(B. 1965)
Landscape 4
signed in Chinese; signed 'Liu Wei' in Pinyin; dated '2006' (centre)
oil on canvas
70 x 50 cm. (27 1/2 x 19 5/8 in.)
Painted in 2006
Artside Gallery, Zhou Chunya Liu Wei, exh. cat., Seoul, Korea, 2006 (illustrated, p. 37).
Seoul, Korea, Artside Gallery, Zhou Chunya Liu Wei The Lime Light of Chinese Contemporary Art, 21 June-10 July 2006.

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Felix Yip
Felix Yip

Lot Essay

Evolving from his deliberately provocative and derelict depictions of his Revolutionary Family and Swimming series paintings, Cynical Realist painter Liu Wei evolved into an increasingly expressionistic painter fixated on the underlying tensions and psychological and bodily urges of everyday life. For Liu, every brushstroke relates to an ephemeral spiritual and material reality, fraught with impulses and experiences both high and low. He renders these subjects in a festering and sometimes intentionally grotesque manner, often scribbling plaintive expressions in English across the surface of his paintings that are almost Freudian in their simple desires: "I like you", "I like pork", or "I like smoking". In this manner, Liu effectively embraces his own loss of idealism by bringing to the surface the repressed realities that lie immediately beneath the skin of bodily experience.

The full, baroque expression of this line of inquiry can be found in such works as You Like Me from 1996 (Lot 1335) and Pork from 2007 (Lot 1337). In You Like Me, Liu offers the malformed, almost fetal features of a male figure, emerging from a chaotic background dense with explosive strokes and half-suggestions -- passages resembling bucolic landscapes, animal intestines, and fireworks explosions. The figure himself is composed of raw, gnarled flesh; his rotten teeth visible through his cankerous mouth, his unseeing beady pupils peering out from the two sockets that serve as eyes. In his Swimming paintings, Liu hinted at the notion of water as symbolic for the subconscious; here Liu makes the portrait of a subconscious as his primal subject. His ironic scrawl of the plaintive words "you like me" across the canvas highlights the crude, unbounded vulnerability that, for Liu, lurks beneath the surface of all social life and existence itself.

Liu's delight in crude impulses and mortal realities can be found in Pork as well. Here we see a large mass of flesh. His handling of the subject highlights its sensual qualities, built up in a variety of tones and painterly strokes, varying light washes, long luxurious brushstrokes, and dense passages of thick red and pink oil paint, suggesting the curdled surface of the meat. As such, the viewer is torn between the seductive quality of the paint and the blunt, deliberately off-putting declaration of "pork", written in English in the flesh. As the enfant terrible of the Chinese avant-garde, Liu has focused on the uncontrollable impulses that run counter to "civilized", decorous society. Central to art is the notion of carnal flows, here fully materialized in the blunt exploration of unkempt corporal flesh, the "meat" of life that is quite literally at once nourishing and repugnant to our senses.

Liu has extended his practice to include such subjects as landscape, flowers, and businessmen, subjects that achieve a curious equivalence in his hands. He has stated, "People, animals, landscapes are all the same; they all have a soul; that's why I melt them together in my paintings." In his highly abstracted Landscape 4 canvas featured here (Lot 1336), no human figure is present, lending the work a somber tone. The work nonetheless bristles with very human emotions and explosive brushstrokes. For Liu, depictions of landscape are not occasions for pastoral escapism or communing with our better nature - or, if it is, our better nature is one full of repressed, unmediated and often embarrassing desires. As such, his natural scenery draws associations with Adam and Eve, their fate in the mortal world determined by the consumption of the forbidden fruit. Indeed, for Liu, even the "natural world" is contagious, and contact with it inevitably unleashes crude haptic realities.

Much of our response to Liu's work is driven by his provocative, deliberately gruesome subjects, but on occasion he shifts his technique so that we might also appreciate the great painterly virtuosity that goes into his works as well. This is especially the case with his portraits of men and the works on paper featured here. In his depictions of suited businessmen, Liu returns to taunt recognized social forms with his teasing and irreverent painterly practice. In his canvas Face from 2001 (Lot 1338), Liu uses a muted palette of whites, grays, and black, and the play of aggregated washes and strong, dry, sketchy brush strokes to produce this form, at once ghostly and comic. As with You Like Me, Liu is offering a portrait of the subconscious, or rather of a consciousness as it struggles with the demands of social decorum. But rather than the confrontational approach of the earlier work, here his figure seems to hover between being and non-being. His head is disproportionately small compared to his suit, his features cherubic, clownish and half-formed, suggesting an emotional core at once vulnerable and juvenile.

Liu's equivalence of humankind with all other natural forms both philosophic and painterly is evident again in the pairing of his two watercolours, Portrait and Still-life (Lot 1504), wherein the knotty treatment of potatoes - quite literally vegetables that gestate in underground and out of sight - their roots growing like cancers along their surface, is similar to the blistered skin of his figure. Indeed, in these works, we have the opportunity to see Liu's process and technique revealed. The grouping of 20 small sketches featured here (Lot 1503) demonstrate the artist's almost phrenological interest in human character types. At the same time, these small drawings equally display the power of his technique, which, in a few economical strokes of charcoal or pigment, Liu can conjure the full depth of a character and a mood. Here, too, as well as in his watercolors from 2005 (Lot 1505), we see his deep affinity for the works of German Expressionist painters like Otto Dix and George Grosz. Where his small charcoal and pencil sketches, Liu toys with the unconscious expressions - ranging from gluttony, sloth, or simply moral decrepitude - with his works on paper he invokes what might be a trio of family portraits. Here the abnormalities of the figures' features are strangely normalized, reminding us of Liu's core conceit and a central tenet of Cynical Realist painters: their critique of a society in which idealism has been eliminated lends itself to an environment so corrupt and corrupting, that it becomes written into the flesh itself.

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