinds.
AAN: In some of your paintings, it is quite difficult to distinguish whether you are painting an Asian or a Western character.
LY: I am quite indifferent to the fact whether my characters are Asian or Western. A lot of my work is based on a model, but ultimately the expression and the face of my character can vary according to my mood. I rely on drawings, sketches or photography, but I never have a living model in my studio as I need to be alone in order to paint. I paint quite slowly as one single painting requires approximately a months work.
AAN: The interest in Chinese contemporary art is growing constantly. You have lived in Europe, are now back in China, and have seen different sides of the market. In your opinion, why this sudden interest towards contemporary art from China?
LY: I must admit that I am quite puzzled at these sometimes extremely high auction prices. Even for some of my works, it is difficult to comprehend why all of a sudden they have become so expensive at auction. In the past three years, the market for Chinese contemporary art has changed drastically, and the present level of prices has nothing to do with what it used to be.
AAN: What prompted you to set up your studio in Beijing rather than Berlin, a city that is presently attracting more and more artists from around the world?
LY: As I can work anywhere, I would be delighted to work between Beijing, Berlin, and why not, New York. As I already lived in Berlin and speak German, Berlin would probably be a better option, and I do hope it will work out in the future.
AAN: Did you also study Chinese Traditional painting?
LY: Yes, I have learned traditional Chinese painting. I find that painting in China has followed a fabulous development reaching its peak during the Song dynasty. What I try to keep alive from the painting of that period is mainly its spirit. The paintings are quiet, simple in a way with structure that is quite abstract.
AAN: Artists need to reinvent themselves periodically. Are you exploring any new directions?
LY: I am presently working on a gigantic composition representing nothing else but bamboo. I have the feeling that I will more and more get to paint different things related to nature flowers or even animals. That may represent a major change from my previous pieces and in a way, it may draw me back to traditional Chinese painting.
- Olivia Sand