(B. 1965)
Revolutionary Family Series
signed in Chinese; dated '1991.3' (lower left)
oil on canvas
100 x 100.5 cm. (39 3/8 x 39 1/2 in.)
Painted in 1991
Formerly the property of an Italian collector, acquired directly from the artist
Acquired from the above by the present European collector

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Felix Yip
Felix Yip

Lot Essay

One of the most striking and abiding aspects of the contemporary Chinese avant-garde has been its investment in the figurative tradition. For artists who were raised under communism, with its ideologically-laden strictures on visual culture, the opportunity to appropriate the human figure to suit one's own critical and artistic stance has been one of the most fundamental and liberating aspects of the recent era. The central artists of the Chinese avant-garde in the 1990s placed the human figure at the center of their practice, adapting its rich and complex art historical legacy and cultural relevance to suit their own formal and critical experimentations. For Beijing-based Cynical Realist Liu Wei and his contemporaries, the tragedy of the Tian'anmen Square incident, followed by the hollow ideals of consumerism sweeping China, resulted in a kind of generational malaise. As such, the profoundly non-conformist spirit of Liu and his contemporaries has many parallels with the historical circumstances and critical disposition of Berlin Dada painters such as Otto Dix or George Grosz, artists whose surrealist contemporary caricatures seized upon the degenerate moral character of their subjects and their actions. For Liu, a reckoning with his contemporary world began with an investigation into his own personal relationships in his exuberantly surrealistic, iconoclastic and emotionally ironic paintings of Revolutionary Familes.
Liu Wei's father was a senior general in the military, and from his earliest works, Liu enlists the ubiquitous imagery of life in a military family to critically reflect upon the nation's past and its future. The two works from this series featured in the Evening sale, both painted in 1991, reveal Liu's own filial empathy for his military family, as well as his burgeoning, almost Oedipal need to separate himself from the ideological underpinnings of that world. Both paintings were featured in the Venice Biennale in 1993, testimony to Liu's prescient and precocious appreciation for the challenges facing a nation in transition and its personal and psychological ramifications. Both paintings adopt the format of formal photographic portraits. In the first of these canvases, what appears to be the artist's own father poses before a formal portrait of Zhu De. Zhu was an early revolutionary and is considered the founder of China's Red Army. He acted in various senior capacities in government and in the People's Liberation Army until his dismissal during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), though he was subsequently rehabilitated in 1973. Liu's father, dressed in his own military dress costume, complete with his ranking stars and medals of honor, stands before the portrait as one might pose for a photograph at a chance celebrity sighting or at a wax museum, a symbolic claim of affiliation that may or may not be real.

The subtle distinctions between Liu's handling of the composition and its figures reveals his own underlying and conflicting feelings. Zhu appears larger than life; his image drawn from the many official portraits of him that circulated at the time. His features are smooth yet fleshy; his mouth is sternly set, his brow arched, his powerful gaze fixed on the viewer in the convention associated with formal portraits of Communist leaders. But Liu undermines the authority of the image with his compositional choices and paint handling. Replacing a blank studio background, Liu adds a ridiculously verdant scene of green hills, cartoonish flowering shrubs, and a balmy blue sky. The authority of the figure is further undermined by the figure posing before him, blocking Zhu's gaze with his own far less-polished visage. The contrast between the two figures is striking. Upon close inspection, everything about the foregrounded figure is slightly off-kilter. His eyes are asymmetric; his gaze is vague and unfocused; his nose appears to be slightly cooked; his parted lips reveal a mildly comic overbite, and his three medals are pinned almost haphazardly to his chest. Liu's handling of the paint here is essential, the skewed details of the figure detailed in extreme minutiae that moves viewer's senses, evoking our sympathy for his somewhat unkempt and naive performance, and repulsion towards the intense corporal reality of the flesh.
These techniques are equally on display in the three-figured painting also from Revolutionary Family Series. Contra Zhang Xiaogang's solemn depictions of Communist-era families from the same period, Liu's color choices evoke the campy optimism and Technicolor palette of Cultural Revolution-era propaganda. Here again is the cartoonish landscape, bright blue sky and cotton candy clouds, the suggestion of a body of water referencing perhaps China's enormous pride in his natural and man-made landscape - be it a major dam project or a trip to the Yangtze River. However, given the artificiality of the depthless scene and the shadows of the figures, Liu suggests that, like the preceding painting, this trio is not posing before a natural scene, but rather a representation of a natural scene. What occasioned the photograph, we cannot know, as the view is ultimately obscured by the three figures standing tightly together. Here again is the father-figure from the previous painting, standing alongside a central female, and a younger soldier (perhaps the artist himself). Here the handling of the flesh and features becomes more pronounced in its detailing; both men's gazes are blank and unfocused, both with their lips parted revealing buck-toothed overbites. The female looms over the other figures, suggesting their emasculation, while here too her features are lugubrious and subtly out alignment. Her hair in particular is a thicket of fine, miniscule brushstrokes, while the youngest figure's features are the most malformed, his gaze the most dull.
Already between the two paintings, we see the evolution of this technique, symbolizing Liu (and his generation's) distrust of the legacy they were inheriting. His treatment of the figures - the deliberately cartoonish and artificial environment, the malformed flesh and unsteady gaze of his subjects - to suggest the dubious value of the nation's pride over its military history, while at the same time doubting whether or not the current generation is up to the task of maintaining it. Essential, too, is his "grey" humor, a signature element to of Cynical Realist works, a simultaneous appreciation for the absurd and the tragic. As such, Liu enters into a problematic that he would continue to elaborate and explore throughout his career: his figures are at once helpless, hapless, and corrupted, a corruption at once intrinsic and extrinsic. For Liu, social norms are at perpetual odds with essential human impulses, a tension which ultimately finds release through the corruption of mortal flesh.

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