Liu Wei (B. 1965)
signed 'Liu Wei' in Chinese and Pinyin; dated '1999-2001' (lower middle); inscribed in Chinese and English (middle)
oil on canvas
200 x 150 cm. (78 3/4 x 59 in.)
Painted in 1999-2001

Lot Essay

Liu Wei is extremely difficult to define as an artist. He initially became known for his series Revolutionary Family, Do You Like Meat? and Smoking No Smoking, as well as his position as a representative of Cynical Realism; later, he perspicaciously left the Political Pop movement and, choosing another path, positioned himself wholly in the embrace of traditional culture. The bright colours and unique brushwork of Flowers of Evil are visually shocking, while his Landscape series is rendered with breathtaking poise. Liu emphasises the expression of his own inner sensations, then uses his own personal visual language to move the viewer.
Untitled (Lot 57), which depicts flowers as its subject matter, was completed in 2005. The brushwork is relaxed and free, and two stems of large pink flowers at the centre are rendered in the feverish strokes for which Liu Wei became known in the 1990s. Distinct from the red of his Cynical Realist phase, the shade of pink that the artist has perfected through the depiction of pork, human faces, and watermelon flesh guides the viewer directly toward an understanding and experience of lust and rot. Relatively tight and intricate handling of the flowers results in a sense of solid and saturated weight, while the wantonly applied green of the stems and leaves makes them come alive; the few powerful stems erupting at the centre left of the composition suit well the realm Ni Zan describes: "My brush is free as it paints the reeds only for the feeling of freedom in my heart." At the same time, the artist uses relatively thin dark green pigment to layer the background rinse of the painting which flows naturally downward. He used a wet brush to paint the green leaves on the surface, allowing the pigments of the leaves and the background to run together before rubbing them smooth and leaving behind a sense of vitality. At the top of the flowers an uncountable number of white lines and spots gush forth, which are then organically inserted into a background verging on ink black. This kind of "organic" technique requires the artist to work fast to respond to where these lines should be placed, recalling Cy Twombly's approach (Fig. 1).
Another eulogy to flowers, Qian Xuan's masterful Yuan dynasty scroll Eight Flowers (Fig. 2), currently in the collection of the Palace Museum in Beijing, contains in its closing section an tribute from the Yuan master Zhao Mengfu: "Eight Flowers by Qian Xuan has a style that resembles the works of the imperial painting academy of the Southern Song, but its use of hue and charm is extremely unique. From then on, the artist indulged himself in alcohol, which caused the problem of his trembling hands, and he could no longer create such a great work. The young painters of his hometown tried to imitate his style, but they turned out to be simply imitating his work. This is why Eight Flowers is so precious." Zhao notes that the painter drank for inspiration and that his painting has a quality of unpredictability that cannot be reproduced even if one were to consciously try. In Liu Wei's practice, too, alcohol is an indispensable source of inspiration. Living in Xiaobo Village in the Songzhuang suburb of Beijing, he eats well, drinks well, indulges in games and entertainment, grows vegetables, drinks tea, gets close to nature and generally lives the life of a hermit in the city. His paintings are expansive, free, and full of that element of chance, but they do not lack precision. In Untitled we see his mastery of the moisture of pigment, the time at which colours overlap, the speed of the brush, the consideration of negative space, and other aspects that require an accurate grasp of technique, energy, emotion, and timing. Combining the ability to unite body and mind and a certain artistic refinement, it is as if Liu Wei breaks through time and place to harmonize with Sanyu in the early 20th century (Fig. 3).
Liu Wei once boldly removed himself from the overwhelmingly intense currents of Chinese contemporary art, taking the initiative to abandon the popular styles of the time in order to quietly seek his own path far from spurious trends. His absorption of traditional Chinese art and the western masters has influenced all aspects of his practice, and the exploration of material and research into technique have given him a sensitive and free approach to the brush which has become his instrument. His ability to approach nature and capture seemingly insignificant details of life has given him the ability to "see heaven in a wildflower". This corresponds precisely with the ancient Chinese requirement that art "learn from nature and feel from the heart". This is the way. These two delicate and charming flowers in a space as dark as ink are fine works that remind us to: "Never lament the vanishing of the moon; there is always a lingering indistinct fragrance."

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