A Great Cautionary Painting-On the debut of Way of Liberation towards the Nether World
Source:Artintern.net Author:Chen Xiaoxin Date: 2010-08-25 Size:
"No doubt, this is a great cautionary (or amazing big hit) painting!" This is what I want to say most every time I'm in front of Liu Yaming painting Way of Liberation towards the Nether World (hereinafter as Way).

“No doubt, this is a great cautionary (or amazing big hit) painting!” This is what I want to say most every time I’m in front of Liu Yaming painting Way of Liberation towards the Nether World (hereinafter as Way). Moreover, we seldom see the epic creation created on the artist’s own free will (since it requires more courage, conscience and sense of responsibility), which makes it extremely commendable in modern art history.

It was just a draft when I first saw it on the spring of 2007, which was already three to four meters in width and 50 to 60 centimeters in height. I could see the numerous figures on it, indistinctly yet vivid and breath-breaking. I urged him to finish it as soon as possible with my excitement.

After that I went to his studio in Huairou District for four times specially for the painting. So to speak, I saw with my own eyes it enriched, edited, modified and even completed (except the last glossing procedure). I even acted as a model for the only time in my life for him to record, being an old intelligentsia in the painting.

It took Liu Yaming about two years to create the great work (1600cm×280cm), with two major modifications (one was the position of the reclining Buddha, and the other was the sky). It’s like the ancient single-line battle array with its composition (which showed its appearance in the art history for several times, like in Da Vinci’s The Last Supper and Repin’s The Vogal Barge-Haulers), in the way of extending across from a center point and divide the sky, earth and human into three longitudinal parts to present sense of depth. There are three advantages with this kind of composition: 1. The audience will understand fully and feel good at the first glance at it; 2. The numerous figures from the length direction are coming straight ahead to the audience, and it goes without saying the imposing and surging effect. 3. The horizontal expansion is advantageous to present the characteristics, mental status and details of the various figures, not covering some important figures and weakening their expressive force.

The background (sky) and the color tone of this epic painting are very special, my first impression towards which are gloomy, stern, indistinct, desolate, oppressive and even some kind of desperate. With further observation, I find it elusive: is it dust and sand drifting in the sky? Or is it haze or mist? Or is it foreboding? It’s hard to tell. But I’m sure that it’s not only a symbol for a big disaster (catastrophe), but also construction of tragic conditions (atmosphere), and even an interpretation for the theme (cautionary). In such a background, it’s easy for the artist to cope with the behaviors, expressions, mental status and their relations of various figures in the foreground and medium shot, and then the artist could integrate the whole painting into a point center like converging into a strong current of sea waves, thus hitting the audience’s visual nerve and minds with a intense power!

In the gloomy background emerges an indistinct metropolis (which is a big modification during the creation). It’s not a surrealistic illusion but a real scene. However, isn’t it gnawing that the emerging modern city appears in such a crisis? And people can’t stop doubting that there must be some causality between it and everything happening. In this case, the metropolis drifting in the gloomy air should not be the homeland that all dream of, nor a gospel from the God to modern people. It’s more of a spell and huge irony made of modern technologies and materials. It’s common to find the resistance against the metropolitan culture but the case is not the same in our society, which also shows the penetration of this epic painting.

No doubt, the most eye-catching of this painting is the center-positioned crowd running in the dead end. Like the overwhelming tides, they bring to the audience great shock and strong sense of uneasiness. It is then succeeded with a series of questions which can’t be avoided: why are the multitudes running like for life? Why are they scared, or anxious, agonizing, or despair and even hysteric? Where does the disaster or tragedy come from? Is the disaster or tragedy imagined or real? Who starts the disaster or tragedy? Who could save the people running like mad? Where is the hope then… The core meaning and value of this painting lie in the questions mentioned above, thus we can’t leave them unanswered.

