Liu Ye (b. 1964)
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Liu Ye (b. 1964)

The Happy Family

Liu Ye (b. 1964)
The Happy Family
signed in English and Chinese and dated '98 Liu Ye' (lower right)
oil on canvas
47¼ x 55¼in. (120 x 140.3cm.)
Painted in 1998
Galerie Serieuze Zaken, Amsterdam.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
Special notice
No VAT will be charged on the hammer price, but VAT at 15% will be added to the buyer's premium which is invoiced on a VAT inclusive basis.

Lot Essay

Beijing-based painter Liu Ye spent much of the 1990s training and painting in Europe, primarily in Amsterdam and Berlin. It was during this time that Liu began to investigate more deeply his most beloved Western masters - the unlikely mix of Rothko, Vermeer and Mondrian - and began to develop his signature style: bold colors, cherubic figures - often indexing the artist himself - in fantasy settings. Upon his return to Beijing in the late 1990s, Liu Ye was shocked and deeply impressed by the massive social and cultural changes that had taken place in just a few short years. Increasingly, Liu's works served as enigmatic and deeply personal parables about his country and his culture's rapid transformation.
The Happy Family bears all of Liu Ye's trademarks as an artist. The painting is a fairy tale without a narrative. Obscured by the bright background, a seared-crimson sky with softer yellows, contrasted by the dark foreground annotated in bright cerulean, the audience grapples with the moment portrayed. The relationship between the three also remains unexplained. The composition recalls the stiff, trite poses of family portrait photographs, families eager to convince themselves and others of their happiness. Like Zhang Xiaogang and his Big Family: Bloodlines Series, this popular genre of portraiture offers inspiration for investigating contemporary China's shifting ideologies and collective memories. While the seated characters may be a snapshot of any family portrait, the silhouette of the feathery wings quickly distance the audience from reality. Liu engages in a real-life discussion of a family's happiness garbed in a fairytale world, suspending the audience in limbo unsure of whether or not the artist offers truth or falsehood.
Liu pulls from his favorite palate of primary colors. While The Happy Family contains no explicit reference to Mondrian; however, the setting creates the stark Mondrian-esque geometry. The horizontal planes created by the shore, the horizon, and the yellow clouds streaking the sky contrast the sharp verticality of the seated figures, the rocks and the cerulean ocean spray. Similarly, Liu pays homage to Vermeer by favoring an off-site light source. The blazing sun behind the three offers no glare; instead, the figures faces softly glow from some unnamed golden light pouring onto the canvas from an anonymous source. Although the imaginative quality of Liu's world suspends reality, the setting sun seems to reference high Communist iconography. During the peak of the Mao's influence, the Chairman was often depicted as the sun towards which all the sunflowers turned - a metaphor for the devotion of the Chinese people to his leadership. Contrastingly, Liu's characters turn their backs to the sun, pulling their light from some other ethereal origin, no longer relying on sun, as it sets behind them.
Despite all his innuendo, Liu leaves his audience guessing. The feathery wings adorning each character repudiate any notion that what occurs in the painting is real. Although the seated figures seem almost lifelike, a double-take reveals their waxen visages, breathless smiles and unearthly wings. Although tempted to take the portrait seriously, Liu Ye disarms the audience; like the subjects themselves, the artist suspends his viewer in a world of fantasy. His works are coy yet profane, normalizing their strangeness. While the audience may feel unsettled, The Happy Family feels right at home in the world of Liu Ye.

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