Liu Xiaodong: Shaanbei reviewed in Hyperallergic
25 May 2023
One of the underlying commonalities among the sites Liu has painted is the deleterious consequences of modernization on a traditional society or group.
Historically speaking, Shaanbei is considered the birthplace of the People’s Republic of China, as it is where Mao Zedong ended the Long March in October 1935. Like the Texas-Mexico border, Mongolia, or Cuba — places where Liu has traveled and painted — progress’s march and the history of global conflict have left their marks on its inhabitants.
The exhibition comprises different examples of Liu’s immersion in the life and culture of Shaanbei. It must be seen in its entirety to sense all the facets of his deeply considered practice. Bo Yang’s 40-minute biographical documentary Shaanbei explains that Liu first traveled to this area to paint in 1985. In the film, he shows a notebook drawing he made of an elderly man living in the village at that time and asks the people he meets in Shaanbei about him.
The entire notebook, which is on display, has been digitized so viewers can scroll through the pages. When Liu visited Shaanbei in 1985, he was an undergraduate student at the Chinese Academy of Fine Art (CAFA), where he now teaches painting. In 1981, he entered a high school affiliated with CAFA after taking a national exam. He was part of the first wave of students to return to school after Mao died and the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976. He was in his late teens and had not been formally educated for many years. In 1984, he was admitted to CAFA’s oil painting department.
Traveling to a remote rural area of China and painting the people living and working there was part of school policy, in keeping with the Chinese Communist idealization of the peasant and laborer. An observational painter who never became didactic, contrary to his social realist training, Liu never says why he chose to return to Shaanbei after more than 30 years, leaving viewers room to surmise.
When Liu shows a drawing from his student notebook to the villagers, he is also identifying the change in thinking that began to take place while he was in art school — the move from idealizing to directly observing the subject. Shaped by the changes and events in China in the years after Mao’s death in 1976 up to the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, his return to Shaanbei is loaded. And yet, as I watched the film, I got the sense that he was trying hard to see what was in front of his eyes, and that his motivation was the same as when he was a student: empathy. It is in fact his empathetic longing to become the “other” that originally helped him break through the aesthetic agenda of socialist realism, with its emphasis on idealization and the heroic. Can he imagine what his subjects are thinking and feeling without passing judgement on them? As Charles Baudelaire described the “painter of modern life,” can he become “independent, passionate, and impartial”?
Read the fulll review by John Yau in Hyperallergic here.
Liu Xiaodong: Shaanbei is on view at Lisson New York through June 10.