|Liu Ye Paints a Two-Story Mondrian Homage, "Bamboo Bamboo Broadway" at Sperone Westwater
6 September 2012
Walking into Sperone Westwater’s towering gallery on the Bowery in early August, visitor were greeted by a rare sight: an artist actually creating work in the commercial art space. The Chinese painter Liu Ye, known for his small-scale, delicate renderings of young women gazing dazedly at Mondrian canvases, had taken over the gallery as his temporary studio, complete with a clutch of tables laden with brushes, paint tubes, and a coffee platter.
Liu, a dapper 48-year-old Beijing local who retains the city’s distinctive accent, was perched on top of a mechanical lift that he raised and lowered with resounding squeaks, working on a mammoth composite of nine canvases arrayed on the huge inner wall of the gallery’s bottom floor. The piece, called “Bamboo Bamboo Broadway,” is an abstraction of bamboo stalks extending the space’s entire two-floor height in a wash of greens and grays, a modernist take on a traditional Chinese subject that mingles Liu’s art-historical influences with his cultural heritage.
The new piece is a radical departure for Liu, but one that makes visceral sense when standing in the presence of the painting. He explains that the change in scale is meant to make the space feel like a church; in fact, the artist has been heavily influenced by the spiritual music of Bach, whose grandeur can be felt in the arching bamboo stalks and expanses of shifting color. There is an architectonic quality to the work and a penetrable transparency that makes viewing it much like looking into the stained glass windows of a cathedral. The large landscape is echoed by a smaller bamboo piece installed down the hall created with denser paint and heavier colors, weaving a sparer geometric web.
Liu chose to work in the gallery rather than a studio simply because the mammoth painting, the largest piece he has ever made, wouldn’t fit in any space he had access to. After working on the canvas sections in a friend’s warehouse studio in Manhattan, Liu brought them to the inner sanctum of Sperone Westwater, where the artist is painting the entire work at once, stepping up to the gallery’s balcony every so often to view it as a whole from above. After tracing a few more straight lines down the mottled surface, descending on the lift, and stepping outside for a cigar, Liu summed up his ambitions: “I came all the way here, so why not make a really big painting?”
- Kyle Chayka, Tom Chen