Hemuse, one of the most promising new galleries to hit the Beijing scene in years—and located downtown, outside of any of the major art districts, at that—opens the spring season with an understated solo exhibition of small paintings from an artist whose name will be familiar and yet somehow indistinct: Liu Xiaohui, an instructor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts with a track record of exhibitions at officially sanctioned local institutions and international venues, just slightly off the beaten path in both cases. His work is oddly familiar in a way, clearly derived from the strong technical tradition of realist painting from life in the Soviet-style Chinese art education system, and yet it offers something naggingly divergent from the expected heroics and latent social comentary. These paintings, delicate and harmless as they may seem, contain within their nuanced compositions miniature conceptual worms that bury their way into the mind of the viewer, gnawing at the memory as it tries to recall some particular detail and provoking an insistent desire to return to each picture—even as nothing new or particularly striking appears in the meantime.
Liu Xiaohui, Winter in Huantie 5, 2011, Tempura on board, 30 x 40 cm; Courtesy of the artist and Hemuse Gallery
The subject matter of these small works is uniformly bland in their unwavering attempt to capture the life of the artist—neither new to the scene nor an international star—in all its picturesque potential and futility. And yet the various series of work included in this exhibition and the accompanying catalogue, all revolving around the prosaic environments of the artist, also enter into what may as well be parallel universes: aside from a collection of images depicting winter scenes in the former railroad testing grounds, now an important artist community, there are also several extensive sets following or perhaps imagining the daily routine of models for figure drawing classes. There is the somewhat predictable female nude against the backdrop a bare studio, but there are also visions of trips taken to tourist sites taken similarly from a perspective that seems more behind-the-scenes than theatrical. None of these groups, each of which claims a single title, contains fewer than five or six images, and some include as many as fifteen. In some cases multiple compositions appear on a single canvas or panel, while in others multiple pieces are framed together in surprisingly successful arrangements under glass. It is only appropriate, then, that the publication gathering the pieces in this show, among several other series included, takes the form of individual album sheets that can be separated and reordered at will; in some cases, this presentation threatens to overshadow the hanging of the exhibition itself, but for the fact that these small reproductions hardly compare to the attention to detail and nuance present in the work itself.
Liu Xiaohui, Model, 2011, Acrylic on canvas, 45 x 38 cm; Courtesy of the artist and Hemuse Gallery
Painting, for Liu Xiaohui, seems to be a relatively boring task, at least for the artist himself; for the viewer, the pleasure of the work comes to be the thrill of the search for visual meaning. As he writes in the foreword to the exhibition, a good portion of his practice is consumed by the search for a fitting subject, even if it often ends up as that with which he is most closely surrounded. It may be a passive activity, but it is still an action, a form of “doing” the world that ultimately constitutes an archive of moments. In front of his pictures, as physical objects and as compositions, we are consumed by a combination of speculation and voyeurism, and it is an enthralling sensation.
(Image at top: Liu Xiaohui, Liu Xiaohui, Friendship Hotel 3, 2011, Acrylic on paper, 20 x 25 cm; Courtesy of the artist and Hemuse Gallery)