Liu Wei is the enfant terrible of China's Cynical Realist movement. His earliest and best known canvases, like Swimmers '94 No. 2, were intended to shock, as Liu pursued what he referred to as the "new blasphemy". Like his contemporary and fellow Cynical Realist Fang Lijun - with whom Liu had his first exhibition in Beijing in 1992 - Liu works are driven by the loss of idealism and psychological malaise experienced by his generation. Works by the Cynical Realists often contain figures in scenes of apparently carefree abandonment, but their pleasure is always undermined by a gnawing feeling of dissolute boredom. For Liu, this tension is developed between his training as a painter, based in natural realism, and the carnality, gluttony and abjectness expressed in his elaboration of surfaces. Liu remains exceptional among Chinese oil painters for developing into a semi-abstract, expressionist style, drawing from a wide range of Western and Chinese artistic sources, and using a select repertoire of favorite subjects - women, businessmen, dogs, and flowers - to develop a rich and varied total painting surface. These works quickly made Liu Wei a darling of the international art world, and he made his first splash internationally at the 1994 Sao Paulo International Biennale.
For many Chinese artists in the 1990s, scenes of swimmers became an important motif - an image that embodies simultaneously a temporary and yet tenuous escape. Liu's Swimmers '94 No. 2 is a monumental and exemplary work from this early period. His swimmer is dramatically splayed across the diagonal of the canvas, nearly naked, adrift in a suggestively grosteque spray of sea foam. What appears to be a lotus flower floats near her abdomen, an obvious reference to female sexuality in Chinese symbology. In other works from this period, Liu's semi-realist portraits of children or Communist cadres were full of a perverse irony and distortions. In Swimmers '94 No. 2, Liu subtly indexes his generations' alienation from the idealism of their elders. Mao Zedong was famous for his swim in the Yantze River, taken in 1966, as a display of his health and vitality. Liu's painting invokes that famous swim, but this image denies any grand historical significance. Our anonymous swimmer appears to be in a public pool or crowded beach, and all that remains of the communist legacy is the folded and sinking photograph of a party official.