Tempting: Liu Ye Solo Exhibition
Source:Artintern Date: 2008-05-01 Size:
Tempting is the most comprehensive showing of Liu Ye’s work to date, and although the artist claims that such a small handful of works provides but a glimpse of his intent, it is sure evidence of his vision and core message


The paintings in this exhibition, 14 in total, provide a rounded picture of Liu Ye the artist; the amplitude of his style, his favourite things-cum-staple motifs, and his collected cast of characters. This group of canvases also encompasses just about every variation in scale, from teeny to capacious, that Liu Ye routinely employs. This achieves a variation in visual rhythm that reels viewers in and out like fish on a line; caught in a net of pictorial intimacy that remains entirely constant.

Tempting is the most comprehensive showing of Liu Ye’s work to date, and although the artist claims that such a small handful of works provides but a glimpse of his intent, it is sure evidence of his vision and core message: sort of Peter Pan in Neverland, but where we find Peter has matured into a contemplative yet articulate young man, well on the way to constructing a private philosophy of life. By gently entering these works, we uncover the threads of Liu Ye’s personal journey as an artist, indeed the traces of all periods of his development to date. All major influences are to be found here, from the early appropriation of Mondrian’s patterns, to the latter admission of Miffy as guest star on the regular cast, and examples of all the other references that contribute to the high delight people take in Liu Ye’s painting. One broad context is 1930’s Modernism, after which Liu Ye claims the light went out on great innovation in art—in this regard, we have as evidence the painting of a lonesome Miffy in the dark, communing with a Malevitch square. No sweet dreams for this insomniac perplexed perhaps by what art has become. There are no sacred icons in this group—Liu Ye once created a most endearing portrait of the Pope, as but one example. Instead there is a clear emphasis on famous beauties and the stars of children’s stories. This last group of characters are so well known that they no longer seem like figures of someone’s imagination: indeed we know them almost more intimately than we do the actual celebrities of today. And it is this familiarity, our fondness for these characters, that is our undoing before the tempting scenarios Liu Ye offers.

The works in this exhibition took almost a year to create, which makes Tempting a rare opportunity to see so many works in one place—from the mid-1990s, the popularity of Liu Ye’s works saw them assigned to collectors even before they were finished, and at a time when the work of Chinese artists was far from recognised. Returning to his impulses and working practice, we see that in the course of a year the compositions cover a variety of subjects that suggest an equal assortment of moods. Liu Ye describes his art as a work in progress, where each painting is part of a greater work, one work. That is the body of work an artist creates in a lifetime. So Tempting invests us with a snapshot from this "body”, a moment from this life, which is not definitive, nor all-encompassing, but can be described as an accurate representation of his most recent memoirs.

Within this group, the paintings of Snow White, the girl in her dancing Red Shoes, and the Portrait of Hans Christian Andersen perhaps initially seem somewhat apart from the others. Coincidentally, in the year that people around the world celebrated the bicentenary of the Danish storyteller’s birth, Liu Ye embarked upon a series of paintings related to Hans Christian Andersen’s great body of fairytales, of which these three paintings are a part. Angel dust must have been drifting across the cosmos whispering words of inspiration…or perhaps the distant warble of a nightingale resonated memories of distant palaces that were never forbidden…In truth, as a source of inspiration, the universe of Hans Christian Andersen brought Liu Ye full circle, straight back to the world of his childhood, one possessed of a dark, perilous secret: for contrary to the experience of most Chinese children of his generation, during Liu Ye’s formative years, he had been introduced to and become entirely familiar with the oeuvre of this extraordinary storyteller.

Liu Ye’s father worked as an illustrator of children’s books. Although at a time, in an era, where even children’s reading matter was thoroughly subordinate to political ideology, courtesy of the children’s press—the work unit to which Liu Ye’s father belonged—Liu Senior had access to its library of children’s books from around the world, which included anthologies of stories from authors like Hans Christian Andersen.

