Faces of New China: An Important Private Collection

(Chinese, B. 1964)
Blue Sea
signed in Chinese; signed 'Liu ye' in Pinyin; dated '98' (lower left)
oil on canvas
170 x 200 cm. (66 3/4 x 78 3/4 in.)
Painted in 1998
Christie's Hong Kong, 27 May 2007, Lot 497
Acquired from the above by the present owner

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Felix Yip
Felix Yip

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Lot Essay

Asian contemporary artists are well-known for their distinctly personal symbolic systems, largely elaborated in figurative and surrealistic tableaus, as with the historical narratives of Zhang Xiaogang or satirical fantasias of Yue Minjun. Another essential and often overlooked aspect of this movement has been the exploration and articulation of abstraction, and abstraction in particular as an expression of particular symbolic, spiritual and philosophic meanings. The works of Liu Ye and Kim Tschang Yeul, in addition to the suite of Cai Guo Qiang works, serve as important pillars for understanding this distinct approach to abstraction.
The imagery of mysterious, enigmatic fairy tales, had, by 1998, already become de rigeur to Liu Ye's art practice. His canvases were often deliberately stage-like in composition, small episodes in complex stories full of allusions and twists, visual conundrums for the viewer to untangle. Liu often played quiet homage to his favorite Western masters in discreet compositional choices. In a work like Blue Sea (Lot 1030) from 1996, Liu Ye's framing devices, the powerful (if slightly off-kilter) horizontal and vertical rhythms of the composition, as well as the palette of solid blues, reds, yellow, and white, are all nods to Piet Mondrian (Fig. 1). The dramatic lighting, and the form of the window frame, further evoke the quiet spirituality of Vermeer. At the same time, the various figures and their props suggest an ambiguous tableau of play-acting, as if this young sailor-angel is being knighted by his mother, as the last gesture before sending him off on a life of adventure, presumably to join the battleship on the horizon. It is with tableaus and children's dramas such as these, or, later, with The Happy Family (Lot 1025), that Liu explored the feelings of adventure and ambivalence that he saw in his contemporary life.
These tropes are well-established by the time of he created Blue Sea in 1998, but, as one of his largest cavases from his early mature period, Liu makes the powerful choice to simplify and reduce the play of his figurative symbols, thereby limiting his narrative clues, and opting instead for a more emotive and philosophical work. Liu Ye's works are notable for his flawless sense of visual harmony and color balance. This is no less true of Blue Sea, but here he removed his usual vertical framing elements, leaving instead a series of solid, stunning horizontal spaces. In the foreground, we have the shallow stage of a ship's deck painted in soft whites and yellows. At the extreme left is the clean red and white striped life preserver; at the extreme right, our young sailor stands in profile, binoculars raised. His features are in dark shadow against the bright light; he seems attentive but relaxed, but we cannot know his expression; we can only know that his Mondrian book is left abandoned behind on the deck. Beyond the deck, a sheer and deep blue ocean rises to the horizon, capped by another military tanker in cobalt blue, barreling steadily forward, with a patchy, steely sky above.
By minimizing his usual pantheon of cherubs and children, eliminating the vertical framing elements, Liu Ye focuses our attention on the steady horizontal recession of the composition, delineated by juxtaposed fields of color. The scale of the painting, coupled with the expanse of fathomless color. In so doing, he heightens his usual sense of mystery not with mysterious symbols and props but with a play between abstraction and figuration. Indeed, Liu's use of shades within a large slab of colour creates a highly textural feel and can be compared to the rectangular colour fields of Mark Rothko (Fig. 2). Both artists harness the mythical powers of colour as an instrument to transcend reality whereby the viewer can become awed by the spiritual feeling of such seemingly infinite depths of space. Spatiality of colour in these compositions conjures and communicates raw human motions of tragedy and ecstasy as basic conditions of existence. The wedges of color balance, compliment, and antagonize each other, stimulating the viewer's perception, creating tensions of containment and expansion. As such, the larger scale of the painting highlights a feeling of emotional intimacy. It is difficult not to see the work as one of Liu Ye's own symbolic self-portraits. His sailor has had his reverie over Mondrian interrupted by external forces, forces that have him suddenly alert to the world around him. Figured in deep shadow, the viewer is equally aware of the overwhelming depths just beyond the guardrail, giving us a feeling of alarm and excitement.
"I have equal passion for fairy tales and philosophy. Fairy tales are full of imagination and sensitivity whereas philosophy requires strict and rational thinking. Fiarytales and philosophy represent to extreme poles of thinking. My paintings roam between these poles, at times more towards one pole and at other times towards the opposite pole. Only some clues, incomplete ones, indicate the cause and effect behind my creative motives. But, can anyone examine his own self inside out?" -Liu Ye
Here Liu Ye has struck a perfect balance between these extremes. The strict balance of the composition in form and color is countered by the powerful and uncontained emotional, spiritual and symbolic associates of the sea. Once again, the core narrative of Liu's canvas is deliberately obscured. What he offers instead is a powerfully emotive snapshot of his tumultuous times, its innocent vulnerability and its limitless potential.

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