The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Liu Xiaodong and China's Decade

Liu Xiaodong, Unknown Pleasures, 2002, currently showing in 'China's Decade' at
Ray Hughes Gallery, Sydney
Looking at this painting by Liu Xiaodong in the 'China's Decade' show at Ray Hughes Gallery, I suddenly remembered that my first inkling of the nature and significance of contemporary Chinese art, some years ago, came as I stood in front of Liu Xiaodong's enormous painting of migrant workers at the Three Gorges Dam, hung in the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Not quite an epiphany, although in retrospect it should have been. It must have been a Sydney Biennale, although I cannot now remember the year.  It was that painting, in all its extraordinary technical mastery, which made me want to find out more about how Chinese artists came to paint in this way. Until that point my own art education had been almost entirely Eurocentric and American in its focus, with a few exceptions such as Nam June Paik or Yasumasa Morimura. Liu was apparently himself inspired to paint in this manner by being given a postcard of a work by Lucien Freud, and when you look at the way he paints flesh, in the migrant workers eating lunch in their underpants, or in his series of girls lying on seedy bare mattresses, this makes perfect sense.

The artist, now one of the most significant and respected painters in China, teaches at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, where he himself studied. The day that I spent last year immersed in the First and Second Year painting classes at CAFA revealed the legacy of artists such as Liu, and the mastery of technique that is passed on to so many hopeful young art students in China. Like the best dancers or acrobats, they make what is incredibly difficult look easy. And, like dancers or acrobats, it takes years and years of constant and unremitting effort to acquire such a high level of technical mastery.

Painting Class at Central Academy of Fine Arts, observed March 2011
Liu Xiaodong, 'Eating', shown in the 'Mahjong' exhibition of works from the Sigge collection at Berkeley Art Museum in California in 2009