(B. 1964)
signed in Chinese; signed 'Liu Ye' in Pinyin; dated '99' (lower right) oil on canvas
169.5 x 199.8 cm. (66 3/4 x 78 5/8 in.)
Painted in 1999
Sotheby's New York, 16 May 2007, Lot 501
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Chinese Contemporary Ltd., Sconfinamenti - L'avanguardia cinese, London, UK, 1999 (illustrated, p. 24)
Chinese Contemporary Art Gallery, Liu Ye, London, UK, 2001 (illustrated, p. 4).
Kunstmuseum Bern, Liu Ye, Bern, Switzerland, 2006-2007 (illustrated, pp. 34-35)
Chinese Contemporary Ltd., Critical Mass, London, UK, 2004 (illustrated, p. 31)
Venice, Italy, Palazzo Contarini, Sconfinamenti - L'avanguardia cinese, 12 June-31 July 1999.
London, UK, Chinese Contemporary Art Gallery, Liu Ye Solo Shows, April 2001.
Bern, Switzerland, Kunstmuseum Bern, Liu Ye, 7 February-1 April 2007.

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Felix Yip
Felix Yip

Lot Essay

The works of contemporary Chinese artists cannot be read alone without drawing reference from the socio-political context of modern China, but Liu Ye has taken an entirely different path, without directly referring to politics and social changes, nor did he employ political symbols such as the Cultural Revolution and Communism. When he participated in the reputed "Mahjong": Contemporary Chinese Art International Exhibition 1995 organized by Sigg, the exhibition organizer put a strong emphasis on his remarkable individualism, which is another way of exploration outside the political mainstream of Pope, thereby unfolding the multi-facets of contemporary Chinese art. More concerns for individual reflection and the most basic human emotions, such as humanity, beauty, virtues and sorrow, are found in his works. Liu thought that these emotions are more timelessly meaningful, embodying more universal values, and therefore more moving than any political concepts and ideologies. They invite people to ponder the living state of mankind. Meanwhile, his works are rich in inspiration and aesthetics, including childhood memories, film appreciation, art history, fairytale cartoon, design elements, realism, surrealism and constructionism, so on and so forth, fusing various aesthetics elements, which through assemblage and transformation, turn into his own mode of expression to create his unique models and images. Bleah! (Lot 1038), done in 1999, happens to be a piece rich in layers that unfold this very characteristic of his work.

"Just like the works by Dick Bruna of Holland and Miyazaki of Japan, I think they are as great as Da Vinci."

Bleah! created in 1999, has successively appeared in his solo exhibitions in London (2001), in New York (2006) and another exhibition in Grindelwald, Switzerland (2007). The rich exhibition history hints at the artist's confidence and expectation for this piece of work, as a masterpiece representing a distinctive period of creation. Liu returned to Beijing in mid nineties when China was in an incessantly painful time of transformation, with emerging ideologies of modernization and consumerism. Similar to many contemporary Chinese artists, Liu experienced a sense of restless anxiety about the new direction of the societal development, and it was also precisely in this stage that Liu started to infuse his childhood infancy and visions in his creation, much characterized by the characters in Bleah! The characters in the pictures are originally created by Liu, evolving from his self portrait in the previous stage in Germany. Liu's own image was preserved throughout the transformation from a young boy to a lovely cherub, reflecting Liu's interest in the subject matter of fairytales in this period. The characters in his paintings, with sunglasses and tongues stuck out, appear both mystical and humorous. With their round face, ruddy cheeks and short statures, they have the cartoonish characteristics of plump cherubic children.

Liu never fails to endow his characters with a sense of childlike innocence. Even the sophisticated Eileen Zhang and the graceful Ruan Lingyu appear cartoonish in his round, amicable portrayals. The artist's concerns behind Liu's penchant for cartoon are multi-faceted. On the one hand, it stems from his love for cartoons and fairytales, believing that it is a form of expression which rivals traditional art; and the most basic, popular and easy way to elaborate on deep philosophical issues, recovering in people the inner peace and sublime spiritual strength .Liu once remarked, "Just like the works by Dick Bruna of Holland and Miyazaki of Japan, I think they are as great as Da Vinci." Fairytale elements are emphasized by the cartoonish characterization in his works. Liu's father is an author of children literature, who would secretly bring Anderson's stories home for Liu to read. Liu Ye recalled under the bed in his home there had been a big black chest, where collections of Chinese and western fairytales and fictions were hidden. Liu would from time to time open the chest, repeatedly flipping through the fairytale collections, such as "Anderson Fairy tale", The Secret of the Gourd Vendor, Journey to the West and so on. He read these stories chapter by chapter, even had the illustrations copied again and again, willfully indulging himself in his marvelous fantasy childhood. The images of his characters, adapted from fairytale sources, are the most direct reflection of Liu's childhood experience.

