Quiet Life: Liu Ye
by Francesco Tenaglia
The image of the young artist who destroys his paintings —realizing their lack of originality, or at least the absence of a distinctive voice—is one of the most recognizable romantic tropes, even in mainstream narratives, usually preceding an expressive journey dictated by a more genuine creative compulsion. A sort of rite of passage: an initiation in which access to the status of an adult individual presupposes the more or less symbolic destruction of the fruits of juvenile explorations. In the case of the visual artist, it’s maybe useful for the building of a personality, but not suitable as the incipit of a catalogue raisonné.
Liu Ye actually was inspired to burn some of his first near-abstract works influenced by an early meeting with Anselm Kiefer’s work and, more generally, by the exposure to the artistic tenor of Germany of the 1980s.
The Chinese artist arrived in East Berlin precisely in the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall; having come to the end of his training course at the Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, he decided not to graduate because it would have involved either becoming a bureaucrat for the government, or (to get out of that) paying an “administrative fee” of ten thousand yuan that his family could barely afford. So he took advantage of documents furnished by a friend, a Western businessman established in China, to get a visa that allowed him to apply to the Universität der Künste Berlin. He arrived in the East portion of the city via a Russian airline and proceeded to the West without understanding the exact nature of the wall that had divided the city into two—years later he declared that he thought it was a city on the border of two separate states because, in his homeland, he had not heard of Germany’s split. For the next four years, which included several trips to various European cities, he encountered the masters of Western art that he had previously only seen in illustrations in books, and also discovered new ones not included in his stringent Chinese study programs.
To destroy one’s earlier work implies a projection into the future, the identification of a future path. In Ye’s case, a very definite personal canon was generated around recurring figures and references: northern European Renaissance painting, Andy Warhol, Piet Mondrian, Balthus, Giorgio Morandi, and the Dutch illustrator Dick Bruna, inventor of the character Miffy, the bunny protagonist of a series of best-selling illustrated children’s books. These references are sometimes implicit; others appear in person on the canvas. Andy Warhol is portrayed in Atelier (1991) next to the canonical image of Mao Zedong, the matrix of a well-known cycle by the artist. The geometries of Mondrian appear as paintings within the paintings, which evolved into three-dimensional color compositions in the late 2000s. Miffy, also is a recurring character.
Liu Ye’s production, viewed chronologically, has been a continuous reconfiguration and dialogue between figuration and thematic allusions in a tight intertextual dialogue. Fredric Jameson, in a series of lectures at the universities of Peking and Shenzen, popularized the idea of postmodernism influencing Chinese culture, but at the time the painter, despite having heard of the term, was too young to be fully familiar with the possible artistic ramifications of contemporary theoretical Western analysis. His deployment of citations and internal references is probably more due to his great passion and curiosity regarding Western culture—timidly transmitted by his father, who had access to books and records banned during the Cultural Revolution—and the rejection of the realism that was mandatory during his formative years. Reading also, both in the form of quotations from fairy tales and as representations of books, is a recurrent subjects in Ye’s work: reading or contemplation as the very object of representation. It is as if the many images, references, and models coveted during his adolescence and encountered during that first European journey have sedimented into a progressively more minimal, linear, elegant representation that was— circularly—an object of youthful discovery.
Liu Ye (b. 1964). Lives and works in Beijing. His work combines direct references to the history of art and oblique political connotations to create a charged personal iconography that draws on real and imagined works of art, childhood memories and real-life figures. His work has received great acclaim at several international exhibitions, including the 7th Shanghai Biennale in 2008 and the exhibition China – Facing Reality at the Museum for Modern Art in Vienna.
Francesco Tenaglia (b. 1974) is the editor in chief at Mousse Magazine.
Originally published on Mousse 67