LIAO GUOHE, Justice (Blue Lines, Eating, Tears, Gun), 2013, Acrylic on canvas, 50 × 60 cm. Courtesy the artist and Boers-Li Gallery, Beijing.

Bananas, Eggplants and Meat Patties

Liao Guohe

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

Courtesy of Liao Guohe, a scatological cast occupied the exhibition space of Boers-Li Gallery in late August of this year. There were fat, balding men—accompanied by their pure-blonde lovers, an elephant and frog, a cockerel, policemen and a teddy bear with a pop gun—with block heads and crude cars for shoes, extended tongues with roughly written slogans on them, holding airplanes or embracing on swings, as well as squirting and spitting, in a satirical jamboree.

The 36-year-old Liao, part of the “new generation” of Chinese artists based in Hunan province that emerged in the 1990s, is one of the chief exponents of “bad painting” in China. Having worked in television, he was encouraged to become a painter by prominent artist and teacher Wang Xingwei. His solo exhibition at Boers-Li, “Bananas, Eggplants, Meat Patties,” featured 24 canvases, most of them fairly large and done in acrylic, dating from 2007 to the present. Liao’s style has grown simpler with time, with his newest paintings often reduced to rough outlines on unpainted backgrounds.

This quality of roughness, however, is where the paintings’ subtlety also lies. Like cartoons, they collectively harbor directness in their marks. The black and blue lines portraying Justice (Blue Lines, Eating, Tears, Gun) (2013) are bare and simple, with no shading to comfort or coerce them. The composition has a central figure, bent over and crying a stream of teardrops into his left hand while a grinning bear with one paw in its pocket points a gun at him. The crying figure’s other hand is depositing a single teardrop into the outstretched palm of another man. This large figure, sporting a paunch and a cap on his head, is tipping a drink into his mouth with a sweeping movement of his other arm. It is a sad and brutal scene, the emotion of the central figure and his powerlessness offset by the empty, toy-like glare of the bear and the boozy indifference of his companion. One could conjure a number of scenarios around this threesome, as is true with Liao’s other works, such as the bawdy and cruel Untitled (Decency, Human, Pervert 2, Blue Bastard) (2013).

The content of Liao’s works varies, ranging from apparently specific tales and titles, which seem to imply a real news story or event (They Killed Five People and Fell the Tree, 2012), to more general commentaries on “art”—put across in two works in which a balding man paints with his feet while lying down in one, and while kissing a woman on a swing in the other (The Truth of Painting Is an Asshole and The Truth of Painting Blowing Gently, respectively, both 2013)—to simpler visualizations of certain concepts such as “justice.” In Justice (Purple Rooster, Red Words) (2013), for example, a sporadically but beautifully rendered cockerel appears to be pecking the ground. The Chinese characters for the word “justice,” written in dots, flow out from the red area surrounding the fowl’s eye. Indeed, words from the artworks’ titles appear on many of the respective canvases in a way that links Liao with the traditional Chinese landscape painters’ habit of writing poems on their works. Through his brush, however, language comes across somewhat like candid graffiti, making his paintings also “speak” with vernacular strokes.

“Bananas, Eggplants, Meat Patties” showed what can be good about “bad painting.” It is “bad,” as in irreverent and coarse (the antithesis of pretty and kempt), but is also sympathetic, skillful and relevant—at once grand and base. The strength of works like these, however, will have to stand the test of time. In the future, will they still inspire the belief in the crude as authentic, and unabashed artistic marks as vehicles of truth? Here we saw the intersection of Liao’s personal view with apparent societal strains and political undercurrents. Canvas is the seat on which his paintings perch their rough behinds, like the man on the street remarking on life’s rich pageant passing by. These paintings convey a crucial element of doubt that binds them to all that is human.