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On the face of it, Liu Xiaodong’s latest exhibition at the Lisson Gallery in London reinforces usual descriptions of the artist’s work as ‘realist’. At the exhibition’s core are a series of large-scale paintings, depicting the interiors of public houses and a restaurant, that have been rendered with a distinctly under-idealising eye for detail. In one painting a large dog slumps over a bar counter, while its owners stand in attendance dressed in stained chef’s whites and scruffy summer working casuals. In another, an oriental style interior, uncannily empty of people, is represented, its kitschy petrolite surfaces and serpentine decorations contrasting with the sentinel presence of two starkly black, symmetrically counter-posed electric fans. In yet another, a vampirically grey-skinned and sclerotic-eyed couple, again dressed in working clothes, preside bathetically over a pub interior, in which a young child at play on a roughly boarded wooden floor seeks to return our gaze. For those familiar with the urban interiors of London this is the instantly recognisable territory of the quick (or not so quick) after work drink, and the drunkenly impulsive late night curry or kebab—a world of intensely cosmopolitan babble and conversational telegraphings of almost certainly exaggerated urban professional lifestyles. Liu has grasped the manifest visual semiotics of this intensely mixed-up gentrified ‘spit and sawdust’ world with evident aplomb.
Liu’s capacity to render the ripped backside of London life in such apparently knowing detail was aided not only by the artist’s now well established method of painting in situ but also of interacting actively with the individuals and communities he depicts. This signature approach no doubt enables Liu to gain far greater insights into the significance of the social milieus into which he enters, than any amount of anonymous sketching or photograph-taking. It is also one well in tune with the persistence of realism as a dominant aesthetic within the mainstream (officially supported) art world of Liu’s home territory of the People’s Republic of China, where he holds a position as a professor at Beijing’s prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts; an aesthetic self-consciously adopted during the early twentieth century as a culturally distinct framework for the development of a socially inclined and progressive modern art. Liu’s actively engaged approach also allows his work to be aligned with the current international fashion for an art of social intervention and relationality. That sense of relationality is further supplemented by conspicuously unfinished passages throughout Liu’s painting, left as metaphorical invitations to the viewer to ‘complete’ the work, and the artist’s sometimes visually disjunctive use of multiple panels as part of the making of a single image, both of which suggest a contemporary ‘conceptual’ re-motivation of conventional realist techniques (a reading which Liu himself actively resists). In short Liu’s work is open to differing socio-cultural perspectives: including one that enables him to work successfully within the prevailing socio-political conditions of the PRC and another conferring critical credibility within western(ised) contexts. Like other contemporary ‘realist’ artists from China, a searching understanding of the multiple significances of Liu’s work lies beyond a single gallery visit. Liu’s current and highly engaging exhibition at the Lisson Gallery is, though, a very good place to start.
In spite of his actively relational approach, the extent to which Liu has been able to penetrate beyond the surface codes of London life is, however, very much open to question. The large paintings included in the Lisson show are significantly under-resolved. Instead of offering an invitation to the viewer to complete the work, this lack of resolution betrays a relatively shallow engagement with the life of the ‘other’. Liu’s paintings completed within the PRC are, understandably, rather more convincing.
Liu Xiaodong, Green Pub, 2013. Oil on cotton duck, 220 x 225cm. © the artist. Courtesy Lisson Gallery London.
Liu Xiaodong, White Pub, 2013. Oil on cotton duck. © the artist. Courtesy Lisson Gallery London.