(Chinese, B. 1965)
No Smoking
signed in Chinese; signed 'Liu Wei' in Pinyin; dated '1998'; titled 'No Smoking' in English (lower right); inscribed in English (four corners of the canvas)
oil on canvas
170 x 170 cm. (66 7/8 x 66 7/8 in.)
Painted in 1998
Sotheby's New York, 20 September 2006, Lot 131
Christie's London, 21 October 2008, Lot 433
Acquired from the above by the present owner

Lot Essay

During the early Post-Mao Period, Chinese economy and culture were undergoing unprecedented rapid changes. With China opening its door to the world, many heated debates were conducted in the mid-80's regarding the direction of Chinese modernization and which cultural attributes were more befitting for a modern nation. After the Tiananmen Incident on June 1989, these unrealistic and irrelevant discussions took a drastic turn downward. Many avant-garde artists hence began to create works that were more private and metaphorical. Emphasising the emotional and psychological turmoil of this era, these artworks were intended to unveil the realistic circumstances and impulses in everyday life, making this era a marking point in Chinese art history for a breakthrough in tradition with radical progression. Following this period of changes, Liu Wei is a one of the leading artists coming from this new generation Chinese avant-garde. Liu graduated from China Central Academy of Fine Arts, Department of Print-Making in 1989. In the early 1990s, he became a part of the first wave of Chinese artists to exhibit internationally. At the time, he and Fang Lijun were referred to by the Chinese art critic Li Xianting as the leading figures in China's Cynical Realism style in the early 1990s. As one of the first Chinese artists to exhibit internationally, Liu has gained recognition for his unique and noteworthy creative vernacular.

Liu's art is an indicator of the values of the post-1990s Chinese generation in the rapidly changing China, and reflects the political, economic, and cultural changes and reconstructions happening in the society. Having gained recognition in the early 1990s with his works of the Cynical Realism style, Liu has always remained conscious to not fall into a stereotypical rut, particularly when various changes were taking place during the mid-century. Affected by these changes, Liu's expressive lines also transformed from being clearly defined to being ambiguous, from realistic to impressionistic, and from restrained to being liberated. Toward the end of the 1990s, Liu's art began to take on a Popi (suggestive of the English word ennui) direction, whereby he no longer concentrated on politics and ceased to construct illusive efforts through criticism. He began to emphasize on the realistic circumstances in everyday life, as to illustrate the psychological and emotional impulses that have been customarily oppressed in the traditional Chinese culture.
Liu's series, No Smoking, was created in 1998-1999. The symbol of the skulls, the imagery of the pink tone, and the English texts are the key stylistic features of this artwork series, and they have also come to form the creative trademark in Liu's works of 1998-1999. Liu does not make art based on any preferred subjects and does not follow a specific set of guidelines. He expresses with an instinctive artistic sense, and with shifts in creative contents taking place every one to two years, the audience is still able to appreciate a stylistic shift demonstrated through his instinctively created artworks. The piece up for auction, No Smoking (Lot 34), is an exceptional piece from the entire series. The bizarre portrayal of the swollen flesh is Liu's intentional depiction of the aestheticism of decay, and in order to render the sense of decomposing beauty, the distinction between the skin and flesh must be amalgamated. A pink tone is used to fill the entire panting, with intentional drippings of paint on the canvas, which is the first step executed by the artist to capture the audience's attention. The blistering lips and swollen fingers are the foretelling signs of flesh decay. The narrow unfocused eyes have a look of indifference to worldly matters, and the way the cigarette hangs from the mouth makes a perfect annotation for the cynical anti-social image. The mundane subject is used to illustrate the feelings of spiritual depravity and disillusionment deriving from capitalism and consumerism in the rapidly changing China.

No Smoking is a highly satirical piece, and through the distorted and abstracted image, Liu reflects through his art a sense of social degeneration, and his work reminds one of the Parisian Expressionist artist from the early 20th Century, Chaïm Soutine. Soutine is known for his paintings of bloody animal carcasses, and dismembered cow carcasses or animal corpses were hung in his studio to help him achieve precision in his paintings. Soutine depicted the psychological states of the characters in his paintings through distorted poses and gradually abstracted expressive forms, making his art iconic Expressionism (Fig. 1). Expressionism primarily focuses on the psychological states of people in facing critical social climates, and is full of metaphors of loneliness, taboos, pessimism and demented states, with a preference for using people as subjects. Liu, having shifted from his earlier approach of Cynical Realism, opted for Expressionism in this painting. Skulls appear repeatedly in the image along with English words of 'No Smoking' and 'No fire', as they are Liu's attempts to transform visual icons into artistic vernaculars. Because of these elements, this painting, No Smoking created in 1998, is one of the rare pieces by Liu that emphasizes his Expressionistic approaches, making it even more unusual and valuable.

The 1990s mark an important artistic transition for Liu. No Smoking, created in the later part of the century, embodies elements of Expressionism, and is an important iconic artwork representing the artist's creative shift. Creative themes expressed in Chinese contemporary art are often derived from the changes in the Chinese political state, capitalistic revolutionary direction, or the corruptive fall with social consumerism. Furthermore, Liu also strives to convey his internal thoughts to the audience through his unique personal renditions. As a Chinese contemporary avant-garde artist, with the overturn of aestheticism through the decaying body, Liu has expressed his objective emotions in the midst of a chaotic time in the society. Through his art, he has communicated his perspectives for the contemporary society, and the audience is able to experience the insecure, hectic, and overwhelming emotions and power depicted in his paintings.

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