Early Northern European paintings, with their sophisticated visual effects, convey a strong sense of dignity and spirituality that deeply impacted Li Ye during the time he spent in that region. It is as if the stillness of these compositions are able to freeze time. Liu Ye was greatly affected by this calm and composed power. (Fig. 1) When he returned to China in 1994, the country was going through the trauma of experiencing recent political upheaval as well as the rapidly modernising market economy. Liu Ye's works go beyond the subject matter that relates to politics. His focus is on the exploration of the painting medium and the awakening of the conscious mind amidst the torrent of times.
In Red No. 2 (Lot 61), the young girl, who is the signature figure in Liu Ye's oeuvre, makes an appearance again. The artist does not consider himself to be a cartoon or children's book painter, though it is possible that subconsciously, his character modelling could have been influenced by his father, who was an author of children's literature. His choice to depict women and children is not due to implying any intentional associations, but rather, he wishes to bring characters with different backgrounds and gender into his works, so that viewers can resonate and empathise with them. Liu Ye explained, “I still do not consider myself a painter of children. I think all the children that I have painted are in fact adults. The image of a child is not a particularly acute symbol.” The girl in his work symbolises an abstract element in painting. It is path to self-criticism and spiritual release.
The colour red covers a vast backdrop in Red No. 2, as if the entire world is basking in the red glow. The visual impact is astounding. This colour awakens a collective memory within the minds of members of Liu Ye's generation. The colour does not necessarily carry political connotations; instead it is a feature in the memory of the artist's childhood. He indulges in a fairy tale that he constructed himself. In it, he explores the possibilities in art and marvels at the profundity of life. This naive obsession does not fade as the artist ages. (I Only Weight One Gram, Zhu Zhu, 2015.)
“I grew up in a world covered in red: Red sun and red flag. Evergreen trees like pine and cypress, as well as sunflowers were used to complement red.”
- Liu Ye
In the painting, the girl, wearing what might be a school uniform, stands at the edge of a cliff. Tears seem to be welling up in her eyes. The composition is meticulously composed- like the landscape paintings from Song dynasty, carefully arranged tensions and releases can create rhythms and melodies (Fig. 2). The primary colours of red, yellow, and blue, which were featured in Piet Mondrian's works, become the palette of Red No. 2 as well. The harmonious interplay between the demure blue and yellow clashes with the impulsive red in the background. Viewers can appreciate the masterful application of colours when they examine the work up close. The highly saturated red in the painting is arrogant. Yet, its interaction with the rest of the painting is very orderly. The artist finds a balance between what can be controlled and what cannot be controlled in the picture. The black cloud and tears in the girl’s eye flow- the materiality of the medium corresponds with the imagery. In these intriguing interactions, the artist attempts to understand the logic and emotional connotations within the colours.
Influenced by Italian Pittura metafisica artists such as Giorgio De Chirico (Fig. 3) and Carlo Carra, Liu Ye chooses to include elements whose relationships is not readily apparent in the painting. This ambiguity is left up to the viewer to interpret. Red No. 2 combines the composition of Song Dynasty landscape painting with the expression of Western abstract painting (Fig. 4). This innovative aesthetic language creates a visual phenomenon that is both timeless and mysterious.