Liu Xiaodong

(b. 1963)

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(1963– )

Chinese painter, born in Jincheng. He studied at the Central Institute of Fine Arts, Beijing, graduating in 1988. In 1992 he spent time in New York. He took part in the ‘Chinese Avant-garde Art Exhibition’ in Beijing in 1989. This exhibition was something of a breakthrough for independent artists in China. The critic Li Xianting detected ‘tragic overtones’ in Liu's paintings exhibited there. He described ‘people lost in their own thoughts’ and ‘bored expressions and ennui’. The paintings neither followed the party directive to ‘praise the masses of workers, farmers and soldiers’ nor engaged ironically with official propaganda imagery as did the work of his contemporaries. To a Western spectator they seem closer to painters such as Balthus or Edward Hopper in their naturalistic rendering of confining social alienation or to Eric Fischl, with whom he has frequently corresponded, for the painterly violence in his treatment of naked flesh.

Liu Xiaodong frequently works from photographs. This gives some of his paintings the air of film stills, but he does not copy them slavishly, treating them very freely as source material. He has commented that in his paintings he has ‘tried to show more humanity’ as a reaction against the extent to which the human has been neglected in the recent history of China. In 1993 he witnessed the death of a worker who fell from a construction site. This incident became the basis of a series of paintings in which the dead man is seen in the distance from above, the focus being on the watchers, who confront mortality. In Watching (2000), psychologically the most powerful of the cycle, we do not see the body at all but only the pensive response of the spectators; as the artist put it, ‘How people are curious about things, about the Unknown, about the Other World.’ When it was shown in Paris at the Pompidou Centre in 2003, the curators considered it a more general reflection of puzzlement at the drastic changes taking place in China.

In 2001, following a trip to Singapore, he exhibited a group of paintings under the title of Prostitutes, Transvestites and Men who have nothing to do. Liu has also made a series of paintings about China's controversial Three Gorges project. The government maintained that this hydroelectric scheme to dam the Yangtze River was essential to the economic modernization of the nation, but it has been much criticized abroad on environmental and conservation grounds. The paintings concentrate on the effects on those displaced from their lands and livelihoods when thousands of villages are submerged. They were shown in San Francisco and at the Sydney Biennale in 2006.

Further Reading

J. M. Decrop (ed.), Liu Xiaodong (2006)

Subjects: Art.

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