Dual Infatuation
Source:Artintern Author:Zhu Zhu Date: 2007-08-02 Size:
Portrait, still life, and landscape—these terms define a classical painter, but for Liu Ye their use is for self-interpretation. This one-man exhibition entitled “Infatuation” assembles nine of his recent works.

 Liu Ye, Pink, 90x90cm, 2003


Portrait, still life, and landscape—these terms define a classical painter, but for Liu Ye their use is for self-interpretation. This one-man exhibition entitled “Infatuation” assembles nine of his recent works. Three of them extend his theme of female portraits, three are still-life depictions, and two are expressions of landscape. Along with a (cartoon-rabbit) “Miffy” that serves as a self-portrait—in “I Am a Painter”—the works appearing here constitute a sampler of “classical” approaches.

This sense of the classical does not merely belong to the subject matter: it amounts to an undercoating which lends a latent self-corrective quality to each painting. In more concrete terms, this is an intentional rebellion against cartoon-like visual language. For instance in “Eleven Cherries,” the girl’s figure retains Liu Ye’s customary cartoonish flavor, but the dark background tones remind us of Jan van Eyck or other painters of the Netherlands. Apparently something is deliberately placed in an exotic, ancient context and thereby called into question.

True modernism should be a fusion of modern-day and classical elements. In Nineteenth-Century France, the formulator of this definition—Baudelaire—attacked the nostalgia-mongers of his era by saying: “They immerse themselves too much in classical times and deprive themselves of the privilege given them by the current times.” But present-day China, even from a modernist standpoint, needs criticism from another angle: Many artists over-immerse themselves in current modes and deprive themselves of privileges that could be theirs from classical times. They base their work on an ever-updated bag of tricks from Western art, plucking out modish themes that touch on current conditions. But such work is destined for the short-lived fate of a rootless, floating duckweed plant. In fact, advancing into the new century, cartoon-like language has become the rage among China’s newer generation of painters. In our still-unripe present-day phase, lurid colors, exaggerated shapes and empty backgrounds have become a recognizable collective style. This rapidly proliferating condition has come close to blurring Liu Ye’s features as an innovator, bringing an implied threat that his work will be typified. Liu Ye has consistently sought an individual form that goes beyond current reality, and current reality does not merely imply an authoritarian political reality: it implies anything that infringes on or eclipses personality. Facing the conditions of current art, his response is a self-inspection, a dissection of his own art to reveal symptoms of commonality with popular trends. As a result, he senses a need to re-trace a route to classical forms, that is, to place his style of “lightness” and “transparency” in a more remote setting where he can re-weigh its value.

The Japanese writer Tanizaki Junichiro set forth a compelling discourse on Oriental aesthetics in his book In Praise of Shadows. He believed that the so-called mystery of the East “probably refers to the formless stillness that is found in dark places. When young we sat in a study or living room and fixed our eyes in the depths of an alcove where light did not reach. We felt the tremor of an indescribable fear, and we wondered over the key to that mystery. Getting to the bottom of it, we found the magical power of shadows….In such a room, we might not even know the passage of time; the years would seem to flow by, until we emerged from that room feeling the frailty of old age. There was a fearsome sense of vast duration.” But such shadows appear not only in our living space; they are contained in objects with which we are infatuated. For instance, “Chinese people love to revel in jade. This precious stone, which takes on a subtle murkiness after centuries of exposure to air, has faintly colored markings within. Considering the strong attraction it holds for Chinese people, I can only conclude that our fondness for such things is a uniquely oriental trait. This precious stone is not highly colored like a ruby or emerald, nor does it have the brilliance of a diamond. What makes it so appealing? Yet when we gaze into its dim surface, we feel this is was made to be the precious stone of China. What is more, the great duration of Chinese civilization seems congealed in its cloudy obscurity. Thus it is understandable, and even commendable, that Chinese people would be fond of its luster and heft….We do not dislike gleaming utensils on principle, but compared to bright and shining objects, we prefer the subdued and shadowy. Whether natural or man-made, such a precious stone has a dim luster that reminds people of the imprint made by time. The imprint of passing time is actually the discoloration left by human hands. Such a ‘burnished look’ or ‘patina’ results from years of handling, during which skin secretions naturally penetrate the surface. This is what people call the imprint of passing time.” Although this is a marvelous passage, Tanizaki’s point about the West is perhaps overstated. In my view, Walter Benjamin’s discourses on the “aura,” developed out of his reveries on early photography, show a convergent path of thinking: “the slow struggle of light to emerge from the shadows”…“holds just such beauty and elusiveness”—this too bespeaks an irreducible quality of time and the unique suchness of an era.

