Christie's Spring 2011 Day Sale features a collection of six oil oeuvres of Liu Ye, which epitomizes the artist's evolving themes and forms of representation throughout his creative career. Covering his works from 1993, the German period, to the "female portraits" circa 2002, and to the "fairy tales series" shown in Liu Ye's 2005 solo exhibition, this collection serves as a concise summary of the artistic voyage of Liu Ye, and the evolution and revolution of his creative endeavor.
Interviewer: "You work is not as optimistic as it appears to be. There's always lurking a sense of terror underneath it."
Liu Ye: "Who can possibly take a firm grip of their fates? Look at Ruan Lingyu, Zhou Xuan and Eileen Chang."
After 2002, a series of portraits featuring eminent Chinese ladies, such as Ruan Lingyu, Teresa Teng and Eileen Chang, was bred. Zhou Xuan is also one of the series. The lives of all these women were equally tragic, and Zhou Xuan in the work represents the life-long affliction of these admirable, though ill-fated, females. Zhou Xuan was the top diva of China in the 1930s and 40s. Her songs, particularly her vocals, were so well received in the country and abroad that she was dubbed "the Golden Throat". The film Street Angels, starring Zhou Xuan, was one of the "100 Greatest Chinese-language films", and her song, "the Wandering Songstress", broke a million hearts. But the gorgeous stage could hardly curtail her melancholy. Just as the life-long search for her natural parents went astray, her adopted parents never ceased their extortions; she failed thrice in marriage, and her third husband ran off with all her savings. She died, eventually, of dementia. Her life reminds us of how harsh destiny is, and how little one can do about it: even for such a beautiful, intelligent lady like Zhou Xuan destiny pays no mercy. Creation, for Liu Ye, is always a reflection on life and emotion, especially those universal, essential sentiments. He considers these sentiments more influential than political concepts and ideologies as they call for a rumination of human existence. Zhou Xuan expresses such rumination through image and visual experience. Also apparent in the work is Liu's contemplation of aesthetics, for which he attempts to interpret the beauty of tragedy and the dialectical relation between sadness and happiness. Patterned after a photograph Zhou gave her followers as a gift, the work expresses Zhou Xuan almost like a character in fairy tale. She is, in Liu's narration, lovely and blissful; her smile is portrayed, emphatically, as a sweet and infantile one, and her expression rich and healthy. The image is as perfect as what she was on the screen. The harsh contrast between the beauty and the vulnerability of her life intensifies our remorse and reflection over existence. The way Liu Ye narrates tragedy and sorrow by humor and mirth seems to have registered, at the same time, the aesthetical principle of Chinese literature, "to accentuate sorrow through gaiety", and the Aristotelian philosophy of the beauty of tragedy. "The harder the audience laughed, the more miserable the character seemed," said Liu Ye, when he recalled watching Charles Chaplin's City Lights, a comic film about the tragic story of a nobody, in his childhood. Through his study on Chinese and Western art and movie, Liu Ye grasps a profound understanding of such dialectical relation between sadness and happiness and the principle of aesthetical expression. It is in Zhou Xuan that he employs these techniques of representation to communicate a more intense sentiment. The color green permeates through the whole work; dots of jade green are tinted and spread on the brows and the canthus of Zhou, and even on her soft, white skin. In the Chinese saying "a boy of despondent green", the color green describes youthfulness and yet intimates the despondency one feels as youth vanishes. Under the brush of Liu Ye the jade-green Zhou Xuan implies "beautiful sadness", and the her image, depicted as an imitation of the original black-and-white photograph, emanates a sense of archaic, misty and distant fantasy. Liu Ye seldom uses colors other than red, yellow and blue. Among all the publications available, Zhou Xuan is the only work that puts on green as a primary tone.
Painted in 1999, Untitled (Lot 1310) is a twin work of Bleach! , a piece presented in our evening sale. They share the same theme and images, but vary in color. Drawing from his teenage experience and memory of drama shows, Liu Ye models the pictorial frame of this work after the setting of theaters and movies. The background, largely a curtain in variegated blue, materializes the spotlight effect of a theater, forecasting the stirring plot of a play about the sorrow and joy of life. The picture is imbued with a vivid, lighthearted and bustling atmosphere, tinted with a sense of humor, which as a whole is rare among Liu's works. The spotlight effect seems to have inserted a circle into the squarish canvas; this can be an imitation of the round Tondo art, or the way of representation used at the end of silent movies. The contrast between square and circle is an application, as well as a remodeling, of Mandarin's geometric principle of creating spatial imagination. Hidden behind the narrative theme of the work is the artist's logical line of thought about space and composition. The characters in the picture are all invented, and Liu Ye seems to have based this invention upon the self-portrayed images he created during his stay in Germany. These characters, wearing sunglasses and poking out their tongues, seem at once mysterious and saucy. They are the chubby cartoonist figures, with round face, short body, red cheek, and in general innocent. Simplicity, innocence and naivety - these are exactly the impressions we usually receive from the art of Liu Ye. For him a man grows and grows old, but the changes are subject only to his appearance. The essence of human nature is childlike innocence. "Every second of my life I am living in the world of fairy tales," Liu said. His characters, naturally, are born with a childish face, and signify an attitude towards thinking and getting through to the world. These personified images become the symbols of Liu Ye in the same way as the laughing men of Yue Minjun, the bald men of Fang Lijun and the masks of Zeng Fanzhi. All these symbols are metaphors for what we see in contemporary China, and what we are as a man that exists.