In my opinion, that the multitudes are running like mad with the abnormal actions and expressions might be either because of a sudden catastrophe or out of the awareness of eventualities deep in the artist’s heart for a long time. The former is reality, or in other words, based on reality: though it’s not some specific disaster, it’s on good grounds. Just imagine the numerous disasters in the recent one century, not to mention years before: wars, terrorism attacks, plagues, natural disasters, epidemics, the deteriorating environment, the glacial ablation, ozone layer degradation, the rising seas, the extinction of species, desertification, rivers drying up as well as meteorological anomaly like hurricanes, tsunamis, snow damages, etc. It’s obvious to all that China has experienced significant progress in the past decades of years, but the problems are severe enough to startle the world too. It is said that the problems of developed countries in the past two to three centuries have been re-shown in the recent twenty to thirty years in China. It’s hard to distinguish the natural disasters from the man-made calamities. The latter one is just imaginary, but surprisingly, at the second year of this painting’s creation, Sichuan, the artist’s hometown, suffered from a mega-quake of magnitude 8 (the epicenter in Wenchuan), with nearly 100 billion people died in seconds. Is it coincidence? Or is it accidental? There might be various interpretations, but it is sure that human beings are confronted with the threatening of catastrophes day and night! We should always keep deep in mind the threatening, which is the awareness of eventualities. Chinese nation has been in lack of this kind of awareness and tragic spirit of Prometheus throughout the history, e.g., the idiom that the man of Chi worried that the sky might fall sneers at the man of Chi. However, the truth afterwards is obvious: Chinese people increasing from tens of millions to thousands of millions to tens of billions who don’t worry about the sky have been suffering from the sky thing, bearing huge burden of frequent disasters. Chinese people nowadays should learn from the man of Chi to pay attention to the sky thing and corresponding remedies. One of the painting’s fresh and outstanding feature is its serious warn to us: we must be worried, go get worried and get deeply worried! It matters little whether it comes from the reality or imagination.

The originators of the disasters/tragedies include both the sky thing and human being. The painting is penetrating in describing the nature of human being, which endows it with criticism.

There are more than one hundred legible figures in the painting (and numerous indistinct ones), among which half is young characters (almost equal with male and female), 1/3 is middle-aged and the other 1/3 is old-aged ones and five or six kids. If divided by the social career, most of them are artists, intelligentsias, industry workers and white-collar workers, few of them are stars, vagrants and soldiers, and interestingly, there is a reclining Buddha, a travel-worn and weary saint who comes from afar and a man in panic and hanging upside down. There is no high-level officials, business bigwigs and dregs of society (like prostitutes, drug traffickers, robbers, etc.), nor foreigners. From the general division mentioned above, we could see that firstly, this is not a panorama or genre painting of the current society, nor does its theme about reflecting the current situations of the society, but revealing the huge crisis or hardship that human being are confront with through the multitudes. With its focus on revealing temporality, moreover, it’s trying to find the way out, the so-called Faramita. In addition, the settings of all the characters also show the artist’s same position with the common people and his awareness of his roots in the public.

In describing the characters, the artist doesn’t put him or her into stereotype or even formulaic; instead, he uses a classical-like method: to highlight the individuality of each figure with concrete modeling, actions design and deep description of expression and details, enduing various characters typification. Almost each one specially described in the painting could be found with a model in the real world and it’s even possible to point someone out from the painting. However, it’s just one of the creation ways of realism or critical realism (This doesn’t necessarily mean that this painting is realistic or critical realistic) or could be just considered as a working process. In the individuals specially described, we could see not only the innocent, pure kid, frank young man, man with strong will and ideals, the old and weak yet honest, but also the greedy, the arrogant, the hypocritical, the vainglorious and the evil, and what’s more are adults with relatively complicated natures. On one hand, the artist is in deep sympathy with the innocent people (especially the old, weak, female and young ones), while on the other, he is analyzing the roots of the disasters/tragedies and castigate the greedy, ignorant and ugly side of human nature from the depth. It is the criticalness that strengthens the humanity meaning of this painting.

But there is no doubt that because of some limits and the artist’s kindness, not as heartless and cruel as Balzac and Gogol were, the painting could not go real objective and deep to the bone in setting and describing some ugly and dirty characters, which lessens its criticalness to some extent.

The painting takes a overhead view except that of the saint, reclining Buddha and Apsaras, since this angle helps to express the artist’s sympathy and overlook each figure’s mental world. And it also corresponds with the audience’s mind (shocking and meditation-evoking) to respectfully seeking guidance from it, thus easier to draw resonance from the audience. However, the processing way towards the Buddha and the saint reveals Liu Yaming’s complicated and contradictory attitude to the major issues like belief and Faramita. In my opinion, on one hand, he respects belief and seems have felt the existence and immortal meanings of Faramita, and even takes the loss of belief as one of the roots for human crisis. But on the other hand, it seems that he’s examining the belief and questioning the existence of Faramita. That’s why the Buddha and the saint keep aloof from the crowd. [①] The two points mentioned above might be the real meaning of Nether Land (which is actually an indistinct intermediate state) and liberation in the title. But I always see some irony from it; otherwise, the painting would be one of religious subject (like Last Judgment), which is after all not. So I think the subject of saving and salvation in this painting is a question to be questioned (from another point of view, the cautionary subject itself of course means salvation to some extent). As to whether the paradox will lessen the influence of this painting, it could be a topic for further discussion.

