“There’s a tension in my paintings between the desire to be abstract and the need to borrow from the concrete to convey meaning.” – Liu Ye
A slim girl stands elegantly poised, wearing a black blindfold that obscures her vision. The primly buttoned blouse and skirt suggest a school girl’s demeanor, echoed in the figure’s lithe limbs and childishly large head. Liu Ye is famous for his depiction of Lolita-esque seductresses, and this is the only painting in his entire oeuvre that features a blindfolded figure. Executed on a scale larger than many of his other erotically charged paintings, and widely exhibited and published, Composition with Black, White and Grey is a critically important example of the artist’s interest in the female subject as an expression of innocence, youth and beauty.
In 2000, Liu Ye began to work on an informal series of paintings featuring nymph-like girls and women, often in provocative poses and various states of undress. In Composition with Black, White and Grey, the blindfold that the girl wears is suggestively ambiguous – her inability to see suggests vulnerability, framing her as a submissive subject in the context of the viewer’s gaze. Yet she stands elegantly poised, commanding our attention and respect. In Western culture, the figure of justice is often personified as a blindfolded woman, her inability to see symbolizing her impartiality. In Fragonard‘s Blind Man’s Bluff, the blindfold adds an element of playful eroticism, as the lovers depicted engage in amorous amusement, referencing the concept “love is blind”. However, the blindfold may also indicate vulnerability; Delaroche’s painting The Execution of Lady Jane Grey depicts the central figure as helpless in her blindness, requiring outside guidance as she is led to her fate.
Art critic Karen Smith examines the role that Liu Ye’s muses play in his work, and their relationship to us as the viewer. She writes, “Liu Ye implies that her beauty, great though it is, is fragile, fleeting, and that it is this fragility that induces the impulse to assert, to control and dominate, either using feminine wiles or the whip which he has her carry on occasion. […] Feminists might want to denounce a man who creates and contemplates such images on the charge of being a voyeur, of indulging his own fantasies, but to know Liu Ye is to know his capacity for empathy; he is on his heroine’s side, not against her.” (K. Smith, Liu Ye: Temptations, New York, 2006, p. 6). The subject of this particular composition is not depicted as a victim – instead, a faint smile plays on her rosebud lips, and she appears to step towards us invitingly.
In Composition with Black, White and Grey, we can also see traces of Liu Ye’s meticulous attention to composition, inspired by the work of Piet Mondrian. Fine pencil lines – remnants of the artist’s process – divide the canvas into equal quarters, with the centre of the composition aligned perfectly with the girl’s navel. Liu Ye’s preoccupation with compositional geometry is doubly evident in the title of the painting, which hearkens to Mondrian’s practice of naming his own paintings. In the upper left, we also see the outlines of an unrealized sketch, depicting only the head and torso of another girl holding her hands up to either don or remove the blindfold. While the painting is clearly figurative in nature, there is also an element of abstraction embodied by the simple component shapes that Liu Ye uses to articulate the figure. The sculptural, doll-like quality of her elongated proportions are reminiscent of a Giacometti figure. The grey floor and wall act as a backdrop, making her the focus of our attention, like an actress spotlighted on a stage.
When compared to paintings by Dutch artists such as Van Eyck and Petrus Christus, Liu Ye’s paintings suggest a similar balance between realism and stylization. The figures are slightly stiff in their idealized poses, but overall the work exudes a feeling of compositional balance and emotional honesty. Art critic Zhu Zhu pointed out the element that links Liu Ye’s work to that of both Vermeer and Mondrian: “Once your gaze passes through surface boundaries, you can discover what is consistent in their works: timelessness, tranquillity, and purity – to an extent we could characterize it as a personal mysticism. It resists disorderly representations and the tug of literalism; it attempts to dance in unison with inherent rhythms of the cosmos, to pursue an ultimate spiritual order.” (Z. Zhu, “Only One Gram”, Liu Ye Catalogue Raisonne, Ostfildern, 2015, p. 28).
The strong narrative nature of Liu Ye’s erotically charged paintings may be regarded as explorations of the subconscious – how do we perceive the woman in the painting? Are we the voyeur, the protector, the lover, or the aggressor? As described by Zhu Zhu, “Seen as a metaphor of external reality, we can say that it points to a growth environment in which desire and reverie are suppressed. Understood from a different angle, we can regard it as a dramatic expression of one man’s inner conflicts.” (ibid. p. 25). The tension between innocence and adulthood in Liu Ye’s work challenges the viewer to consider their own role in relation to the work, exploring our innermost emotions and desires.