By Adrian George
There is a lot written about Liu. He is one of China’s best-known painters, and it seems obligatory to start this review by stating some facts. Liu has a career that already spans three decades and is a professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing. His work is often discussed as playing a key part in the relatively short history of contemporary painting in China.
Liu’s art is born from the tradition of Chinese Social Realist painting that gained momentum during the Cultural Revolution. Many artists of Liu’s generation abandoned this style and radically changed their practices after greater exposure to international contemporary art after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. Liu however, made a contrary and conscious decision to continue with his realist painting style. In the face of what must have been incredible peer pressure to change as well as the tantalizing draw of photography, video and digital media, his strategy was a courageous and radical one, but ultimately successful as it has set him apart.
For his exhibition titled Half Street Liu was invited to spend some time in London making a new body of work. The process is documented by filmmaker Sophie Fiennes – who produced a remarkably intimate film of the artist at work – and through a series of Liu’s notebooks and diaries that are presented in the gallery.
Although reserved and softly spoken Liu is far from shy, in fact quite the opposite. His confidence in front of the camera led to his role in the 1993 indie film Dong chun de rizi (冬春的日子, The Days). Add to this his preference for working on large scale canvases ‘en plein air’ or ‘xiesheng’ (写生) – a legacy of his art school training – and the result is akin to a theatrical spectacle. Working in situations where people stop and watch means that whether he likes it or not, Liu is performing the role of the ‘artist at work’. Yet somehow, amidst the whirlwind of life that goes on around him as he paints he manages to maintain an intense focus on his work that he translates seamlessly onto the canvas.
Liu spent two weeks walking the area around the gallery, going into cafes and pubs trying to find a place that was wiling to allow him to paint. Ostensibly searching for a venue he was also looking for direct engagement with the people who worked, lived or visited. The documentary film shows him setting up a large canvas in a corner of Marylebone’s Perseverance pub while the staff and customers carry on their business around him. He got to know people. He had a drink. He had dinner with the landlord and walked someone’s dog. He painted the chef and children and even a strange, surreal incident of a cowboy on a (pantomime) horse in the pub.
While the subject matter – simple scenes of the everyday – can seem banal, there is a tenderness, or intimacy that pervades the work. He emphasizes the uniqueness of his subjects but at the same time manages to avoid sentimentality. Critics have drawn comparisons between Liu’s work and Western artists such as Freud and Gorky. Such comparisons seem pointless. Liu’s approach, his work and his practice are unique and that is what makes this exhibition so touching and at the same time impactful and memorable.
Liu Xiaodong’s work is on show at the Lisson Gallery, London until 3 November 2013. There will be a large scale exhibition of his work at the Chinese Arts Centre, Manchester in 2014.