When my office moved up to the 50’s about two decades ago, it occurred to me that, besides my paying more for lunch, the new location afforded me access to the hub of galleries clustered along 57th Street in Midtown Manhattan. This represented a great improvement from our prior location. While, on the upside, the stores, restaurants, delis and bars serving our old location were more fitting pricewise for a proletarian workforce (of which, I consider myself a member), the downside was the immediate area was pretty devoid of any cultural life. Occasionally, if I was feeling particularly ambitious, I’d hike across town and up about ten blocks to visit the Pierpont Morgan Library, where I’d rush in huffing and puffing, make a quick tour of the show and then beat a hasty retreat back to my office. From our new digs, I could easily visit on my lunch hour a host of excellent galleries such as
, St. Etienne, Michael Rosenfeld,
Marian Goodman, Tibor de Nagy and Pace.
One of my preferred places to go was Marlborough 745 Fifth Avenue, a building that housed
a few of my favorite galleries like Forum, Mary Boone, Edwynn Houk and
McKee. A jazz pianist was usually
stationed in the lobby, his music welcoming visitors in from the noisy NYC
streets. Moving from floor to floor in
the building, I’d cover four or five shows in a single lunch hour, taking my
time to consider the work, feeling privileged that such a great resource was
now at my disposal.
|Liu Xiaodong - Emigration of the Three Gorges - 2003|
|Liu Xiaodong - Out of Bichuan - 2010|
|Liu Xiaodong - Phoenix - 2010|
|Liu Xiaodong - Self Portrait - 2008|
|Liu Xiaodong - Sky Burial -2007|
|Liu Xiaodong - Three Gorges Newly Displaced Population - 2004|
|Liu Xiaodong - West Ridge Again - 2010|
I’d never heard of the artist, Liu Xiaodong, before, which isn’t too surprising considering that he is a member of the generation of artists that came to maturity in
as the nation was transforming itself into an industrial and commercial
powerhouse. In 1963, he was born in
Jincheng, an important industrial city in north China , best known during Liu’s
youth for coalmining. At the age of
seventeen, Liu left Jincheng to study art in China where he attended the Central Academy
of Fine Arts for both his undergraduate and postgraduate studies. Liu is now a central figure among Beijing ’s
Neo-Realist painters, his work documenting many of the ills resulting from his
nation’s rapid industrialization: population displacement, economic turmoil and
environmental devastation. He travels
extensively, choosing to visit areas experiencing disruption and upheaval due
to social, economic or environmental change, usually working on his large
canvases on location – an ambitious undertaking to which the photograph below
can attest. China
Many times I’ve seen him referred to as a Social Realist, which seems fair since in his work he strives to expose the often ignored negative consequences of the rapid development which
experienced over the last half century.
I’m not a big fan of Social Realism.
The artwork of this movement sheds light on suffering and injustice,
serves to educate a myopic public about issues and conditions it would prefer
to ignore and may even inspire a moment of empathy for those less fortunate
than the viewer. I can’t argue that
those goals aren’t significant and praiseworthy. But even the best products of this movement
often leave me feeling, after an initial reaction of dissatisfaction, sympathy
or outrage, less than engaged. It’s not
that I disagree with the perspective asserted by the work, but I think that
work that is basically didactic in function must inevitably simplify, ignore
nuance, deny inconsistencies, perhaps even lapse into exaggeration. So, after the intended message of the artwork
is delivered, there may not be a lot more there to be gleaned. China
|Ben Shahn - The Dust Bowl - Resettlement Administration|
|Isabel Bishop - Tidying Up|
|Jacob Lawrence - Toussaint L'Ouverture Series - 1938|
|John Steuart Curry - The Return of Private Davis from the Argonne - 1940|
|Liu Xiaodong - Into Taihu - 2010|
|Liu Xiaodong - Jincheng Airport - 2010|
Of course, when looking at Liu’s work I’m at a disadvantage. Only peripherally aware of
history, I may be discerning the surreal in images that contemporary Chinese
would find completely accessible and self-explanatory. But I don’t think so. One of the benefits of painting is that the
artist’s options are almost unlimited.