#p#副标题#e#Throughout Liu Yaming’s over twenty-year art creation, it could be divided into the following periods, some of which are overlapping: 1. Portrait creation, represented by Tibetan Presbyter, Grandmother, Self-portrait, Ha Zhinai, etc. The artworks are relatively classical with severe and deep depiction, showing the artist’s mature and outstanding accomplishment and expressiveness of classical oil painting (represented by Rembrandt). Liu Yaming persists portrait painting till the present time, getting more acute and flexible with his expression. In Liu Yaming’s art career, it’s a solid and stable cornerstone both for his realism and his humanism. 2. Theme of the youth, represented by Greet to the Youth, Red Expectation, Achi’s Stage, Makeup, Calla, The Grey Bank and also some artworks of woman’s body such as Yi Man, A Body at the Window, Human and God. These artworks analyze in depth the restless, uneasy, gloomy and sentimental Werther complex of the adolescence, and at the same time show women’s angel-like beauty and mysterious and charming appeal. As regards to the art of painting, it is a perfect combination of classical style and modernity. 3. Theme of destiny. Liu Yaming has experienced great changes (or deep-going exploration) since he started to create the series Temporality in 2000. With regards to this, he went to the Southeast and Southwest China for first-hand investigations, getting himself caught in great anxiety and concern for the destiny of the modern people, especially the women and thus impelling him to dedicate himself in the creation with his utmost enthusiasm. In this series, the frame gets huge and characters in the painting get increased than his works before and there comes dramatic assembly (which has shown some sign before), with the space being processed vast and profound, man and God (Buddha) coexisting, time and space crisscross, and part fantasy and part community. These artworks show thorough awareness of eventualities and tragic theme, which brings profundity and cautionary meanings. From the aspect of art, Liu Yaming has made a further step to large-scale creation, which is difficult in the painting command and different from the creation of small-size painting. It requires the artist to re-explore and accumulate and even open a new path on many respects like the relations among the characters in the painting, spatial structure, laying methods (tighten or loosen), etc. So to speak, the creation of Temporality series laid the foundation for his creation of Way of Liberation towards the Nether World. In other words, the Temporality series are the prelude, while Way of Liberation towards the Nether World and creations afterwards are Liu Yaming’s focus of creation in the recent five years. Thus it can be seen that it’s a process of step by step with interrelated stages and progress, magnificent and exciting,

What’s the breakthrough of Way of Liberation towards the Nether World compared with Temporality and his creations in the past over twenty years? The most obvious point is the deepening of humanism: from individual to nation and then to human being; from observation to concern and ideas of salvation. The world he focuses is getting broader and his sight is getting more profound. The second one is on the expression, which, based on the classical figural art, is combined with both Chinese and Western art such as liberal style, myth and fact, expression, abstraction, surrealism, symbolism, etc. And he uses the brush as a knife to carve, cut or pick as he likes, showing impressive art language in his own style (this seems to be a question on how long would one hold the red flag). Then comes his process on the space, which is both huge in size, full of power and grandeur and vivid in details, mild emotions and with flowing rhythms. The whole painting is well knit with strong cohesion, while it seems relatively relaxed and natural, leaving some kind of ease.

So to speak, Liu Yaming has not only provided us a cautionary painting for the modern people (not limited to the Chinese people), but also a special and unique artwork in both expression and its depth for the thirty years after Reform and Opening-up among the real outstanding creations (like Someday in 1968, Snow, oil painting by Cheng Conglin, Taihang Mountain and Getting out of Bayankala, ink and wash painting of Li Bo’an, The New Immigrants in the Three Gorges, recent oil painting of Liu Xiaodong, and some others that I can’t remember in a minute). We could still see Liu Yaming is promising with his future development, especially in the depth of expression and liberty of skills. Let’s look forward to Liu Yaming’s more marvelous life and creation, and his more profound blossom!


[①] The reclining Buddha is the nirvana of the Buddha, when his disciples and followers are supposed to be surrounded with grief. But in this painting, it’s not like this at all. The saint coming from afar does not have the original religious meaning.

June 6, 2009

Caolv Study, Nanjing

Chen Xiaoxin, a renowned art critic

[Editor] Elemy Liu