Engaged with photography, film and painting for the past three decades, Liu Xiaodong has described his style as an ‘open’ one that explores the spaces between realism and abstraction. This vision is evident in the exhibition ‘Chittagong’, a series of paintings based on in situ research of the everyday realities of the men working in Bangladesh’s shipbreaking yards. Six small diptychs – one half figurative and the other abstract (Steel 1-6, 2016) – and four larger paintings (Steel 7-10, 2016–17) hang in the sumptuous rooms of the neoclassical Palazzo Belgioioso. In the diptych Steel 7 (2016), the canvas on the right is neatly divided into four sharply contrasting areas of evenly daubed blue green and burnt sienna. The painting on the left is one of the few works here that does not represent a full human figure: outstretched in a gesture of playful defiance, perhaps, a child’s forearms, vividly covered in henna designs, are seen from above. In its juxtaposition of contingency and order, this work magnifies the tension between the natural and the synthetic that is central to Liu’s practice.
Masculinity and the lean physicality of the workers is another theme in Liu’s enigmatic mise-en-scènes. In Steel 10 (2017), he focuses on relationships between objects, architectural forms and human beings. While the subjectivities of the individuals depicted remain elusive, complex layers of signification permeate the still life and its rich material surface. Flat patches of burnt sienna, umber and ochre are interspersed with high-keyed thicker blue pigments. Strokes of turquoise on the half-derelict building that occupies the top half of the canvas echo those on the shirt of the young man at its centre – the only one whose gaze is directed towards the viewer. This painterly mimicry of photographs achieves something that photography and video, for all their pretention to the real, cannot: it evinces connections with other images.
Trained in oil painting at the prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, where he still teaches, Liu belongs to a group of successful male Chinese oil painters that includes Yue Minjun, Zeng Fangzhi and Zhang Xiaogang. These artists came of age after the Cultural Revolution and the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. While critical of socialist realism and the academic conventions of drawing, they remain – more or less consciously – bound to that tradition.
In a style that entwines photorealism, cinematic framing and storytelling, Liu initially made snapshot-like paintings of his colleagues, family and friends. His subjects belonged to the generation of cultural workers that emerged relatively unscathed from the first decades of Communist rule in China. ‘I wanted to merge with the other constituent parts of this country, like a plant,’ Liu told Jérôme Sans – then director of Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art – in the late 2000s. The artist is also well known for his ties to China’s so-called Sixth Generation of filmmakers. He was the protagonist of both Jia Zhangke’s Dong (2006) – a reference to Liu’s name and to its literal meaning, ‘East’ – where he is shown painting a portrait of migrant demolition workers in the Three Gorges, and of Wang Xiaoshuai’s film, The Days (1993).
During the last decade or so, as China strives to shift focus from its recent industrial past and assert a new role as a global cultural broker, the sites of Liu’s paintings have become increasingly translocal and transnational. In ‘Chittagong’, the workers subsist in a dismal present of toil and penury that China – for all of its postmodern fast-forwardness – insists it wants to leave behind. Ultimately, Liu’s paintings endeavour to complicate the global media spectacle of televised compassion.
Main Image: Liu Xiaodong,‘Chittagong’, 2017, installation view, Massimo De Carlo, Milan-Belgioioso. Courtesy Massimo De Carlo, Milan/London/Hong Kong; photograph: Roberto Marossi