Liu Ye suggests that his father’s skills at illustration were more competent than inspired, but perhaps that accounts for the father’s willingness to encourage the artistic talent that his son displayed at an extraordinarily young age, almost as soon as he could hold a pencil or brush. Slightly later, a childhood game resulted in accidental injury to a neighbourhood buddy causing Liu Ye to shut himself up at home, wracked with guilt at the thought of hurting a friend. To distract him from the trauma of the incident and the consuming remorse that ensued, Liu Ye’s father risked the wrath of his superiors to sneak home several volumes of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales for his son. If you ask Liu Ye how he determined to become an artist, he immediately invokes this time of self-imposed isolation from the outside world, for as in every good fairytale, the cloud that hung over Liu Ye did have a silver lining: receiving these books was like opening the wardrobe door and stumbling into Narnia…an interpretation that causes him to laugh, for as he explains, the unassuming, yet imposing door fronting the closet in which the family books were of necessity concealed, was almost identical to that of the famous wardrobe.


Settling down with a selected volume, like every normal child, Liu Ye would find himself whisked off on the wings of imagination into a realm of fantasy, where good and evil battled, in which the pure of heart triumphed, and where those alive to the beauty in life could uncover a treasure trove of riches. Later on, under his own steam, Liu Ye swapped emperors and princesses, match girls and magical animals, for Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, delighting in its talking rabbit, rapacious queen and questionable potions. Then there were snarks, and giants, pirates and crocodiles; fantastical blends of human characters and invented creatures in utterly kooky landscapes. In their own way, each of these tales exerted an influence on Liu Ye’s art. Not in a direct manner, per se: it is only when we come to 2005 that we see Liu Ye taking inspiration straight from the pages of a story. The gist is more that all these stories point to the prism of purity through which children view life—good for goodness’ sake, bravery in the face of even the most scary thing an author can throw at their hero or heroine, for it is always innocence of heart that saves the day, and the courage to follow one’s convictions.

Optimists might wish us to believe this quality to be a universal childhood truth. The fact that fairytales apparently recognise neither national border, nor cultural boundary, nor linguistic barrier, would seem to support this idea. But what if at a certain moment in history, socio-political circumstances contrived to make childhood disappear, in a puff of smoke or the wink of witch’s eye. Such was China in the 1960s and 1970s, at the height of Mao’s reign, and against the destructive forces of the Cultural Revolution. As a firsthand witness to his father’s work, Liu Ye understood from a tender age, just how vulnerable childhood innocence is to compromise.

Looking back now from the present, a time of change effected by the open door policy, it is hard to imagine what this must have been like. Through recent decades, attitudes of respect and awe towards learning and towards the value of education across Chinese society, which were once the core of traditional cultural values, have been resurrected. Within the new context of present-day society, the illustrated picture books that were created during Mao’s reign in line with his ideological directives seem like handbooks on good behaviour tailored to boyscouts. Yet for almost two decades, these socialist-informed parables were the main focus of primary instruction: no fantasy, no wild imaginings, no giants or witches, fabulous beasts or talking animals, just commonsense reality with all its vicissitudes and asperity, appended with a whole cargo of optimism. Nothing less than political dilemmas of enormous import for individual survival presented in the guise of ecumenical morality tales.

Tellingly, in 2003, Liu Ye made a painting of Lei Feng—in China’s communist mythology the model young pioneer who sacrificed everything for the nation; whose deeds, like those of every good boyscout, were selfless at every turn. Without doubt Lei Feng was a good boy, of exactly this genus, whose compassion for his Chinese compatriots and earnest vivacity impelled him to do the right thing whenever the opportunity arose. Equally, we have no quarrel with accepting the function that folk heroes fulfill in the broad public consciousness in periods both bleak and trying. Lei Feng’s devotion to the cause of New China politics and socialist aspirations became the stuff of local legends, but even then the dubious rhetoric of the language was conspicuous. Any boy who dared, however innocently, to query the tenor of the emperor’s new words, would either find himself “off with his head” or down in a dungeon with the dragons. One senses that even as a child, Liu Ye harboured conflicted emotions about the nature of the children’s book his father was required to illustrate.

