American filmmaker Oliver Stone has been an avid and adventuresome collector of contemporary art for over twenty years. From the earliest of his filmmaking career, Mr. Stone's projects brought him to Asia, giving him access not only to locations suitable for his films, but also to the earliest stages of the breathtaking modernization projects that would propel the continent into the 21st century and set the stage for the most unprecedented breaks with traditional art and culture in recent history. Asian contemporary art became a cornerstone of his collecting interests, and with an auteur's eye, he sought out some of the finest examples from China's burgeoning avant-garde. Including paintings by Zhang Xiaogang, Liu Wei, Tang Zhigang, and Gu Wenda, Mr. Stone gravitated to works by artists who in turn have proved to be visionaries in their fields, artists whose works point to and precipitated powerful new and influential directions in Chinese contemporary art. Highlighted by major works from the period between 1992 and 1995, these paintings from the collection of Oliver Stone feature artists who emphasized subjective, intuitive and personal visions, asserting intimate and poetic experiences above the official narrative of Chinese history, creating a radical new vision of contemporary Chinese experience.
Following the first years of reform in the post-Mao period, China quickly entered a period of unprecedented economic and cultural transformation. Restrictions to foreign materials loosened, and by the mid-1980s, the nation was swept up in debates surrounding the direction of Chinese modern culture, culture befitting a modern nation-state. These utopic and euphoric debates took a decided turn after the Tian'anmen Square tragedy in Beijing in June of 1989. As a result, many avant-garde artists took a turn towards more personal and oblique visions, highlighting their own subjective and often disillusioned states, attempting to reveal conditions and impulses beneath the surface of everyday life, contributing to one of the most radical breaks with tradition in Chinese art history.
Figurative Painting and the Chinese Avant-Garde
One of the most striking and abiding aspects of the contemporary Chinese avant-garde has been its investment in the figurative tradition. For artists who were raised under communism, with its ideologically-laden strictures on visual culture, the opportunity to appropriate the human figure to suit one's own critical and artistic stance has been one of the most fundamental and liberating aspects of the recent era. Numerous contemporary Chinese artists - including Zhang Xiaogang, Liu Wei and Tang Zhigang - have placed the human figure at the center of their practice, adapting its rich and complex art historical legacy and cultural relevance to suit their own formal and critical experimentations.
One trend in the liberation of the figure includes a hyper-realist attention to the material world and to the body itself. This hyper-realist attention to sensuous surfaces becomes a vehicle for exploring reality and perception, conscious and unconscious impulses, tradition and modernity. This impulse to reveal more "true" aspects of experience through figuration is apparent in many of the central figures of the avant-garde. For Zhang Xiaogang, it led him to his somber and elegiac "Bloodlines" series. For Cynical Realist painter Liu Wei, this led to reckon with his own personal relationships in his exuberantly surrealistic, iconoclastic and often eroticized paintings. Liu Wei's magnification of observed details and attention to textures and surfaces is a strategy to reveal alternative, subconscious realities. - Liu Wei
Liu's magnificent Swimmers (lot 503) was one of several works by the artist to appear in the Sao Paolo Biennale in 1994. These ten canvases - featuring eight swimmers and two "Bathing Beauties" - represent one of the most significant public statements of Liu's early career. For Liu and his contemporaries, the tragedy of the Tian'anmen Square incident, followed by the hollow ideals of consumerism sweeping China, resulted in a kind of generational malaise. Indeed, the profoundly non-conformist spirit of Liu's and his contemporaries' works has many parallels with the historical circumstances and critical disposition of Berlin Dada painters such as Otto Dix or George Grosz. Deeply disillusioned by the political and spiritual corruption of his times, these artists' surrealist caricatures of his contemporaries fixated on the degenerate moral character of their subjects and their actions; even sympathetic subjects were treated with an eye towards the inevitable corruption of the soul and its manifestation on the mortal body.
