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LIU XIAODONG, Twin Sisters 2020.4.7, 2020, watercolor on paper, 25 × 35.5 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Lisson Gallery, New York/London/Shanghai. 

Spring in New York

Liu Xiaodong

Also available in:  Chinese

Liu Xiaodong’s exhibition “Spring in New York,” presented online by Lisson Gallery, offered small windows of solitude and contemplation amid the chaos that has erupted in the United States. 

The 34 exhibited works on paper record Liu’s extended stay in locked-down New York City. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, the Chinese painter had completed a series of monumental, plein-air portraits, slated for the Dallas Contemporary, of those living on the US-Mexico border, only for the show to be indefinitely postponed and his flights home to Beijing canceled.

As Liu and his family sheltered-in-place in a deathly quiet Manhattan, he began a daily practice of documenting quotidian occurrences through watercolors, photographs, and journal writings. On the exhibition website, Liu’s diary entries break up the rows of images. Sometimes, they appear side by side, like opposing pages of a notebook. The watercolors on paper, further shrunken in scale as jpegs, do not carry the same gravitas as his oil paintings, but the diary-like viewing experience felt like an unprecedented glimpse into Liu’s mind as he processed his new life in quarantine. 

Twin Sisters 2020.4.7 and Child on Washington Street 2020.4.8 (all works 2020 unless otherwise stated) capture the small delights of a slower pace of life, as little girls dressed in pink freely roam the eerily empty streets. In contrast with the bright, saccharine naïveté of the children, dark, elongated shadows impart an unshakable sense of foreboding that encroaches upon their innocence. Kitchen Paper cannot be flushed down the Toilet, right 2020.4.4, a playful reference to the toilet paper shortages during the first chaotic weeks of the pandemic, is a formal study of the interplay between different whites—the dappled paper towel; the gleaming porcelain cistern on which it sits; and the partly shadowed, off-white, tiled wall. Even the most mundane sights lend themselves to Liu’s astute observation and emotional projection.

Besides watercolor studies, Liu also produced overpainted photographs that reflexively compare his practice of plein-air painting against photojournalism. The artist implies that his painted elements add layers of subjectivity that are missing in his photographs. In Liu Wa and Yu Hong on a Night Stroll 2020.5.3, Liu painted his wife and daughter, both of whom are also artists, walking along the originally empty street captured in the photograph. Slightly transparent, their figures evoke both presence and absence, specters with half-obscured faces traversing a once bustling city turned into a ghost town.

The last section of the exhibition, which covered the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted in June, hinted at the limitations of Liu’s approach. For spatial studies of a locked-down city, his combination of nondescript subject matter and a small-scale format evokes the collective interiority experienced during shelter-in-place. But when applied to widespread political unrest, this aesthetic reads as emotional distance. In Liu’s previous oil paintings of Uighur miners in Xinjiang (Hotan Project, 2012–13), and Syrian Refugees (2015) in Turkey and Greece, marginalized subjects find their humanity magnified in fine detail and cinematic scale. In the latest series of quicker, smaller-scale studies, Liu minimizes the identities of cops and protestors. The figures in Chinatown Police 2020.4.26 and At My Doorstep 2020.6.1, for instance, are characterized by inaction and anonymity. The former captures the callous nonchalance of cops lounging next to a squad car, whereas the latter depicts a crowd of protesters warily parting for a Mustang car, amid diaphanous washes of gray and black splotches that evoke clouds of tear gas, soot, and grime. It is unclear if Liu’s choice to memorialize these people by moments of distraction and estrangement is a veiled critique of the protests. One could also read his lack of attempt to close the space between himself and his subjects as voyeuristic or unempathetic. By enjoying the safe distance of a painter-observer, Liu does not tap into the fury, grief, and trauma that currently grips the city. Liu’s ability to relay interesting moments of subtle tension is masterly, but falls short when faced with dynamic scenes of violent injustice. 

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