Thu, Dec 13, 2007 - Page 15 News List

Art that mimics life sells

By Blake Carter  /  STAFF REPORTER

Liu Xiaodong works on Sweet Intoxication in the Eslite Gallery before his show.


Chinese painter Liu Xiaodong (劉小東), 44, is on a roll. Last year his New Three Gorges Resettlers broke sales records for a contemporary Chinese artist when it sold for US$2.75 million. (The record has nearly tripled since then.) He also made the tabloids at New Year's when model Lin Chi-ling (林志玲) flew to Guangdong to pose for him.

Not bad for a small-town boy from Jincheng - a place Liu's quick to say you probably won't have heard of - in northeastern China's Liaoning Province.

On Sunday, Liu finished a weeklong stop in Taipei, where he's represented by Eslite Gallery. Five of his paintings are showing there this month, including a large canvas of a "betel nut beauty" that he painted in the gallery before the show opened.

I had the chance to talk to him one morning last week. Liu has the same flat-top haircut and thick-rimmed glasses I'd seen in pictures and paintings by himself and his wife Yu Hong (?紅), also a painter. When I met him, he had a leather jacket over his shoulders, mobster-style and said he'd been out till the wee hours the night before, drinking with friends such as Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien (侯孝賢). He still seemed like a nerd, though.

Perhaps you'd have to be kind of a nerd to get to where Liu is today. He tested into the best art school in China, the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), at 17. After 15 years of rigid, realism-based instruction he'd earned his masters degree, been part of the famous February, 1989 China Avant-Garde show and started exhibiting internationally.

Though other Chinese artists at the time were making art with obvious political and historical references - at best an inflamed reaction to those in power at the time; at worst a calculated study of what would appeal to the international market at the time - Liu stuck with what he knew.

Exhibition notes:

What: Liu Xiaodong Solo Exhibition (劉小東2007)

When: Through Jan. 6; 11am to 7pm Tuesday to Sunday

Where: Eslite Gallery, Eslite Dunhua Bookstore, 245, Dunhua South Rd Sec 1, Taipei City (台北市敦化南路一段245號)

Tickets: Admission is free

"I painted what I was interested in - my friends, individuals," he says. "People were painting Mao Zedong (毛澤東) and things like that. I hated it. What did that have to do with me?" he says.

In a more subtle way than some of his colleagues, Liu's paintings of everyday people - anti-heroes - offered insight into Chinese society at the time. His paintings didn't slap you in the face with scenes from the Cultural Revolution or the Tiananmen Square Massacre, but you could feel the effects of those events and more in the faces of Liu's weary, apathetic subjects. They stared at walls and smoked cigarettes and lay around in bed seemingly waiting to die.

His work still had "a political feel and a societal feel," he says. "But that political feeling was from a Chinese perspective: very hidden."

Things have changed a bit since then. Liu says he rarely paints in Beijing, where he teaches at CAFA. Instead he flies somewhere - Thailand, Japan, Taiwan - sets up a scene and paints it.

In Japan, he painted the two largest works now showing at Eslite. Under the Cherry Blossoms, which shows businessmen having nyotaimori, or "body sushi," is reminiscent of Edouard Manet's Luncheon on the Grass.

He completed his "betel nut girl" painting, Sweet Intoxication, in three days.

One of the best parts of the show is a video of him painting in the Eslite Gallery and in Japan. He's quick and confident, piecing scenes together from models, photographs, sketches and nature.

Liu's dedication to and long study of his craft show in the movie and in the work that he does.

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