Liu Jianhua

Pace Gallery, London

Liu Jianhua (b. 1962) lives and works in Shanghai. At the age of fourteen he began to work alongside his uncle and mentor, the ceramicist Liu Yuan Chang at the former imperial kilns in Jingdezhen. Liu went on to study sculpture in the department of Fine Arts at the Jingdezhen Pottery and Porcelain College from 1985 to 1989. He later lectured at the Yunnan Institute of the Arts, and now works as a Professor in the Sculpture Department of the School of Fine Arts at Shanghai University.

‘Between’, a showcase exhibition of recent sculptural works by Liu, was staged at Pace’s London gallery. It coincided with a major exhibition of the work of Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy, in its premises adjacent to Burlington House, as well as events surrounding a state visit to the United Kingdom by Chinese premier Xi Jinping. Many of the works included in the Pace exhibition had not been seen in the UK before.

Unlike artists associated with the movement known as ‘New Ink’, who have, in recent years, sought to reinvent ink and brush painting rooted in China’s Confucian literati traditions, in making his sculptural works Liu uses techniques learned during his apprenticeship as a ceramicist in Jingdezhen. His sculptures, while presented as artworks, are distinctly artisanal in their manufacture, materials and finish; and, as such, may be interpreted—according to the artist’s intentions—as a divergence from high-cultural Chinese literati artistic thinking and practice. 

In spite of this demurral from historical Chinese cultural attitudes and ways of working, Liu’s works nevertheless invite sustained contemplation of a sort commensurate with China’s Daoist and Buddhist traditions, both of which advocate a meditative attitude towards nature and the everyday. In some cases, Liu’s works are highly naturalistic simulacra which shuttle engagingly between an actual and a signified materiality. The uncertain positioning of these works in relation to traditional Chinese distinctions between high art and artisanship, and as naturalistic simulacra, also render them open to interpretation as variations on the deconstructive post-Duchampian ‘art work’. Liu cites Louise Bourgeois’s approach to making as an exemplar of good practice. He also makes regular visits to collections of ancient Chinese ceramics held in Taiwan, paying particular attention to works of the Song Dynasty, which are inspired directly by nature.

Four works by Liu were included in the exhibition at Pace. Blank Paper (2009-12), a wall-mounted almost featureless sheet of white porcelain, bears traces of hand-crafted manufacture that simultaneously betray its status as a ceramic object while mimicking the surface of Yuan paper—made from rice and mulberry bark and used traditionally as a support for Chinese ink and brush painting. The work seduces by paradoxically exuding feelings of lightness and pliability, irreconcilable with its otherwise evident constituent materials and means of production. 

Trace (2011) comprises a grouping of wall-mounted ceramic objects open to interpretation as a representation of oversized drips of black liquid. In China, viewers tend to associate Trace with traditional Chinese ink painting. Outside China it has been interpreted as representing dripping tar and as a metaphor for falling tears. 

Fallen Leaves (2012), presents a grouping of ceramic representations of leaves, placed in an apparently random, but actually a highly considered way along the length of a low-level plinth positioned on the floor. From a distance the leaves appear as found objects taken directly from nature, as if fallen from a tree. Close up, the material of their manufacture is revealed. The placing of the leaves is equally artificial, being the outcome of protracted on-site arrangement by the artist in imitation of the chaotic spontaneity of the natural world.

Untitled (2012), is a wall-mounted series of eight (a number considered lucky in Chinese culture) porcelain plates, abutting one another in a line at approximately eye height. Drawn across and linking the plates visually is a horizontal blue line made by a single sweeping brushstroke. In making this work Liu worked over several days producing batches of fifty plates that were arranged in groups before the addition of painted lines across their surfaces. Liu eventually discarded all but one of the groups, retaining that where the drawn line was considered to be most reflective of the artist’s feelings at the time of making.

Liu’s sculptural works would appear to draw closely on the example of western(ized) modern and contemporary art; not least—in terms of their sparseness of means and placement in the gallery space—minimalist works by the likes of Robert Ryman, Claes Oldenburg, Carl Andre and Agnes Martin. For the artist, however, the core cultural logic of his works resides not in a now widely adopted and fashionable stylistic minimalism, but in how ceramic materials might be made to transcend their everyday uses to become a focus for aesthetic contemplation; or, as Liu puts it, a realisation ‘that a daily material is open to reinterpretation’. In spite of its apparent minimalist formalism, such an approach is inescapably social in its desire to interrupt the hierarchical ordering of traditional Confucian culture.

The significance of Liu’s works is resolutely multi-dimensional. It is indivisible from the application of the artist’s singular knowledge and expertise as a ceramicist in the production of objects that shuttle inconclusively between associations with nature, industrial manufacture, everyday life and high-art aesthetics, as well differing East-West cultural outlooks. The durable effect of Liu’s work is not that of trompe l’oeil—a necessarily temporary fooling of the eye. Rather, it is the ‘push-pull’ of a conspicuous multiple parallax. His is a serially incomplete strategy for an open-ended art.

For viewers unfamiliar with Liu’s intentions and traditional Chinese culture, the shifting significances of the works included in Between may have been partly or largely occluded. Indeed, within such a restricted cultural purview, the formal simplicity of Liu’s works and their use of trompe l’oeil may well have been interpreted as insufficiently engaging. Sustained viewing and a hospitable openness to another cultural milieu reveals a much larger and more critically penetrating ambition.

Liu Jianhua, Trace, 2011. Porcelain, dimensions variable. © Liu Jianhua. Images courtesy Pace Gallery. Photographs Damian Griffiths.

Liu Jianhua, Untitled 2012, 2012. Porcelain, 40.5 x 40.5 x 4.2cm each. © Liu Jianhua. Images courtesy Pace Gallery. Photographs Damian Griffiths.

Liu Jianhua
, Fallen Leaves, 2012
. Porcelain, 
dimension variable, 500 pieces. © Liu Jianhua. Courtesy Pace Gallery. Photograph Damian Griffiths. 

Liu Jianhua, 
Blank Paper, 2009-2012
. Porcelain, 
201 x 103 x 0.8cm (79-1/8" x 40-9/16" x 5/16"). © Liu Jianhua. Courtesy Pace Gallery. Photograph Damian Griffiths.