In addition, Liu's child icon also has a trace of exfoliation from the Chinese traditions, which people do not normally associate Liu with. It is however the fact that the inspiration from which Liu modeled his works on actually rooted in Eastern traditions. Once, he mentioned he had been inspired and influenced by the image of writing child in "Old Lotus" by Chen Hong Shou (Fig. 1). Furthermore, cartoonish characterization is taken out of Liu's concern for thematic expression. In Liu's consciousness, even an individual gets old, bearing the vicissitudes of life, it is only the appearance that has changed. Childlike innocence is the eternal reality that would never change. Liu Ye said, "I lived every second and minute in the fairytale world", "I use a lot of lovely children's images in my paintings, making reference to the language of cartoon, but I am not content with them being cartoon pictures only, but they should have meanings beyond". Therefore, behind the childlike images of his characters, Liu is actually trying to convey an attitude of life, that one should always relate to the world with deep thoughts, and yet undying childlike innocence. The little girl and the little boy of fairytale has thus become Liu's unique trademark, in much the same way with Yue Minjun's smiling face, Fang Lijun' bald hooligan, Zeng Fanzhi's mask, and even Tang Zhigang's child in military uniform, which are the artistic metaphors of individual states of living in contemporary China.

"Speaking of composition itself, my paintings are unrealistic. They are composed of structure and form."

Bleah! appears to be randomly designed, but is actually concealing many ingenious implications, thoughts on form and rich sources of aesthetics, aiming to reenact the drama and movie scenes from Liu's childhood experience and memory, and Liu's understanding of the contemporary circumstances and individual life. Liu once mentioned, "Watching movies has become a predominant activity among artists nowadays. What artists get from movies are more than what they get in real life. Our real life has actually been adapted for movie. Reality draws back. Everyone is playing a role in the drama of life." When he lays out his characters in front of the stage backdrop, he has already been suggested a kind of surreal, dreamlike virtual setting, in which everyone is playing a role in the drama of life.

The red curtain in the backdrop, with delicate gradient in colours, presents the ultra-realistic skills of expression skill and sense of volume, creating the effect of light and shade, similar to that of the application of spotlight on stage, where a new drama, carrying the passion and pain of life, is about to comes into the scene, but at the same time conveying a humorous, sprightly, boisterous ambience which is rare in Liu's work. The stark contrast of light and shadow, manipulation of light source, reminds are reminiscent of Rembrandt's Baroquesque Expressionist style. The square shape of the composition, combined with the visual effect of spotlight focusing at the centre, as if a circle were inserted into the heart of the square, either derives from Tondo art, or the style of silent films at earlier times and the way Japanese cartoons wrap up at the end, where a blackout would appear, leaving a circular window-alike focal point for capturing the close up of a character.

Liu Ye has reportedly mentioned at interviews his love for Chaplin's silent film Citylights, hailing it a 'great film'. Reference from Tondo circular work (Fig. 2) of art is another characteristic of Liu's work, in which hidden traces of Western art history can be found, including Mondrian constructionist's movement. Bleah! features a geometric combination of a square frame and a circular spotlight, thereby creating a kind of spatial imagination, to explore the beauty of form encompassed by realistic settings. This is both an application and evolution of Constructionism on the premise of spiritual meaning, building his art world with the logic of Constructionism. The icons of Renaissance, Classical Realism, as well as Mondrian Constructionist elements, have all been transformed into the symbols in his work, engaging with the artist an aesthetic dialogue which transcends space and time, simultaneously hinting at a direction of understanding and appreciating Liu's work, illustrating Liu's intention to channel his thoughts on art history and the progression of aesthetics through art creation. It is therefore fair to say that, what Liu concerns as his subject matter, is not the external politics which was plaguing many of his contemporaries nor the social environment, but is the intrinsic introspection into art through art itself, taking a delightful turn from the current of contemporary Chinese art. His works are precise and exact in combination, displaying a kind of 'solemn beauty', and 'the honesty of rations, allowing viewers to be absorbed in a calm, beautiful, and pure aesthetic state. This is the elements Liu discovered from Mondrian works and his graphic practices in design school, which turn out to be a definitive quality in his art.

The utilization of the red colour is another focus in Bleah! Liu rarely used red to create when staying in Germany. It was not until his return to China in 1995 that he started to use red substantially, and even as the dorminant colour of a painting. The change is probably due to the society change Liu encountered upon his return, which propelled him to ponder profoundly on his growth since the Cultural Revolution. As the most representative political symbol and emblem, 'Red' is often associated with the Cultural Revolution and Communism; but Liu has taken a different approach to the annotation and interpretation of the red colour. Unlike other Chinese artists who focus on the political significance of the colour, Liu opts to stress on the visual experience during childhood triggered by the red colour. To Liu, he was "grown in a world covered by red, the Red sun, the Red Flag, and the Red scarf". When he was still a child, Liu did not know the political significance behind these objects, so he only accepted them passively. It was just like how nowadays children take MacDonald and Mickey Mouse for granted. Drawing the red sun in red is more like his nostalgic reflection on childhood experience, allowing him to explore his visual experience in childhood again. This highlights a significant feature in Liu's works, namely, the emphasis of personal feelings and visual experience. Even amid political or social events, Liu still prefers to emphasize on his personal experience in the event, contemplating on the society from an individual perspective, threading his humanistic and personal approach throughout his work.

Liu's works both encapsulate both the sensational fantasies of fairytales, films drama, and the exact rations of philosophies and constuctionism, pulling together the distinctive elements of passion and ration to create a brand new mode of expression and genre of painting. His works take root in the humanity and political reality of contemporary time, and yet manage to surpass, or conceptualize the ideologies, for personal experience and insightful awareness to emerge, while drawing viewers into a fascinating, romantic, unknown and so adventurous world of magical fairytales.

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