LIU YE
Faces of New China: An Important Private Collection
LIU YE

Details
LIU YE
(Chinese, B. 1964)
Artist Self-Portrait
dated '94'; signed in Chinese; singed 'YE' in Pinyin (lower right)
oil on canvas
199 x 171 cm. (78 1/2 x 67 1/4 in.)
Painted in 1994
Provenance
Christie's Hong Kong, 26 November 2006, Lot 384
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Literature
Taube Gallery, Liu Ye, exh. cat., Berlin, Germany, 1995 (illustrated, plate 16).
Exhibited
Berlin, Germany, Taube Gallery, Liu Ye Solo Exhibition, 1995.

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Lot Essay

Self-Portrait, painted in 1994 when Liu Ye was studying in Germany, exemplifies the three core elements of his early creative efforts - the concept of self-portraiture, allusions to art history, and the aesthetics of composition. These are the elements that by and large summarize the artist's later creations, foreshadowing the trajectory of his artistic development. "Self-portrait" is a major theme in Western classicism; artists, through self-portraiture, enter into their own creations, scrutinizing their own bodies and minds as if an outsider, and thereby endeavor to represent their own mentality and their view of their own personal and historic circumstances. Reflecting on his period of study in Germany, Liu Ye has noted that he was then "more concentrated on the self" and focused mainly on his interior life in his art. This monumental "self-portrait" then is the result of an extended period of study and both personal and art historical reflection. Overwhelmed by a serene, classical ambience, Self-Portrait depicts the "Self" against a white background, communicating an indescribable feeling of devastation and emptiness, symbolizing the man's existence juxtaposed against a vast, boundless world. The figure is pointing a pistol directly ahead of him with great solemnity. Liu, apparently, is very fond of this imagery; it appears again after 2000, featuring a little girl holding a sword (Fig.1), appearing like a child protagonist in fairy tales, fighting against uncertainty with great courage and determination.
The Fabled Self
Embracing the visual and narrative form of fairytales, these become the frame through which Liu has placed his practice, his reflections on aesthetics, philosophy, and art, as well as this self-portrait. The impetus behind Liu's penchant for child-like forms is multi-faceted. On the one hand, it stems from his love of cartoons and fairytales, believing that it is a form of expression which rivals the traditional arts. As a popular form, he also views it as a direct medium through which to explore fundamental philosophical concerns, offering the viewer a space of reflection not as accessible in more high-minded imagery. 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." At the same time, unlike other Chinese artists who focus on the political significance of colour and its associations, Liu opts to stress the visual and affective associations of childhood triggered by the colour red. To Liu, he grew up "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 accepted them at face value. Drawing the red sun in red is, for Liu, an act of memory and nostalgia, rather than a political act, allowing him to explore his visual experience in childhood once again. This highlights a significant feature in Liu's works, namely, the emphasis of personal feelings and visual experience. This, too, highlights the idiosyncrasy of Liu's works, which represent neither a political censure as is so typical of academician paintings nor the social criticism so adored by the new generation. Even amid political or social events, Liu still prefers to emphasize his personal experiences, reflecting upon society from his own distinct perspective, threading a uniquely humanistic and personal approach throughout his work.
The Beauty of Severity
The white wall, the celadon cement floor and the dark shadow on the right establish a composition of stark tonal contrasts. Liu's technique, and inclination, of mimicking theatrical lighting effects comes from his childhood experience of and love of theater and film. The work is also evocative of Johannes Vermeer's compositional tropes (Fig. 6): the use of subdued and cold colors, like gray, white and green, which Liu adopts regularly in his early "Germanperiod" works, serves to divide the canvas into different geometric shapes. Using colors to compose the scene and set the mood, Liu's aesthetics also stem from his study of Piet Mondrian (Fig. 7). Liu's works often reveal the trail of art history, embodying a juxtaposition and dialogue between different aesthetic principles. The iridescent white wall in Self-Portrait, for example, visualizes the dimensionality of real space in a way akin to Vermeer's, and lays out a geometric appeal reminiscent of Kasimir Malevich's White on White . As such, the work interprets classicism from a structuralist perspective, which stimulates a more profound artistic reflection. Liu as an adolescent spent considerable time pondering principles of design while attending design school, a practice that etched in his mind the rationality and precision needed in executing his paintings. His works, for this reason, showcase an uncompromising control over pictorial balance; the geometric shapes and composite influences hidden beneath his fairytale-like scenery are always a reflection on the "rational honesty" and "beauty of severity" that the artist exalts.
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