To get from downtown Beijing to Liu Wei’s studio in Songzhuang village, one must travel by car across 30 miles of urbanized land that belongs to Beijing Municipality. Here, traditional peasant villages have been transformed into artist villages. Among the other artists in Songzhuang are Lin Tianmiao and her husband Wang Gongxin and painters Fang Lijun and Yang Shaobin.
Rural courtyard houses are the alternative paradise for this community, seeking a haven from the frantic pace of Beijing development. Living across from Liu Wei’s house, legendary critic Li Xianting is always available for a tea break. Liu spends most of his time here with his long-term girlfriend and three dogs. He rarely goes out to drink with his peers although, like many other artists, he owns a restaurant not far from his house.
Liu, China’s enfant terrible, started his career as a member of the post-1989 “Cynical Realism” movement, making paintings combining both abstraction and figuration. His subjects reflected a naughty sense of humor and sarcasm. Moving easily between oils, watercolor, ink, Chinese landscapes and calligraphy, Liu now explores new approaches to his art. Here and there, traces of internal conflict appear in the paintings. In his studio, the telltale hieroglyphs of such conflict are visible on the furniture and old canvas frames. He is full of nervous energy and does not like to talk about himself or play into any star system.
The farmhouse, transformed into an L-shape home-studio overlooking a garden, is full of disparate objects: broken dolls heads, skulls and Mao icons. Liu’s easel holds a painting that is, according to the artist, still in progress. He repeats this statement endlessly to avid collectors, as the painter never wants to separate from his work. But where does a painting end? His brush ignores the limit of the canvas and goes beyond, onto the studio walls and even surrounding objects. Ultimately, the painting results from both organized composition and free choreography.
As he enters his studio, lighting yet another cigarette, Liu turns up the volume of his stereo and rummages through piles of punk and alternative CDs. As he has noted in a previous interview, “My paintings are like a flight, like music . . . music cannot always have the same melody: sometimes . . . it runs away fro a while, and then it comes back again.” Music is essential to the artist’s world, driving emotion and energy onto the canvas. In front of the painting, another cigarette in mouth, Liu Wei is dancing, gesticulating and starting to trust himself to add or remove paint.
Liquefied subjects, as in the process of poetic decomposition, start to emerge from the canvas. Series like “Flowers” (2005), “Do you like pork?” (2003), “Landscape” (2000–06) or “No Smoking” (1998) are an excuse for the artist to indulge in sexual fantasies, monsters and phantasmagoric animals, or his favorite dogs playing in the garden. The world of Liu Wei is a literal illustration of Jose Luis Borges’ “Chinese encyclopedia,” an exploration of different worlds that are not yet defined and never will be.