Important European Private Collection

(Chinese, B. 1964)
Composition with Black, White and Grey
signed in Chinese; signed 'Liuye' in Pinyin; dated '06' (lower right)
oil on canvas
160 x 140 cm. (62 7/8 x 55 1/8 in.)
Painted in 2006
Kunstmuseum Bern, Liu Ye, Bern, Switzerland, 2007 (illustrated, p. 101).
Asia Art Center Co. Ltd. (Beijing), The Power of the Universe: The Frontier of Contemporary Chinese Art, exh. cat., Beijing, China, 2007 (illustrated, p. 145).
Dumont Buchverlag, China Art Book, Cologne, Germany, 2007 (illustrated, p. 245).
MUMOK - Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, China-Facing Reality, exh. cat., Vienna, Austria, 2007-2008 (illustrated, pp. 60 & 159).
Sperone Westwater Gallery, Liu Ye: Leave Me in the Dark, exh. cat., New York, USA, 2009 (illustrated, p. 25).
Zao Li & The Research Center of the Chinese Modern and Contemporary Art, China: Contemporary Art, China Youth Publishing Group, Beijing, China, 2009 (illustrated, p. 91).
Cologne, Germany, Liu Ye, Johnen + Sch?ttle Galerie, 2007.
Vienna, Austria, ChinawFacing Reality, MUMOK (Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig), 2007-2008.
New York, USA, Sperone Westwater Gallery, Liu Ye: Leave Me in the Dark, 7 November-19 December 2009.

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Lot Essay

Among contemporary Chinese artists, Liu Ye became best known less for his overtly politicised social commentaries and more for his wistful, dream-like paintings, full of deeply personal myths and fairy tales. While his paintings of child-soldiers in farcical scenarios may have offered satirical commentary on the uncertainty and folly inherent to China's post-Mao embrace of modernisation and consumerism, the overwhelmingly dominant quality of Liu's works has always his highly personal interests and obsessions. Layered over with his disciplined investigation into form, art, history, aesthetics, and philosophy, standing before a work of Liu's, the viewer feels first and foremost that they are privy to a highly private and complex enactment of dreams and fantasies.

In Composition with Black, White and Grey (Lot 37) from 2006, Liu presents a monumental tribute to his decades-long obsessions with form, colour abstraction, and desire. It is one of his most thorough and complex renderings of these pursuits. Typically working in intimate scales, displaying a precise play of colour and form, here Liu has taken his themes to, for him, an uncommonly large scale, luring the viewer in with his tantalising economy of form and technique. The painting does not complete Liu's inquiries; like a jazz musician or symphony conductor, Liu conjures powerful variation on his long-held concerns at the intersection of aesthetics and expression.
Against a two distinct slate grey fields of colour is a svelte young female figure, standing innocently at the center of the composition. Dressed formally in a pleated black skirt and white fitted blouse, her hair tied simply, her cheeks are warmly toned and lightly flushed. She has the appearance of a Catholic schoolgirl or a young teacher, a sense that is reinforced by the two-tone blackboard grey of the canvas. She steps delicately forward, unsure of her circumstances or environment. She is vulnerable and yet knowing, as if this is the first act in a game, and she moves tentatively forward in search of her co-conspirator.

At the same time, Liu also painted a number of canvases celebrating eminent female figures of Chinese popular culture, including actresses and performers such as Ruan Lingyu, Teresa Teng and Eileen Chang. As with Xiao Hong and Plum Blossoms (Lot 429), Liu imbues these figures with a beauty that is as eternal as it is transient. Here Liu renders his subject lovingly, her features are fine and delicate, softly modeled in warm tones with rosy cheeks. The red of her cheeks is echoed by the stronger tones of her lips and the scarf around her head and neck. She is set against an achingly perfect blue sky, and Liu takes the composition to the brink of kitsch in its unapologetic sentimentality. She appears classical, eternal, her hair may give her a vaguely nostalgic air, but she appears equally timeless. This eternal quality is both off-set and highlighted by the branch of plum blossoms just above her head in the upper left of the composition. In full bloom, their petals are just beginning to fall off their branches. The five petals of the plum blossom in Chinese culture symbolize the "five blessings" of a long and healthy life. The plum itself symbolizes the first month of the lunar calendar. As the petals of the flower fall gently from the branch, Liu's figure is then suddenly located both in time and steeped in symbolism, her head wrapped on a brisk day at the onset of spring; beaming warmth, health, and beauty, she suggests the dawn of a new spring and the passing of winter. In this way, Liu contrasts the expansive, timeless qualities of love and beauty with the inevitable passing of the seasons, of time, and the frail poignancy of trying to capture it in time.

Women have featured in Liu's works throughout his career. They appear as cherubic foils or co-conspirators to Liu's own self-image-as-child, angel or sailor (Fig. 2 & 3 ). They appear as Madonnas as well as muse (Fig. 2). Here even the figure's understated pose, the delicacy of her gesture, her arms falling to her side with her wrists turned out at sharp angles, echo the ballerina figures of Liu's satirical images of post-communist fairy tales a decade earlier (Fig. 3). At the same time, the shallow space of the canvas is a compositional trope Liu has employed throughout his career. On the one hand, it gives the canvas a powerful formal regularity reflecting Liu's love and study of Mondrian, Bauhaus, and De Stijl painters (Fig. 4). As such, he toys with our engagement with form and content, as our gaze lingers not only on the figure, but on the liquid pools of color that surround her. At the same time, this structure gives the composition a deliberately stage-like quality, highlighting Liu's own ambivalence over representation and the notion that seeing-is-believing. His works have always walked a tightrope between that which is what is seen and what is hidden, sometimes with the literal inclusion of theatrical curtains.

With Composition with Black, White and Grey, Liu discovers new territory between these themes. The figure's sexuality is present but hidden beneath polite everyday attire. She is blindfolded, making our visual consumption of her form a voyeuristic, guilty pleasure. As such, Liu seems to be toying with the eroticised relationship between the teacher and student, putting us in the position of the naughty child-voyeur. He sublimates the figure's sexuality into the title, coyly asking us to believe this is merely a formal study in tonality as we find in the somber works of Mark Rothko or Malevich (Fig. 5 & 6). The viewer is tempted to submit to the sumptuous pleasures of the artist's paint, the pools of colour and the delicate balance of form. Our only relief from the pools of grey and the near monochromatic attire of the girl is in her flushed cheeks and deep red, slightly parted lips, a tension that further highlights the guilty pleasures of the work. Indeed, the formal rigor and symmetry of the composition is upset by the figure herself: the asymmetry of her hair and the box of the blindfold, the subtle differentiation of gesture between her left and right hands, the left leg stepping slowly forward, the slow dance of pleats in her skirt, the lovingly rendered blues in the shadows of her shirt. The sensuality of the paint both compliments and contends with the sensuality of the figure, suggesting the eternal tension of the artist between form and content, between philosophical abstraction and corporal realities. Stripped of his usual cues, Liu offers a direct exploration of desire, of the female figure as object, inspiration, and muse, and allows her to threaten the undoing of his usual cool and rigorously composed canvases. By presenting this deceptively vulnerable figure, stepping cautiously into an abyss of colour, he begs the question as to whether it is the viewer or the viewed who is blindfolded.

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