Commissioned by the Ullens Center, this exhibition follows painter Liu Xiaodong as he returns to his hometown of Jincheng in northeastern China, painting from life the inhabitants of a place with which he was once intimately familiar as they work, sing karaoke, and wander in a state of perpetual unemployment. As we have come to expect from exhibitions of the artist, this one includes not only painting but also notes, sketches, photographs, and, most notably, a documentary shot by the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien (Liu was also the subject of a film shot by Jia Zhangke in 2006, begging the question of what it is that makes him such an attractive figure for the cinema).
Independently of his image in film, however, Liu Xiaodong is a fundamentally cinematic artist. Thematically concerned with the margins of society, rarely does a composition lacking in the intensity and tension of social reality pass his brush; his habit of working en plein air, too, emphasizes the relationship between movement through space and its documentation in multiple dimensions on the canvas. In this light the exhibition should be packed with drama, but, while I do enjoy reading and watching the traces of his process, the conception of this body of work might have been asking for too much. Many of his portraits in fact depend on critical distance, often instilling a sense of emptiness and futility if not in the eyes of the subject then at least in his or her living environment. Here, however, this is impossible: for Liu, this is his mill town, his old friends, his family relationships.
Stylistically this new body of work is definitively a turning point for Liu Xiaodong. Marks of the brush are less hurried, resulting in a cleaner picture plane with less of a sense of urgency; composition replaces what once felt like the hasty work of an instant photograph. The palette is far brighter than that to which we are accustomed, indicating a departure from the grays and browns of imagined suburban villages in favor of the plastic rainbows of real life in such factory towns. Strangely, some of these pieces even involve contorted or unnecessarily staged postures. These three changes, all revealed at the same moment, indicate a striking and awkward affinity with some of the cartoon painting of the past six years, as if the artist were for some reason seeking to turn his subjects into repeated characters with an iconic turn.
The exhibition leaves its audience grasping for the edge, for the rust and dirt and utter humanity we seek in Liu Xiaodong. The curatorial turn toward process and situation evident here and in previous showings is appreciated, but the trappings must not overcome the core values of the work.
-- Robin Peckham
(All images courtesy of Pace Beijing and the artist.)