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b. 1964, China

Liu Ye Biography

From children's fiction to literature, and from historical figures to Dutch modernist paintings, multiple cultural and historical moments converge in Liu Ye's imaginative and enigmatic paintings. Often featuring round-faced children and cartoon characters, the artist's creations retell internationally familiar signs of modern and contemporary culture.

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Born two years before the Cultural Revolution began, Liu grew up in a society strictly regulated by the state. Although many Western books were banned, he was able to read some that his father had kept hidden. While these memories would later serve as sources of inspiration, his vast knowledge of Western cultural history was formulated during the years he spent in Europe. In 1990, having completed his studies at the Central Academy of Fine Arts and the School of Arts & Crafts, both in Beijing, the artist continued his education at Berlin's Universität der Künste. He returned home four years later, then left again for a six-month residency at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam in 1998.

Liu's early works from the 1990s are characterised by their depictions of childlike figures with round features. These paintings are humorous and light-hearted, but also endowed with a touch of the ominous. Bright Road (1995), for example, shows two winged children smiling and posing before an open window, seemingly oblivious to the falling aircraft in the distance or, somehow, happy that it is about to crash. In Warship Children (1996), a pair of children wearing sailor suits study a map, similarly unaware or uncaring of the red-hued warship that glides towards them in the background.

Among the range of European cultural icons that Liu references in his paintings, Mondrian's geometric compositions are perhaps the most frequent. One of the artist's earliest works, the black-and-white etching Angel before Mondrian (1994) features a cherub looking through a telescope. Behind him, a Mondrian painting hangs on the wall. This motif of a young child—usually a girl—observing or standing before the Dutch painter's works recurs throughout Liu's paintings, such as in Mondrian in the Afternoon (2001) or Boogie Woogie, Little Girl (2005). In his large-scale painting Bamboo Bamboo Broadway (2012), Liu also reconfigured the Chinese symbol of bamboo stems as a geometric abstraction after Mondrian's grids, such as in Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942–1943).

As Banyi Huang noted in her Ocula Insight of Liu Ye's solo exhibition The Book and the Flower at David Zwirner New York (2020), 'simple lines, rectangular planar divisions, and a deliberate flatness clearly reference modernist sensibilities in Western art history.' Speaking with Ocula Advisory's Rory Mitchell, Leo Xu, senior director at David Zwirner Hong Kong, explained that Liu uses 'art historical and literary references as tools to challenge us to look harder, questioning how we process images. Ultimately, he investigates this cross-cultural exchange between the East and West.'

Liu's other works draw well-known characters and figures from diverse points in Western art history and literature, reimagining them in his soft brushwork. Shakespeare's 16th-century hero appears in a contemporary setting with a gun in Romeo (2002); Mozart (2009) portrays the Austrian composer as a child with a doll-like face; and Pinocchio (2011) captures the beloved fairy tale character in shades of warm brown and red. Miffy, a more contemporary creation of Dutch artist Dick Bruna, is a popular character in Liu's paintings, observing monochromatic paintings alongside a little girl in International Blue (diptych) (2006) or posing at a wedding in Miffy Getting Married (2014). The artist adopts Miffy as himself in Self portrait (2013), in which the girl rabbit sits at a desk with a line drawing of herself before her. Red, blue, and yellow colour pencils are scattered on the desk, recalling the three colours that Mondrian favoured for his paintings (notably Composition with Red Blue and Yellow, 1939).

In an interview with Jing Daily in 2015, Liu said that his inspiration had shifted from his childhood memories and his imagination to objects found in everyday life. This is perhaps best demonstrated in his book paintings, which render closed or open books in a photographic style. Close-ups of volumes open to empty pages, such as Book Painting 6 (2014), allude to the artist's love for the book as an object, while depictions of pages from a book, such as Book Painting No. 12 (Lolita, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1995, Page. 11) (2016) or Book Painting No. 19 (Story of O, Grove Press Inc. New York, 1965) (2017), point to his love for literature.

In 2018, Liu held Storytelling, a solo exhibition at Prada Rong Zhai in Shanghai that featured a selection of his works from 1992 on. Other notable museum shows include Mondrian and Liu Ye at Mondriaanhuis, Amersfoort (2016), and Window on China at Kunstmuseum Bern (2007). His work was also included in Viva Arte Viva, the International Art Exhibition of the 57th Venice Biennale, 2017.

Ocula | 2019

Liu Ye

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David Zwirner contemporary art gallery in New York: 19th Street, United States
David Zwirner Hong Kong, London, Los Angeles, New York, Paris
Esther Schipper contemporary art gallery in Esther Schipper Berlin, Germany
Esther Schipper Berlin, Seoul, Paris
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