Liu Xiaodong – is that all there is?

“The Process of Painting”

Kunsthaus Graz, Universalmuseum Joanneum (Mariahilferstraße 2-4, 8020 Graz, Austria), Jun 6-Sept 2, 2012

“Liu Xiaodong’s Hotan Project”

Today Art Museum (Building 4, Pingod Community, No.32 Baiziwan Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing), Jan 13-Feb 22, 2013

Like many artists from China, Liu Xiaodong professes a strong desire to paint reality, simplicity, something “true”, reflecting China’s artistic heritage and the stresses of modernization. But while Liu’s truth is potentially seductive – the simple lives of everyday people – it is carefully contrived.

Liu was born in 1963 in Liaoning Province, China. He learnt to paint from his uncle, later obtaining an oil painting degree from CAFA in 1988. He went on to star with fellow graduate and wife, Yu Hong, in “The Days” (冬春的日子), Wang Xiaoshuai’s cult 1993 feature film about post-Tian An Men ennui. The film, which cost only $10,000 to make, was enthusiastically received outside China but blacklisted at home. Since then, Liu has had a small number of important solo museum shows, is represented in prominent public and private collections and by leading commercial galleries. He is also part of the faculty of CAFA.* Liu’s Kunsthaus Graz exhibition last summer, elegantly curated by Günther Holler-Schuster, presented works from the 2010 series, “Hometown Boy” and a new series painted in Eisenerz, a declining iron-ore mining town in Upper Styria, Austria, including documentary videos and photographs of his painting expeditions and diary entries.

Liu Xiaodong “Into Taihu”, oil on canvas, 300 x 400 cm, 2010, after Emperor Huizong’s “Auspicious Cranes”, 1112
(courtesy of Liu Xiaodong Studio)
Emperor Huizong of Song Dynasty “Auspicious Cranes” , handscroll, color ink on silk, 1112 (detail)

Image in public domain: from P. Ebrey, Cambridge Illustrated History of China, 2nd edition, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2010, p.151. (Wiki Commons)

There are two aspects to Liu’s practice: how he paints and what he paints. Ever since photography was invented, the issue of how painting can remain relevant has become ever more neurotic. While it remains the cultural asset of choice for collectors, it no longer holds a preeminent place in mass culture: that honor goes to photography, music and film, and their primary means of distribution, the Internet. Responses to the notion of painting are now radically divergent, including post-socialist pop-surrealism (Dubossarsky & Vinogradov, Neo Rauch), photo-eaters (Luc Tuymans, Eberhard Haverkost), painting-sculptors (Angela de la Cruz and Roxy Paine), obsessive abstractionists (Tomma Abts), and performance painters (Katharina Grosse). What unites these incredibly disparate artists is the way they challenge the tradition of painting – some more, some less – and make it relevant to its current social milieu. Liu represents another branch: process painting. In Liu’s case this encompasses field trips, painting in the open and in anthropomorphic-scale what he sees, recording the trips in documentary-style video footage and through his copious photographs and diary-entries. It is as valid as any other putative practice but whether it opens a new frontier for painting, as suggested by the exhibition, is doubtful. The methods are not unknown to art historians, researchers or anyone with an Internet browser.

Liu Xiaodong “Jincheng Airport”, oil on canvas, 300 x 400 cm, 2010
(courtesy of Liu Xiaodong Studio)
Liu Xiaodong “West Ridge Again”, oil on canvas, 300 x 400 cm, 2010
(Courtesy of Liu Xiaodong Studio)

What is also questionable is the inherent claim of the earnest vérité process to authenticity: that realist painting is a painting of the “real” – real people, real hardship. But truth cannot be unmediated (although Liu does acknowledge this). The “expression” of a real situation in a Liu Xiaodong painting, the performance of empathy, however sincere, is as emotively constructed as anything Hal Foster criticized in his 1983 rebuff to expressionism, “The Expressive Fallacy”.

Liu’s subject matter is consistently socially marginalized people. So in Austria he sought out a town that reflected that of “Hometown Boy”, a former industrial town left behind in the wake of the economic success and excess enjoyed in other parts of the country. The paintings, executed in situ and in the open, often recall famous, particularly realist and impressionist works, e.g. “West Ridge Again” recalls Courbet’s “Bonjour Monsieur Courbet” of 1854, and the card players in front of a disused military jet in “Jincheng Airport” recall Cézanne’s “The Card Players” of 1890-92.

