Line and Event
On the Painting of Liu Xiaohui
Two years ago, Liu Xiaohui painted a woman from behind. A woman in summer, with white blouse, black skirt, short hair, high heels, bare arms and calves. She has no face or expressions, which means people will not focus on the depths of her mind, or, to put it in other words, the deepest part is her back. But this back view is formalized, a body from behind composed of multiple lines. She is at the center of the picture, oriented by the frame, or, to turn it around, she orients the frame. Body and frame orient each other. Her body is composed of lines, lines which compose a stable body, a sure body. Likewise, these lines reference the frame, and maintain a steady distance from the frame. They are at once constrained by the frame of the body and the frame of the painting. Thus, each line is strictly organized, to the point that the body becomes a space constructed from lines. The body has been marked out by the lines. Inside the outlines of the body, there are only quiet color fields of black and white with no undulation, no flesh, no dimples, no folds. These color fields are flat spaces, or, in other words, empty spaces, strictly surrounded by boundaries. The entirety of the painting has been handed over to these carefully laid and rigorously encoded lines, along the edges of the body. One could say that these lines enclose and adapt to the body, not daring to overstep the boundary in any way. The lines also echo each other, linking and converging, with each point on the lines serving the overall layout and direction. Or, one could say, each point accords with the overall meaning of the whole, and each line predictably following the expected joining of the body.
Thus, the lines do not overflow, break off or burst out. It is precisely these pure lines, these black and white lines, these whole lines, these steady, stable lines which have excluded any impurities: both impurities of form and impurities of life. Even just from the back, this woman appears entirely unsullied, but she is isolated in the painting, solitary, quarantined, all alone, and completely broken off from the outside world. It is like the dividing aspect of the line. One could say this is a dividing line: “Any strict division, any strictly dividing line encompasses a specific plane. It touches on form and the development of form, subject and the formation of subject.” It is the lines that have cut off this woman’s connection, this isolated woman's connection, from her surroundings. She occupies a singular space. She looks off and walks into the distance, but she has no distance; she cannot walk out of the boundary. She possesses the purity of isolation. The white blouse and the black skirt consolidate this purity. The line isolates the body, whirls about this wholeness, around the structure of the body. The line has no points of distinction, no highlights, no turning points or points of surprise. It serves the demands of the color field, the demands of the figure. In this state of isolation by such lines, the body is decorated, isolated and perfected.
Quickly, however, Liu Xiaohui discarded this isolated line and the purity that emerges from this isolation. Perhaps unable to endure this isolating line that traps the woman, he began to paint pictures of two or three men. They seem to be taking off their pants, like athletes removing their outer garments as they prepare to take the field, or a swimmer taking off his robe—regardless, they are taking off their clothes, twisting their bodies, coiling up their legs, curving their bodies. They are turning their bodies quite far, but they are not progressing or retreating through the space. They have been confined within a frame, frozen in front of a mirror. It is the mirror that has split them into two or three people. One person in front of a mirror is reflected into a mirror image of another self. Sometimes the mirror frame overlaps with the picture frame. The mirror frame and picture frame share the same line, and the figure in front of the mirror sometimes intersects, or slightly overlaps with, his reflection. The person and his reflection, the real person and the person in the mirror, are both composed of clear lines, but both are moving quite a lot. The people on opposite sides of the mirror are pulling apart from and playing with each other. Because of the mirror, the lines are matched, and speaking to one another, but also because of the mirror, they contradict and are dislocated from each other. They are divided by the mirror, as they are connected by the mirror. They are brought together by the mirror, as they are pulled apart by the mirror. In this way, the lines of the different people diverge, but they do not entirely diverge. It is a limited rift, a divergence with connections, with correspondence. The two images are engaged in an intimate struggle. It is precisely because of this intimate struggle, because of these connections within divergence, that there arises an indefinite rhythm to the lines. This rhythm is sometimes rapid and fluid, as if the lines are sliding. Sometimes there is an unexpected turn, or, a pause, a dislocation, a rest. Sometimes the lines grind against each other, or argue. It is motion that causes different lines to connect and divide. Lines begin to intersect with one another, to link with one another, forming a link that crosses the mirror, a divided link. The mirror causes the lines to multiply, to take on shadows. The lines tease each other, play with each other, contrast each other, and strictly compare each other. They all seem to want to defeat or fight with other similar lines.
