It is probably fair to say that modern art in China is a contentious discipline. Often hugely politically loaded and plagued with a heavy social conscience that could dictate an artist’s vision down to the paints they use; contemporary artists of the late 20th Century onwards were both a concerned and ambivalent elite.
Liu Xiaogong emerged at just this time, graduating in the 1980s and embarking on an artistic career as Neorealism was developing its controversial avant-garde status, and aesthetic influences from the West sparred with Eastern subject matters – man-made catastrophes, socioeconomic strife, and political turbulence. In works such as Out of Beichuan and Into Taihu (2010), Liu demonstrates well the thoughts and feelings of a Neorealist sensibility. These epic, majestic oil paintings depict the resultant destruction of industrial pollution upon Lake Taihu and its dwellers with immense grace, and a clear, candid consciousness.
Painting about such things en plein air – practically and figuratively, Liu solidly claimed his place as a New Generation realist artist. Considering this elegant rise to fame in China, then, Liu’s new exhibition, Half Street, seems somewhat humble in comparison. There seems to be almost no segue between the socio-politically loaded projects such as Into Taihu, Hotan Project (2012 – 13), and Between Israel and Palestine, and the very personal collection of images of Liu’s recent London life. Somehow, however, Liu makes this lack of conceptual cohesion seem natural in his work. The relaxed tone and multiculturalism of the images and subject matters foreign to a typically Chinese sensibility – pubs, typical North London family scenes, Levantine restaurants – seem to blend in naturally here, unlike the British words in his diary entries, which jump off the page, surrounded by a sea of Chinese script. What is important to remember in all of Liu’s work is that he is always painting from his own immediate experience. And therein lies the key to Neorealism, and Liu as an artist. He is not trying to present his viewer with specific conceptual paradigms or one solid conscience – he flows, like life flows, through places; ideas; concepts; people; and paint.
Critics are constantly trying to compare Liu to his artistic contemporaries – for instance, the Northern Artists Group from Dongbei, who flourished in the 1980s and originated in Liu’s hometown. This genre of art is bleak and pale, pregnant with contemporary social issues, and wholly indicative of the small Chinese town it grew out of. Liu’s work, however, is nothing like this, regardless of its subject matter. His mammoth photographic images painted over with splashes of colour reflect the easel they were painted from. His work is cluttered in a very homely, inclusive way that engulfs its setting and involves all the mise en scène of Liu’s immediate surroundings – and yet somehow still upholds itself in a global context.
A beautiful example of this in Half Street is an image of a man standing in the stock room of the “White Pub” (one of the three venues in which the images are set) surrounded by the gastronomic clutter of a working pub kitchen. An image slightly further on of a shelf of food sits somehow as a close-up of this original image – detailing the mix of worlds and cultures intermingling in Liu’s current life: on this shelf is a box of polenta, a stack of Tabasco, some coconut milk and so on. In conjunction with works like these, Liu Xiaogong has been described as ‘a painter of modern life.’ He says: ‘Society and art should be like breathing – one breathes in and the other breathes out.’ To take this concept back a notch, perhaps what Liu really does is synchronise breathing, society and art – whilst he is living and alive, society passes through him, as art passes out.
However, the traditional clinical, white-washed air of the Lisson Gallery perhaps does Half Street no favours - the colour and vibrancy of these images seem washed out by these blank walls. The tactile nature of Liu’s work and displayed diary entries, which made you want to touch them, play with them and rearrange them, was somewhat inhibited.Conceivably, then, the Lisson Gallery was making a conscious effort not to impede Liu’s artistic meaning. There are no descriptions of the pieces, unless you count Liu’s diary entries displayed in a separate glass cabinet, and as far as literature goes there were only books by Liu of his past exhibitions. Even the film by Sophie Feinnes is silent and sultry, shooting Liu gazing at one of his pieces closed-mouthed and thoughtful, with only his own ponderings for a voiceover.
Half Street feels comfortingly localised, and as you exit Lisson Gallery and turn right you can glance at the actual “White Pub.” As you walk around the space, there is a warm sense of gradually getting to know the people Liu has painted. Somehow he manages to illustrate time passing in very slow motion in a series of static shots.
In conclusion: I think Liu Xiaogong’s en plein air approach really epitomises the way he thinks as an artist. He places himself out in the open in order to soak up the space surrounding him – breathing in, if you will, his immediate environment. And although he may have a theoretical or political agenda within his art, it adapts itself exclusively to what he sees in front of him. A project will be about whatever is in Liu’s sightline, and in this case, his project is comfortingly personal, as surrounding him are friends and artistic colleagues, and familiar sights and sounds. This is both the most endearing thing about Liu as an artist and the hardest thing to digest – he has no specific agenda – only his own immediate experience. Therefore he blurs the line between what we expect and what we, as observers of his art, see in reality.
Half Street was exhibited at Lisson Gallery, London.
Cover Image: Liu Xiaogong, White Pub, 2013, Lisson Gallery