Liu chooses to present ambiguity, the irreconcilable, the disjunct in
his paintings, a choice which allows his work to transcend the didactic. China
I’m going to take a moment to address the topic of technique, so bear with me here.
|Eric Fischl - Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man - 1984|
During one of these journeys, I first saw the work of Eric Fischl, another artist I’d not heard of before. His paintings disturbed me. At the time, I found his overtly sexual themes to be sensational and opportunistic. But it was his technique which gave me the most trouble. His painting wasn’t “painterly”; it was purposeful, utilitarian and lacking in nuance. I saw little or no underpainting in his canvases. Often the bare canvas was left exposed. Transitions between highlights and shadows were not developed, and the colors used were local and conventional. His surfaces were not complex and built-up. At that time, I was somewhat fixated on the work of early-Twentieth Century expressionists, artists whose efforts achieved extremely lush and painterly results.
|EL Kirchner - Playing Naked People - 1910|
|Egon Schiele - Albert Paris von Gutersloh - 1918|
While I was struggling in my own work to develop a comparable virtuosity, it was shocking to come across an artist discarding the very skills that I had yet to fully master. I thought of Fischl’s technique as “matter-of-fact” painting.
As I attended grad school and then worked on my own, I continued to be drawn to painting that was complex, built-up and layered, whether I was looking at representational or abstract images.
|Balthus - Therese - 1938|
|Willem de Kooning - Gansevoort Street - 1949|
|Lucian Freud - Woman in a Grey Sweater - 1988|
|Anselm Kiefer - Nigredo - 1984|
For a period, I think I even became obsessed with texture, building-up layer upon layer of paint on my canvases during successive sessions. I believe that I was seeking my own “
”, the perfect
surface, and my imagery suffered for it. El Dorado
Over years and many paintings, I came to realize that there was too much artifice in my work and sought to “abbreviate” my technique, striving to be more utilitarian in my process. I remind myself that paint is only paint, and it is not unconscionable that it follow the properties of paint and be “read” as paint on the surface of a canvas. There is a definite beauty in simple, honest painting that I was unable to appreciate earlier.
Today Fischl’s paintings no longer trouble me. During the decades that have passed since I first saw his work, many artists have adopted a similar approach to painting.
|Neo Rauch - Die Stickerin - 2008|
So when I first saw Liu’s paintings (there was a purpose in my digression), I wasn’t offended by his straightforward, practical execution. Often he sweeps thinned-out paint over the canvas with a broad brush, applying a second darker layer over the first, wet on wet, to indicate shadows. He generalizes a lot, eschewing fussy detail, and leaves the bare canvas exposed in many areas. Of course, his approach is somewhat necessitated by the size of his canvases, many of them monumental in dimension, and working on location with live models would certainly provide an incentive for accelerating process. But, I believe, Liu could not permit himself the liberties which he does if he were not philosophically in accord with his technique. After all many artists known for complex, lush surfaces have tackled the challenge of scale without sacrificing their aesthetic (Rembrandt, Balthus, Freud and Odd Nerdrum would be good examples). No, Liu is using the visual vocabulary most suited to his work, a sort of field reporter’s shorthand that attests to his desire to honestly document his world.
By the way, my own struggle with surface is far from over. Though I recognize that I should aim for a more pragmatic approach to painting, I would say that I’m only walking a middle line at this time. I still rely on an underpainting to work out compositional elements and to complement the dominant tones in a painting. And I continue to paint in layers and relish varied, emphatic brushwork. But I try to keep it organic, to minimize artifice and restrict process. I must admit that I’m a bit of a reformed junkie, intellectually aware of tendencies I should avoid yet emotionally ready to lapse at any moment. I’m taking it one painting at a time.
|Gerard Wickham - Mary and Conrad - 2005|
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