Liu Ye: Leave Me in the Dark at Sperone Westwater Gallery
November 7 – December 19, 2009
415 West 13 Street, between 9th Avenue and Washington Street
New York City, 212 999 7337
While many of the most lucrative sales in auctions devoted to Chinese contemporary art have gone to large-scale expressionist-style painting, Liu Ye offers a subtle counterpoint as if to suggest that not all painting in China travels the same direction. Indeed, these paintings pursue a non-conformist, rear-guard image in the current Asian art scene. Rather than conforming to a hackneyed style of figurative expressionism, Liu Ye reveals more controlled, refined, aspect of painting, one that is given to an implicit geometry.
In a glance one can see Liu Ye’s adroit, cartoon-like female figures – forever young and fashionably dressed – in paintings such as Leave Me in The Dark (2009), Banned Book 2(2008), and Miss (2008), and immediately grasp the blithe mannerism inherent in these paintings. Each work possesses a purist transparent surface that begets a different mood when compared with the hyper, smiling faces, for instance, in the paintings of Yue Min-ju.
In addition to being the title of this relatively sparse exhibition at Sperone Westwater, there are two versions of Leave Me in the Dark: one vertically cropped smaller painting, and another larger painting with a more effective horizontal expanse. In each case, a small doll-like Asian woman stands squarely in the middle of the painting. The straight ground-level horizon is slightly raised behind her feet, where a wintry sky appears rendered in warm gray tones. It is snowing. Her cheeks are rosy. She is poised holding her black pull-along suitcase adjacent to her firmly placed blue plaid pants.
In contrast, Banned Book 2, the young woman (presumably the same model) is reclining horizontally in a prone position, again elegantly dressed with a tiny waist and long black hair descending over the side of her face that descends in front of the book she is reading. Barbara Pollack suggests in her catalogue essay that the book is Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, which created a sensation in countries as divergent as the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China. The painting heralds a curious form of irony as the reclining subject appears self-content, and not particularly distraught as to the contraband material om which she delights.
Much has been made concerning the artist’s relationship to Mondrian. There are many, examples of Mondrian-influenced pictures by Liu in the stand out Fu Ruide collection of Chinese paintingWhereas the more obvious Mondrian influence at Sperone can be found inComposition with Toy Bricks (2009) includinga faux Cubist table top with a geometric arrangement of colored shapes painted in red, yellow, and blue, the less obvious, yet more implicit structure can be found in one of the truly magnificent paintings in this show, Miss(2008).
Here again, our friendly young girl – this time, wearing a stylish bowler – stands alone with two suitcases on either side. There are no red, yellow, and blue shapes in this painting, yet in purely formal terms, the asymmetrical balance of the baggage in relation to her figure holds a mystifying internal tension within the open pictorial space. Liu’s use of the void brings home the differences between the meaning of the void in China and the Western world. In Liu Ye’s paintings, the void is a representation of space in Taoist or Zen Buddhist terms; it is more formal in Miss and, I would argue, more elegant than the Western colloquialism – “It just came out of the void.”. Here I am caught between two sensibilities. While I feel the necessity to say that no art comes out of the void, I simply cannot deny the indelible absence in the paintings of Liu Ye of what John McLaughlin called, in reference to the fifteenth century Japanese landscape painter, Sesshu, “the marvelous void”. What I find exciting about the application of the void in Liu Ye’s modest paintings of figures in open space is their accuracy in bringing the Zen meditative concept of wu-nien (no mind) into a refreshing context. In so doing, Liu’s paintings internalize large ideas within small spaces, thereby reinvigorating a new possibility for intimacy in art within the transcultural excess of the present.