Liu Ye’s doubts also in turn demonstrate perfectly what it was that Mao feared about bourgeois western literature. To Mao, it was a tinderbox—Pandora’s box—capable of inciting independent initiatives and pursuits even if the lid was lifted a crack. The worlds imagined by literary minds could hardly compete with the socialist utopia, and could less be open to such comparison. Of greater contention were the counteractive value systems and visions of individual autonomy they unerringly reinforced. Were these not entirely at odds with the need to shed of individual wills, and to relinquish the individual sense of existence that was essential if socialism was to triumph?

Thus by dint of awakening his imagination to a higher sense of human worth, innate and universal moral values as well as aspirations, the special treats afforded Liu Ye as a child shattered any illusions he might have had about the broader catholic truths embedded in the locally-generated literature for children that had become the mandatory syllabus. By the early 1970s, as Liu Ye began to learn to read, the Cultural Revolution acquired a particularly bitter edge following the death of Lin Biao in 1972. The majority of educational institutions had ceased to function. All vestiges of the long and grand cultural tradition of China, imperial, feudal China, had effectively been eradicated. Liu Ye’s world was one of turmoil, trepidation and conflicting faiths: a general willingness to believe in the ideals of the new policies yet the nag of doubt as to the results as communities were split by struggle, and as individuals were encouraged to betray old friends, neighbours and even family members to demonstrate loyalty to the Party. All impelled by insecurity and the fear of persecution rather than a true, selfless faith.

Although the greater part of his time was devoted to his task of illustrating socialist fables for children, Liu Ye’s father also worked quietly on his own creations. Liu Ye is vague on the subject, but concedes they involved adventures in lands populated by talking animals. Echoes of Orwell’s Animal Farm they weren’t, but they were at least one man’s private escape from the torments of reality. Liu Ye’s father sadly died young, at least when Liu Ye was young, just after the Cultural Revolution came to its abrupt end with Mao’s death in September 1976. Asked if perhaps in his work Liu Ye has taken up the baton his father could not carry forward, if the intensely private world of characters that feature in his painting seek to redress the shackles that constrained his father’s potential as an illustrator, Liu Ye is effusive. Rightly so, for we are each ourselves, in spite of the genes we carry. He mourns his father’s loss all the more for the experience and vision of fairytales, of an alternative reality, which he afforded his son. This, too, is an example of the type and range of fundamental human emotion that drives Liu Ye and informs his work, and that, like the passion and torment between lovers, is common to all people, everywhere.

But perhaps the main element of children’s stories identifiable in Liu Ye’s painting is the ability to make absolute absurdities seem entirely natural for readers of all ages. Fairytales in particular reply upon such acceptance to carry the imagination out of the physical realm and into all manner of wonderlands from Oz to Narnia and beyond the looking glass. Where everything is plausible anything is possible. And this is perhaps why the debut of Miffy, the much beloved bunny created by Dick Bruna, seems like the most natural choice in the world. Liu Ye suggests that we might see the character of Miffy as standing in for himself (or being interchangeable with himself), but equally the characters he paints can be seen as his comrades in arms: the supporters of his journey through the wacky world of art, just as the Scarecrow, Lion, Toto and the Tin Man kept a comforting pace with Dorothy as she ventured into the unknown.

As an artist, Liu Ye rather keeps himself to himself. He’s not a loner…far from it for it is in his nature to be extremely sociable. He is a considerate and generous friend, and a fine conversationalist: his inclination to humour in speech is matched by a broad repertoire of interests—literature, film, philosophy, music (classical and contemporary) and the lives of all creators of the above, particularly the polymaths of yesterday and today. Where as a child Liu Ye became used to finding solace in the imagination and its imaginary friends, it is unusual to identify so independent an artist within contemporary art circles in China. Perhaps this is because Liu Ye never engaged with directly political posturing as was the vogue amongst his elder generation from the late-1980s to the early 1990s. He also studied abroad in Germany from 1990-94) and although he is not unique in this, it did take him out of the claustrophobic circles at home, and provided a chance to stand on his own two feet. The result is that Liu Ye’s work has never been aligned with the label of “Chinese avant-garde”, a feat of which he is rather proud. Liu Ye has always been taken seriously for the quality of his art, for its distinctive vision and content as opposed to the career paths of members of the early avant-garde in China who were uniformly grouped together for their assumed political stance and ambitions—views that were inspired and perpetuated by the overtly politicised motifs they elected to deploy.

