Liu Wei is considered a member of China's so-called "Cynical Realists", painters who emerged from the malaise of the 1990s as some of China's most insightful and intuitive social observers. Drawing from their heavily disciplined academic training, these artists applied their vast technical skills not to the depiction of grand historical or didactic themes, but to the more ephemeral and experiential aspects of contemporary life.
Like many of his contemporaries, Liu Wei was driven by the loss idealism felt in a consumerist and rapidly changing China, and his works took an increasingly expressionist and provocative turn, focusing on the underlying tensions, psychological and bodily urges of every day life. For Liu, every brushstroke relates to an ephemeral spiritual and material reality, fraught with impulses and experiences both high and low.
In classic contrarian fashion, Liu Wei's monumental No Smoking painting from 1999 is an unrepentant image of a smoker. His features are deliberately grotesque and his flesh expansive, lacking clear boundaries. His eyes are beady slits telescoping in different directions; his churlish, blistered lip curls over a cigarette held in a crudely disfigured hand; a tumor-like growth emerges from this left ear. Evoking juvenile graffiti, the canvas is covered in graphite and oil depictions of smoking skulls, cartoonish animal figures, and the English-language rendering of the phrases "no fire" and "no smoking". As if to finally enact his own outsider status, Liu Wei paints to the very edge of his canvas, hammering its edges crudely into the side of the stretcher.
The composition is carefully balanced by Liu's delicate sense of color and the variety of his technique. The image itself is built up through a variety of washes, heavier, descriptive passages, and graphite sketches. The sensuousness of Liu's technique is in direct conflict with his subject matter; in this manner, Liu effectively embraces his own loss of idealism by bringing to the surface the repressed realities that lie immediately beneath the skin of daily experience. Liu has stated that "painting helps to relieve my own sense of helplessness and awkwardness". Presumably there is a human face behind this raw image of addiction and desire, but for Liu, the polite surface of existence is a hypocritical gloss on our more base, glutinous and erotic urges.