We see that the lines in this series are completely different from those of the single woman paintings. Compared to the definite, isolating lines of that woman in white, the lines of the mirror men are divergent, turning, doubling or multiplying - a duet of dual lines luring each other. They do not maintain a rigid relationship to the mirror frame or the painting frame, nor do they ensure a stable relationship with the body. The lines sometimes disappear at the edge of the body, and sometimes melt or disappear into another body (a single head possessing two bodies). The edges of the body, the lines of the mirror and the lines of the frame cut, permeate and intersect with each other.
Quickly, however, Liu Xiaohui grew tired of these games of permeation and pairing of lines. In other words, he wanted to break off and negate the flowing line. At this time, he placed the figure in the mirror and the figure in front of the mirror in a state of contradiction, where they no longer illuminate each other: one figure is outlined in lines, while the other figure is filled with color fields. They are no longer in a completely paired state, and this incomplete pairing diminishes the sense of existence of the mirror, as if the mirror does not exist. Liu Xiaohui has now discarded the mirror. He has removed the presence of the mirror from the picture, and now paints different figures on the canvas, though they are still taking off their clothes, and still in a state of motion. But now, the color fields surge forth, the lines rip apart, the bodies break into pieces and the picture grows chaotic. These unexpected color fields, these ubiquitous color fields, these color fields with no rhyme or reason, are precisely what have broken the inevitability of the line, broken the stability and inevitability of the picture itself.
Why do these chaotic color fields appear here? Evidently, it is not a Surrealist dreamscape, Dadaist debauchery, or Pop collage, much less obscure symbolism. Just what are these color fields, these scrambled lines, these color fields entirely outside of the system and logic of painting? Perhaps we can call them on-canvas “events,” unexpected incursions into the canvas, incursions that break established logic and formulas, illegal incursions, violent incursions. They surprise people, fall out of the sky; their occurrence leaving people lost and confused. We shall call these unexpected actions “events.” What is an event? Derrida says, “an event is something that erupts, and because of its eruption, surprises me, surprises my understanding and delays my understanding: the event is first that thing I do not understand, or, that thing I do not understand at first.” In Liu Xiaohui's paintings, there emerges many things which are “not understood.” If the woman in white is a completely understandable thing (with the reasonableness of the lines, and the reasonableness of the structure), then now, these new, redundant color fields are completely un-understandable.
Liu Xiaohui has gone from complete understandability, from the purity and isolation of the line, to the intersection, pairing and play of lines, and on to the current rupturing, breaching and concealment of lines, and the un-understandability of color fields. This has been the trajectory of his paintings over the past two years — the paintings have pivoted towards un-understandable events. This is the deterritorialization of the isolating line. Once Liu Xiaohui territorialized the line, he attempted to deterritorialize it. Territorialization is an inevitability, while deterritorialization is a surprise, an event. If the real world always has incomprehensible “events” events which that exclude all logic and causality, why can’t similar events erupt on the canvas? On the canvas, there always exists remnants of understanding, remnants of flowing lines, remnants of color fields. It is precisely these color fields that break the isolating and certain lines, rupture them and lead them to oblivion. These color fields have no logic, no basis, no shape. They wantonly intrude, span, spread, stir, rip and barbarically expand. This is a humiliation of the flowing and cut line. These color fields, or these ruptured lines, do not express meaning; they just move across the picture. Thus, our aim is not to decode these signs, to point out what they mean, but to affirm the actions of these signs, to confirm what these signs have done. That is to say, the picture is not open to meaning. It does not strive to construct and decode semiotics and iconography. Instead, it completes a form of action of signs, an event composed of signs, an event that is difficult to understand, an event that cannot be consumed and absorbed. Events that some pictures cannot swallow or absorb exist here with stubbornness. They break the framework of painting, break the integrity and expression of the line, and break the iconography of painting. To this end, they press, shatter, rupture, burst forth, cut off and vilify. But this is not, in any way, an Expressionist use of the canvas. For Expressionism, all scrambling and shattering is an externalization of the shattering of the heart, the torn passions in semiotic form, but with Liu Xiaohui, the shattering is pure shattering, shattering as event, shattering that cannot be understood, the surplus of shattering, surplus action, traces of what has happened and traces of what will happen—their actions are their own signs. We see these black color fields, this entanglement, intersection and rupturing between lines, the tangling of these completely disordered, unexpected color fields and lines, the generation of these deterritorialized frenzies, these nomadic lines roaming in diverse, unknown directions, not expressing any torn or embittered passions. They are just pure expenditure of motion, the affirmation of events. Each bold smear is a bold testament to an event.