In contemporary painting, how to make “realism” relevant and engaging, is a particular challenge. So it is a pleasant surprise when you come across an artist who is able to transport the form to another level. Liu Xiaodong is a Chinese artist who was trained in the Socialist Realist style of oil painting. And Socialist Realism, while often vibrant and uplifting (as in the Moscow metro stations), as the sanctioned art form under Communist dictatorship, often tends toward kitsch. Part of its political mandate means that it is not allowed to be self-critical or self-reflective, and so its optimistic joy and exuberance easily reads as ridiculous (and, given the irony of that optimism, as heartbreaking). Liu Xiaodong, however, has managed to manipulate his socialist realist teachings to develop a new form which is incredibly powerful and moving, and provides a compelling critique of contemporary Chinese issues.
A number of terms have been applied to his artistic style and to the movement in which he plays a central part: Neo-Realism, Cynical Realism, and Neo-Academism. I particularly like Cynical Realism — I’m not entirely sure why, but it is such a blunt assessment of facts, and yet so barely scratches the surface of what’s going on in his painting, that I think it perfectly suits his work.
Two recent paintings capture the complexity of Liu Xiaodong’s approach in all of its fabulousness.
For anyone interested in contemporary Chinese Art, it is worth reading Eugene Wang’s piece “Aftershock” in the February issue of Artforum. (If you go to http://artforum.com/inprint/issue=201202, you have to register in order to be able to access the February issue, but it is free of charge.) But here’s a basic bullet point list of all of the components that comprise these works.
- Both painting are of an epic scale, 9′ 10 1/8″ x 13′ 1 1/2″. This scale has a number of repercussions. The figures in the painting are similar in scale to the viewer. It parodies the conventional socialist realist tableaux. It references traditions of epic realistic painting from the centuries when realism was perhaps not so cynical.
- The paintings reference two disasters in recent history. Out of Beichuan depicts the aftermath of the 2008 earthquake. Into Taihu captures the effects of pollution on Lake Taihu and with it, the destruction of some of China’s most serene landscapes.
- The paintings’ names set them up in a yin and yang kind of a balance.
- Realism in painting was complicated with the advent of photography. Neo-realist painting often strives for a kind of hyper-realism in its style of depiction. And yet Liu Xiaodong’s paintings scarcely aim to accurately depict the appearance of the landscapes they present.
- Liu Xiaodong created his paintings out of doors, in situ (en plein air), but nothing about the paintings themselves reflects any of the typical trappings of paintings made outside. They are uninterested in the subtle plays of weather and light.
- That they are not meant to faithfully capture their setting is further emphasized by the fact that while Liu Xiaodong was painting Out of Beichuan, he had the entire “act” as it were recorded on videotape and in photographs.
- As a symmetrical pair, they make reference to the proverbial Chinese “heaven-sent calamity and man-made disaster”.
- In Chinese tradition, the response to such disasters was ritual ceremony involving “golden boys and jade girls”. And indeed, here we have them, golden boys and jade girls. Shown together the tension between the groups implies the potential for recovery and for the future through mating and reproduction.
- While the settings of the paintings suggest they are meant to depict the disasters, the human figures are so large and prominent within the canvases, that they become, more than anything, group portraits. Perhaps emphasizing the primacy of this hope for the future over the wrecked landscapes they inhabit. And yet, who are they portraits of?
- As if to further mock the paintings’ apparent realism, the figures depicted in the two panels are not local youth, but actors hired and brought in for the purposes of the paintings. And yet these actors, rather than being evocative and expressive, display almost blank faces and total apathy.
In this and countless other respects, ultimately, Liu Xiaodong has put in the place of documentary paintings, dramatic and deliberately staged tableaux, and yet everything about the paintings undercuts that staging. He uses that constant push and pull both to make his style utterly contemporary, to capture all of the nuanced problems inherent in realism. The results are two highly unsettling and urgent paintings. Absolutely brilliant.