Liu Ye’s pursuit of the classical is done with a view to this word ‘shadows.” The most direct presentation of this awareness comes through subtle use of gray tones. His previous paintings favored primary colors, laying out a background in block of single color. In recent works he tends to place his figures in dim backgrounds, and swathes them in what seems a layer of shadow, making them look empty and somber. Under the pall of such coloring, there is an aesthetic quality in his subjects’ removal from reality—be they the Nabokovian Lolitas he is fond of portraying, or books and boxes from among his possessions. Each is like an heirloom burnished by handling, or a piece of jade turned dark and lustrous after protracted rubbing by memory and fantasy: they carry an air of nostalgia and a sense of decadent connoisseurship. As we revel in these works, we seem to find ourselves in a room, facing the melancholy owner who has built up this “little world” for himself. This place is replete with the air of past days and the colors of recollection. At the same time, it is an atmosphere immersed in the uncanny and the surreal.

Substance/ Emptiness

Here is a phenomenon worth exploring: in recent years Gerhard Richter’s virtualized treatment of the pictorial surface has been hugely influential in China. In my view, an important reason for this can be found in how Richter’s visual language corresponds to, or has been misread as, the traditional notion of “emptiness” in Chinese painting. Although Liu Ye’s visual language is steeped in the abstract values of Mondrian and Malevich, he has never lost his infatuation with representative art. In his work there is often a fusion of worldly, fleshly actuality with definite, clearly shaped abstraction. He utilizes real forms to present his sense of the phantasmal, exploring the oriental path whereby “the interdependence of emptiness and substance” works in unobstructed cycles. What his pictorial surface displays is real form, and at the same time it is empty form. It is a view of desire, and at the same time a view of the unreal.

In his two still-life paintings, books or boxes are piled atop each other, showing only their outer shells, but hiding their interior. What is contained in the boxes? What are the books about? There is no answer to our questions. In one of the portraits, a girl is blindfolded with black cloth. Is she playing a game, or is she involved in a masochistic scene? The eyes of the “Lady Teacher” are hidden behind a large pair of glasses. Her bolt upright stance is forbidding, like a school rule in the flesh, making her seem like a purveyor of authority. Clearly there is no room for any interaction that includes feelings. As for the girl in “Eleven Cherries,” who wears a set of currently popular blue-tinted contacts, a screen has definitely been imposed between her pupils and the outside world.

Thematically, these works contain an exploration between the seen and the unseen, between substance and emptiness. The details have been carefully designed, like ladders leading to secret compartments, to serve as transitions between the level of substance and that of emptiness. The more we surmise about the represented forms, the more we are made to sense their unreality. We can say these forms, in themselves, set up a space where memory and fantasy can be played out; at the same time, their shadowy backgrounds suggest the time-span in which memory and fantasy are incubated and then allowed to vanish without a trace. In my view, all the above elements combine perfectly in the landscape painting “Composition with Trees and Bamboo.” In this picture, trees and bamboos make a line on snowy ground, with a low garden wall behind them. A dusting of snow on the tree leaves empties the concreteness of the trees; against the gloomy backdrop of sky, their shapes seem like vacant, brooding shadows. Yet the compelling presentation of unreality does not mean the painter himself has given up on the world. Within the cold emptiness, a humane warmth is still present: it can be found in the shovel leaning against a tree, in the tree-shapes and bamboo-shapes nestled together like snowmen in a fairy tale, and in the soft, gleaming aura of light reflected on snowy ground. All these things contribute to the quiet, touching state of being within the courtyard. In terms of visual motifs, this painting combines the look of a Yuan dynasty landscape with the effect of Western abstraction. Its poised and open-ended visual symbols are arrayed like musical notes, making an ever-revolving melody that answers to rhythms of the cosmos.

Worth noting here is the fact that bamboo possesses a fine and graceful shape, within which can be found the emptiness of every segment. Since ancient times it has been a common plant in our yards and gardens, and even now it grows outside of Liu Ye’s studio window. As one of the classic visual symbols in Chinese traditional painting, bamboo can be understood as embodying substance and emptiness in optimal combination. Now that bamboo has been brought within the frame of Liu Ye’s painting, it stands as a testament to his dual infatuation with substance and emptiness.

Tr. by Denis Mair

[Editor] Zhang Shuo