Liu Xiaodong, “Bent Rib”, oil on canvas, 150 x 140 cm, 2010
(Courtesy of Liu Xiaodong Studio)

For all the bravado of economic transformation, it inevitably involves countless disjunctions. The people left behind in these (relative) backwaters of society could leave but the decisions involved in doing so are not easy, including abandonment of family and familial history. It is right to depict these places as much as any other, perhaps more so, because it is deluded to live only in the fantasy of pristine progress. However, to suggest it represents a privileged “truth” is taking aesthetics too far. Perhaps Eisenerz, “which is exposed to an enormous process of change, has suddenly become a global model”, as Holler-Schuster suggests (107), but the booming mining towns of Shandong Province or Australia demonstrate different models of change (positive and negative). So is this poverty tourism, if not actual nostalgia?

Liu Xiaodong installation view), with “Trees Growing Out of Swimming Pool” in foreground and “Into Taihu” at rear.
(courtesy Kunsthaus Graz)
Liu Xiaodong “Xiao on Duty at the Police Station”, oil on canvas, 140 x 150 cm, 2010
(courtesy Liu Xiaodong Studio)

One of Liu’s key works is “Into Taihu” which refers to “Auspicious Cranes”, 1112, by the Song dynasty Emperor Huizong, depicting 20 cranes flying over the Kaifeng Palace during a festival – a good omen and piece of propaganda (it is in Liaoning Provincial Museum, Shenyang, Liu’s home province). Huizong is most famous for forcing the stiff court style of painting to adopt the poetic innovations of the Literati painters and poets, and for losing the empire to invaders. The literati painting style would in time become as clichéd and academic as its official forerunner but to the post-1990s generations it continues to hold a rebellious metaphoric quality, albeit one that is itself becoming slowly devalued. Liu’s version is humorous and a little subversive. But we also see that the central tenet of his practice is re-discovery or re-enactment of existing images from art history in the “reality” of ordinary people. There is nothing wrong in itself with depth by quotation though, and sometimes his works do have a wry humor and a painterly flair, but equally are they not almost self-indulgent? There is an almost atavistic and epicurean quality to them, like hard-times Hollywood films. The reality depicted – the photographs, the films, the diary entries, the journey, the documentary performance and performance of documentation – is all Liu’s construction. Bonjour Monsieur Liu!

Liu Xiaodong, “Li Wu Works the Night Shift and Still Can’t Sleep by Day, 2010,
oil on canvas, 150 x 140 cm, 2010
(courtesy of Liu Xiaodong Studio)

Afterword on Liu Xiaodong’s Hotan Project

Liu Xiaodong’s current exhibition at Today Art Museum in Beijing presents six traditional paintings and lots of his painting-photographs and sketches of ethnic-minority-jade-digger types. A couple of the latter are also included in the Parkett edition – a good bit of multitasking. “I needed to think of a new way to engage, to make people discover that painting still has possibilities.” Quite.

Volumn 91 of Parkett and it’s edition of art works by featured artists, including Liu Xiaodong, will be launched on February 1 at Leo Koenig Gallery, New York.


* Museum shows include “Energy and Character” at Shanghai Art Museum 2006 and “Liu Xiaodong: Hometown Boy” at UCCA, Beijing, 2010. Representing galleries include Lisson Gallery, Mary Boone Gallery, Massimo de Carlo and Tang Contemporary. Liu has also been the focus of art-tastemaker Parkett magazine (Vol.91, with essays by Charles Mereweather, Philip Tinari and Hou Hanru) and a book edited by his erstwhile friend, Ai Weiwei, and Britta Erickson (“The richness of Life. The Personal Photographs of Contemporary Chinese Artist Liu Xiaodong 1984-2006”, Hong Kong 2007).


“Liu Xiaodong. Prozess Malen”, Ex. Cat., Kunsthaus Graz, Universalmuseum Joanneum, Verlag für Moderne Kunst: Nürnberg, 2012

“Truth in Painting does not Equal Truth in Reality”, interview between Liu Xiaodong and Philip Tinari, Parkett magazine, Vol.91, 2012, trans. Philip Tinari, pp.16-23.

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