Among contemporary Chinese artists, Liu Ye became best known less for his overtly politicized commentaries and more for his playful, dream-like paintings, full of deeply personal myths and fairy tales. While his paintings of child-soldiers in farcical scenarios may have offered whimsical commentary on the uncertainty and folly inherent to China's new post-Mao embrace of modernization and consumerism, the overwhelmingly dominant quality of Liu's paintings has always been the sense that the viewer is privy to a very private enactment of dreams and fantasies.
In his more recent works, Liu Ye has turned his attention towards an almost elemental meditation on desire, art history and art-making. Having worked most of his career in meticulously small or most medium-sized formats, in Boogie Woogie, Little Girl in New York (Lot 510), Liu Ye has moved boldly onto a large-scale canvas, projecting complex emotions through the subtle interaction of form, color, and content.
Despite these pop culture references, the paintings from this series exude the quiet melancholy that has haunted many of Liu's best works, while the appropriation of such recognizable cultural forms allows Liu to create an ambiguous allegory of sexual awakening and aesthetic discovery.
In Boogie Woogie, Little Girl in New York, Liu focuses on the anonymous schoolgirl, alone before a Mondrian painting. The artist has often said that there have been few breakthroughs in art of painting since mid-century Modernism, and here he honors two of his favorites, not only Piet Mondrian but Mark Rothko. The Mondrian reference is self-evident in the title and the Mondrian-like composition at the center of the painting. Rothko is present, too, in the unusual scale of the painting and in the color-fields that Liu explores in the dominant pink tones of the wall and floor. Liu's handling of broad swaths of color has always been uniquely rich and nuanced, and here he appears to allow himself finally to dwell in the pure abstraction of color, the composition an excuse to articulate different gradations of color and light, the subtle shadows cast by the painting-within-the-painting and by the little girl, as well as the sea of lavendar pink that serves as the floor but which appears more liquid than concrete.
With her back to us, the little girl of the title, in mini-skirt, anklets, and a bow in her hair, stands with solemn attention, absorbed in the hanging canvas. Pink tones flow through the canvas, almost as if her un-self-conscious meditation on the painting has allowed her burgeoning sexuality to suffuse the room, the floor, finally invading the Mondrian canvas as well. The formality of the composition is at odds with the sass of the title, the sexuality embodied by the girl, and the reference to Mondrian's famous New York 1941 Boogie Woogie, 1941-42, the artist's jazzy, staccato take on Manhattan during World War II. Despite his formalism, Boogie Woogie was a leap into jazz, syncopated rhythms, dance and abandonment, and Liu uses these references to highlight the tensions inherent to his own work: Although he seems to want to explore subconscious urges, sexuality, and expansive, elemental emotions, he is aware too that he cannot quite make that leap into complete self-abandonment. Instead, he enacts it at arms length. As such, the painting embodies the balance between order and chaos that has driven Liu Ye's career - the desire for formality and order at odds with emotions and urges that cannot always be rationally explained. Like the artist-philosophers of modernism, Liu Ye seeks the "simple expression of a complex thought", wanting clarity through abstraction, which he explores through the cool geometry of his composition and the subtle play of color, form, and personal symbols.