To enter into a Liu Ye painting has always been to enter into something of a fairy tale. Whatever the subject or the period, his paintings are always underlined by a sense of mystery and romance. The narratives may not always be self-evident, but the rules are clear: the artist creates visions of ambiguous and tautly contained emotions; his works are full of private symbolic motifs and mythologies, vibrating with rich and carefully balanced colors, all brought together by Liu's own eccentric sense of humor and philosophical curiosity.
Liu Ye lived in Europe as a young artist throughout much of the 1990s. During this time, he says he was able to "concentrate on himself" (B. Fibecher, Liu Ye, Kunstmuseum Bern Timezone 8; p. 12), honing his skills as a painter, concentrating on his craft through explicit and conceptual investigation of his favorite artists. In these works, Liu frequently painted disarming parables dense with private symbols. Meticulously rendered forms and colors, these paintings often feature quotations from his favorite works of Western art history, appropriations that allowed Liu Ye to enter into the great European tradition of painting, but also to demonstrate his own difference and unique vision - a mixture of classicism, formalism, and surrealism - at once an homage, as well as kind of audacious challenge.
I Always Wanted to Be A Sailor (Lot 1028), a large-scale canvas from the Tsai Collection of Chinese Contemporary Art in New York, was painted in 1999, a crucial time in the artist's development. Having returned to Beijing in the mid 1990s, Liu was confronted with a home he hardly recognized. Deep in the throes of modernization and China's newly evolving consumption-driven society, Liu, like many of his contemporaries, felt ambivalent about this new direction and began to dip into the imagery and motifs of his childhood to grapple with and reveal the paradoxes of the present day.
Fairytales of Political Narratives
Soon, his canvases were dominated almost exclusively by children, as the avatars of Liu's strange and tongue-in-cheek fairy tales, and he began focusing especially on a series of comically heroic and adventuresome young sailors as visual foils to the changing world around him. Despite the apparent whimsy of these images, Liu Ye was clearly also drawing from popular and recognizable Cultural Revolution imagery, imagery that for the artist was both personal and political in every sense. Liu's father was a children's book author during the Cultural Revolution, and would smuggle Hans Christian Anderson anthologies home for the young artist to enjoy. Liu's mature paintings from his return to Beijing very much echo that family history, featuring children engaging in heroic and adult exploits, merging the imagery of the two traditions into a unique vision, highlighting not the political correctness of such adventures, but displaying the bemusement that an adult might feel watching a child's misadventures.
Despite the light-hearted mood, I Always Wanted to Be A Sailor is in fact dense with careful narrative and symbolic choices and art historical references. The composition has become explicitly stage-like. Though the canvas itself is square, Liu has painted a mock-tondo within its confines. This compositional choice effectively distances us from the "reality" of the sailor, mimicking the telescoping effects one might find in early silent films at the close of an especially extravagant scene. Cartoonishly bubbly seafoam laps at the sailor's feet. Despite the dramatic sun behind him, our hero is also lit dramatically from a nearby source, giving the effect of stage-lights.
All of these elements contribute to an aura of fantasy and theatricality. At the same time, these elements also betray Liu's careful study of art history. The dramatic lighting could also be a reference to Johannes Vermeer, another artist Liu Ye studied in depth, who painted his figures under lighting sources that were external to the depicted scene. The precision of the circle-within-a-square could also be the artist's nod to Piet Mondrian, whose formalism Liu Ye has often honored in his paintings. Indeed, despite the overwhelmingly dominant red, the composition in fact displays a careful balance of Mondrian's favorite palette, red, yellow, and blue, found in the hard-line contrast between the sea and the ship, as well as in the subtle gradations of tone in the yellows and blues in the sea foam and in the sailor's uniform.
Most importantly, the color red, largely absent from his earlier works, now dominates the canvas to a deliberately exaggerated degree. Here the sky, the ship and the sun are a dramatic, rich red, an explicit reference to the Cultural Revolution, where not only was red the color of the revolution, but the sun itself was often a symbol for Chairman Mao (and the Chinese people, like sunflowers, turned towards him) (Fig. 1). In I Always Wanted to Be A Sailor, it is hard to say whether the sun is rising or setting; is it waning on the end of this child's adventure, or is the dawn of a new day? The sailor himself stands with a jaunty and relaxed confidence - that of either a hero or a clown - and in either case unconcerned about the ridiculousness of his position.
Liu Ye has stated that, "The first comedy I watched as a child was Charlie Chaplin's 'City Lights' (Fig. 2), a movie that makes one laugh wildly and cry hysterically, using a comedic form to tell a tragic story. The harder you laugh, the more desolate the tragic fate of the character in the story comes to seem. No one can laugh just once at this, which is why it is a truly great movie" (Z. Zhu, Liu Ye, Kunstmuseum Bern Timezone 8; p. 7). Liu Ye's love for the tragic-comic is evident in his portrait of the child-sailor, who is indeed in many ways Chaplin-esque. He appears almost like a caricature for naval recruitment, or an advertisement for a film never made. In the 1990's in Beijing, a colloquial phrase for joining the entrepreneurial class was to "dive into the sea", and Liu's canvas, drawing with economical mastery from a repertoire of symbols and references, may serve as a visual pun for the adventure of capitalism that was being embraced by the Chinese people.
The artist has stated that his return to his home country was a bit of a shock. Several years of "open door" policies had led to rapid urban development in Beijing and an increasingly consumerist-oriented society. Indeed, his country suddenly seemed powerfully oriented towards an unknown future, seeming to leave both the idealism and ideologies of communism behind. In I Always Wanted to Be A Sailor, the young sailor embodies an ease and confidence despite the absurdity of his position; a new sun may be rising, but it remains unclear where it will lead. He may be the captain of this enormous warship, or it could just as easily have abandoned him on this desolate island. I Always Wanted to Be A Sailor then makes for a deceptively innocuous and playful scene, evidence of Liu Ye's romantic disposition but also his questioning of the presumptions of the new era, reducing it to the folly of child's play, both in contrast to and as an extension of the futile exploits of the Cultural Revolution. Liu Ye's childlike world of misadventure in fact serves as a clever and insightful mirror to the uncertainty and anxiety felt towards the dubious priorities and politics of a new China. However, the over-riding mood of innocent adventure suggests that it would be a mistake to reduce Liu Ye's works to something so mundane as socio-political critique; Liu Ye's appeal and greatest insight lies in his appreciation of how dreams and fantasies, the romance and mystery of adventure, is what drives us, regardless of ideology.