As one who places enormous store on an immediate fraternity of friends, for better or worse, in good times and in bad, Liu Ye regularly affirms the importance of personal relationships, of life experience, and the moods and emotions this engenders, as the source of inspirations for his paintings. Moods swing with the seasons, the weather, the changing hour of the day, at times of estrangement from those close to us and then once again when those relationships are renewed and throw us into another round of excitement, turmoil, confusion or frustration. As a painter who thrives on such encounters, Liu Ye’s canvases reveal as much of his life as they do of his persona. And, because of the altercations indicated above, they also reveal radically different impressions from canvas to canvas. Looking at his broader oeuvre then we might describe Liu Ye’s paintings as his own private anthology of experiences, made public because ultimately he follows an urge to communicate as great as that of any children’s author we could mention.

Motifs recur: the long-haired temptress, who seeks to seduce with her delicate limbs and baby doll features. Liu Ye implies that her beauty, great though it is, is fragile, fleeting, and that it is this fragility that induces the impulse to assert, to control and dominate, either using feminine whiles or the whip which he has her carry on occasions when we sense he’s feeling particularly disparaged. Liu Ye explains that the little girls, she of the delicate almost tearful features of Strawberry, are but younger versions of the loquacious nymphet, in an age of innocence before the any awareness of the fact that beauty fades has set in. She is sweet and soft in her most youthful incarnation, but bitterness snips at her the older she gets. But how beautiful the body, the silhouette, the profile, and the delicate hues of her skin…especially at Night. Feminists might denounce a man who creates and contemplates such images on the charge of being a voyeur, of indulging in his own fantasies, but to know Liu Ye is to know the capacity for empathy he owns; he is on his heroine’s side, not against her.

The paintings combine acrylic and oil. Each medium serves the use to which their innate qualities are best applied. Hence the recourse to oil for the fine washes layered up to create skin, silky skeins of hair, and the diaphanous weave of tunics, shifts, blouses and stockings. We see this here in Banned Book, Who is afraid of Madame L, and of course, Snow White.

Still, even where a number of compositions are apparently familiar in terms of the juxtaposition of child, the referencing of artworks and the carefully balanced handling of primary and secondary pigments around the colour wheel, there is a distinct change in the texture of paint in the new works. Liu Ye has never been about illustrating an idea by simply blocking out the forms of a composition with pigment. He once wondered aloud if the finely tuned linear structure of so many of his compositions, in terms of physical space, and further, the abbreviated anatomy of his figures and annotated planes of the objects upon which they fix their gaze, were informed by his training in graphic design. Yes, in the preference for clean lines, and a certain neatness of physique in relation to the colour that gives this mass, most likely the experience can be discerned. But in the final analysis, whilst he acknowledges the idea, it earns less credence than does the fascination with the simple forms that speak volumes about his personal experience of life: emotions and incidents.

Here in the new works, we find a looser play with paint: delicate washes almost like a glaze through which the base white ground shines a soft luminousity. Though the earlier works can never be described as hard, heavy or opaque, the sense of light in the more recent pieces suggests a growing ease with both the subject and the medium. There is even a role for incidental marks: a soft stream of excess liquid falls like a silent tear at the feet of the “Little Girl” contemplating her own “New York Boogie Woogie”. Moved by the purity of the artwork that confronts her? The tender stirring of awe prompted by the innovations of genius? Perhaps, for Liu Ye adheres to a faith in art for art’s sake, in an aesthetic that transcends its moment, its geographical boundaries and the ideological doctrines of a national framework, be they social, political or cultural. We can say that Liu Ye is a contemporary artist who is Chinese but in terms of the contemporary Chinese art label, he is a round peg that cannot be squeezed down to fit such a square pigeonhole.

[Editor] Zhang Shuo