Similar impulses can be found in the best of Liu's early works, in which Liu turned to his own formative experiences, the environment of his youth, and immediate family relationships to express his concerns with the direction of the country. In Swimmers, Liu offers a phantasmagoric scene, almost giddy with its own knowing provocation. The painting taunts the viewer with its wanton, brazen eroticism. A nude female figure overwhelms the canvas and the viewer. Her body is contorted awkwardly as she spins in the water, her extremities bending in improbable directions. Out of the corner of her eyes, her sly gaze meets our own, and she sticks her tongue out, mocking the viewer. Typical of Liu's Swimmers series, a male figure - in this case one bearing a striking resemblance to Chairman Mao - makes a coy and awkward appearance in the composition, his head lurching out from the upper right corner. Also playfully sticking out his tongue, he plays second fiddle to the more dominant female figure who seems in any case to pay him no mind, an irreverent reversal of the conventional power dynamics in Socialist Realist painting.
Liu Wei's father was a senior general in the military, and from his earliest works, Liu uses his own relationship with his father to express his non-conformist disposition. In the ironically titled Revolutionary Family (lot 504) from 1992, also from the collection of Oliver Stone, Liu depicts himself and his father in a seemingly innocuous moment that is nonetheless ripe with unrest. His father appears in the extreme left of the composition, anxiously smiling at the viewer; Liu himself is the more central figure, but he appears having literally turned his back on his father. He stares vaguely out the window with a slightly inane, borderline wolfish grin, distracted by thoughts and urges that drift towards the luscious peony on the window sill and the blue skies beyond. Already Liu is subtly transforming the mundane into an investigation into moral character and mortal impulses. He has begun especially to treat the flesh of the body with a kind of exactitude meant to exaggerate the viewer's visceral reaction to the painting, highlighting the psychological tensions and urges that underlie even the most innocuous of circumstances and relationships. Liu is rebelling against his father as a person and as a symbol, the representative of a lugubrious bureaucratic state out of touch with the desires of youth.
If Liu is developing these themes in a minor key in Revolutionary Family, they are developed into a full-blown symphony in Swimmers. The figures emerge from Liu's meticulous brushstrokes with a hyper-sensuousness that veers intentionally towards the repugnant. Every strand of the figures' hair is defined. The color of the water is the unnatural turquoise of chlorine-filled swimming pools. The waves lap gently over the female figure, and an equally sensuous peony floats over her right shoulder. Where Zhang's Bloodlines series represents a reckoning of the past and understanding its effect on the present, Liu's Swimmers represents a full-blown rejection of the relevance of the past. Images of Mao's famous swim down the Yangtze River in 1966, surrounded by other political figures and 5,000 supporters, would be extremely familiar to Chinese audiences, as well as the propaganda posters of Mao encouraging swimming as the best of athletic sports, embodying for him the struggle of man against nature. Understood within this context, Liu's updated swimmers are far from the ideology of a relatively obscure athletic doctrine of the Cultural Revolution. Rather than embodying the ideals of health and exercise, the work is an image of degenerate and flagrant sexuality. Liu invokes those heady images but paints instead a sensational, almost claustrophobically explicit fantasy of his own making. His highly fraught, Freudian view of his relationship with his father is expanded to incorporate all that he stood for ideologically and historically.
As the enfant terrible painter of his generation, Liu is less interested in the authority of the past than in the psychological, emotional, and physical urges that have been otherwise repressed in the long history of Chinese aesthetic culture. Similar to George Grosz's use of psychological details to announce social ills, Liu Wei's magnification of observed details and attention to textures and surfaces is a strategy to reveal alternative, subconscious realities. His exquisite technical skills render bodies and materials so meticulously to seem obsessive, crude, and almost repugnant, a juxtaposition that reveals a cynical view of the aestheticization of Chinese traditional culture and its suppression of subjective feelings and desire. Liu's reversal of this trend embraces the subjective through his own hyper-aestheticization of the flesh, a polarity that indexes Liu's own view of his rapidly shifting contemporary reality, one that instigates unsettling, chaotic, and potentially uncontrollable feelings and forces.