BY Alex Estorick in Reviews | 06 NOV 20
Featured in
Issue 216

Liu Xiaodong’s New England

The artist’s portraits of Chinese expats at London’s Massimo De Carlo make for dissonant viewing 

BY Alex Estorick in Reviews | 06 NOV 20

For a painter whose career has chronicled the human consequences of China’s evolution, Liu Xiaodong’s latest show, ‘New England’, represents both a natural extension and a striking departure. The artist’s new series of portraits, depicting leading Chinese expats and entrepreneurs living in London, foregrounds a generation of global influencers more indicative of pre-pandemic free movement than our present state of territorial confinement. It’s a far cry from Liu’s ‘Three Gorges Project’ (2003–06), which documented the displacement instigated in order to construct the world’s largest power station on the Yangzi River, as well as the scenes of Uyghur jade miners in his ‘Hotan Project’ (2012), which perfected his unmistakable brand of group portraiture: maximizing the presence of the individual while maintaining collective vulnerability.

Liu Xiaodong, Geoffrey and his Family, 2019
Liu Xiaodong, Geoffrey and his Family, 2019, oil on canvas, 140 x 150 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Massimo De Carlo, Milan/London/Hong Kong; photograph: Todd-White

Completed last summer, ‘New England’ makes for dissonant viewing now – an effect only enhanced by the grandiose neoliberal aura in which the artist bathes his more brazen subjects. A full-length reclining nude portrait of entrepreneur Stanley Zhu (Stanley Baby, all works 2019) and the domestic interior of textile heiress Veronica Chou, dressed (at the artist’s behest) in a firebird-patterned jumpsuit and posing with her boys in front of a jungle gym (Veronica and her Twins), are particularly marvellous in this regard. Liu retains his capacity for subterranean critique, although his portrait of a young UBS executive, Geoffrey and his Family – standing in their suburban back garden, overlooked by two nosey neighbours – is the devoid of performance. The painter reveals the claustrophobia that comes with public visibility, while hinting at a Sinophobia grown more pronounced in recent months.

By contrast, Ma Yue’s Home – a double portrait of Ma and his older English husband, Digby, in their Mayfair home, encased by gaudy superabundance – is poignant for its release from patriarchal stricture. Works like this reveal the liberation a life in London can afford, for those who can afford it.

Main image: Liu Xiaodong, Stanley Baby, 2019, oil on canvas, 180 × 190 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Massimo De Carlo, Milan/London/Hong Kong; photograph: Todd-White

Alex Estorick is a writer and editor based in London