LIU XIAODONG, A Bunch of Pork at River, 2003, oil on canvas, 97 × 76.5 cm. Courtesy Yallay Gallery, Hong Kong.

LIU XIAODONGPlaying with Tortoise, 2007, oil on canvas, 90 × 70 cm. Courtesy Yallay Gallery, Hong Kong.

25 Oil Paintings: 1993-2007

Liu Xiaodong

Yallay Gallery
Hong Kong China

Can Contemporary Chinese art be revived as a tool for social critique? Returning to the traditional medium of painting, Liu Xiaodong, whose solo exhibition “25 Oil Paintings: 1993-2007” was up at Yallay Gallery in Hong Kong in March, makes a renewed case for this question, departing from the legacy of socialist realism that has occupied the medium for several decades, to explore instead intimate and fleeting glances into the country’s ever-changing social landscape.

In Liu’s repertoire, it is not unusual to see many versions of the same work at varying stages of completeness. At Yallay, his painting Dead Water (1993–99), featuring a group of construction workers staring down at the body of a colleague who has fallen to his death, is accompanied by a smaller, sketchier version of the same scene. Having the two hung alongside one another serves not only as a meditative gesture but also expresses the multiple perspectives from which the event can be viewed. The artist refutes Chinese media’s positivist claims that only one truth exists, and that there is a right way of looking at things. In a third painting, Watching (2000), only the dead man’s colleagues are depicted, staring off into some unknown abyss, leaving the viewer to wonder what they might be thinking.

Liu’s shifting perspectives also mock nationalist media more explicitly. In A Bunch of Pork at River (2003), a portion of sanguine meat dangles unceremoniously in the middle of the frame, blocking the scenery behind. With its off-kilter angle and unromantic subject matter, it appears much more like an amateur snapshot than a painting—something caught on the fly rather than methodically contemplated—drawing attention to the subjective nature of image-making.

Simultaneously, with his genre of painting, Liu elevates the status of the ordinary. While portraiture was traditionally reserved for the upper crust of Chinese society, the artist turns his eye on local acquaintances. Young Girl (1995) and Playing with a Tortoise (2007), for example, both depict working-class people going about their daily lives. In his approach, Liu democratizes the elite regime of portraiture, glorifying new subjects.

Liu’s admiration of the Sixth Generation filmmakers in China—who, working post 1990s, turned away from grand, nationalistic themes toward the trivial and mundane—is evident in his work. In Dirty Water (2002), the unlikely setting of a polluted canal near the artist’s studio, struck him as picturesque. The bleak image serves as a poignant reminder of the negative environmental impact of our industrial pursuits and proves that at times the quotidian bears more truthful impressions of ideological change.

At times Liu himself acts like filmmaker, capturing cinematic “frames” of an untold history. In 2012, he traveled to the contested northwestern territories of China where he performed hours upon hours of live painting. The entire process was filmed and rigorously documented, this double and triple lens itself serving as a checks-and-balances system, demonstrating the futility of attempts at accuracy.

With a large number of paintings in the exhibition appearing raw and unfinished, Liu’s pursuit of the truth is far from complete, and perhaps it is irrelevant. One work, Double Portrait With Birds of Prey (1992), sits indistinctly on a far wall. A contribution from the artist’s wife and fellow artist Yu Hong, the inclusion of this painting in the exhibition indicates an inextricably personal strain of Liu’s practice and lends credence to the notion that personal is political—which may ultimately have particular relevance for China in the coming decades.

Liu Xiaodong’s “25 Paintings: 1993–2007” was on view at Yallay Gallery in Hong Kong from March 3–29, 2014.

Ming Lin is assistant editor at ArtAsiaPacific.