Liu Weijian’s 2008 paintings of a padlocked iron door lend themselves to be read as a manifesto of his art. It could be a warehouse door, but there are no clues as to what might be on the inside, who locked it, or why the objects needed to be secured. There are no clues to the location in the canvasses, and though experts on pad-locks might be able to provide information about the year of production for the particular lock, there is nothing that positions the subject of the work in time. The rust that corrodes the surface of the door is the only evidence of a past. Instead of narrating a story, these locked doors warn of the monotonous unheroic, and mundane succession of days, seasons, and years. It captures an image that has remained ingrained within the painter’s retina, a fragment of memory that the artist has rendered simply for what it is. Paradoxically, in their normalcy, these, like other images by Liu Weijian, are in no way boring despite depicting the monotony of every day and the role of boredom in the artist’s life. In fact, in reacting to this boredom, Liu Weijian, like many of us, finds the motivation for action. This vision of a man who confronts boredom leads westerners to recognize many themes of existentialism within his works.
Liu Weijian paints work paraphernalia, ordinary objects, the insides of homes or public spaces, urban views, and both violated and uncontaminated landscapes. In large part these subjects are transferred onto the canvas without any supporting context with which to justify them; they remain expressions of a life filtered through memory. These works are the equivalent of diary entries about a trip taken alone, subjective lyrical transcriptions of what Liu Weijian has encountered in different moments of his life. They become a psychological story told with placid tones that serve to construct a melancholic metaphysical climate through linear pictorial composition lacking in syntactic spaces or gaps. Yet, as we shall see later on as if wishing to deny the suggestions of these placid tones, dream-like interferences or unsettling elements that undermine the dimension of realism burst into the works.
Liu Weijian uses light to produce incisiveness and to give shape to the compositional structure of the scenes within his work; predominantly light tones are backed by darker tones that give the volume of the subject with the clear and deep shadows they create. While the distribution of black is always contained, it is crucial in creating the balance of the pictorial scenes of these paintings as it consolidates the image and renders it solid. It is the balance between the dominant light colors and the few black masses that provides the composition with stability. The strokes are not gestural and there is no trust in strict rules, yet in more than one piece we see the methods used by Cezanne who would begin his works with a flat dark touch and then superimpose another larger and lighter touch, and then another lighter one followed by an even lighter one, until the different colors shaped the object. Even when Liu Weijian uses dotted, fluid, or very controlled strokes they evoke Cezanne.
Like Cezanne, Liu Weijian’s perspective is more mental than visual. While Cezanne’s approach to art was tied to the need to innovate the rules of painting, to reinvent the rules of perspective and the volumetric construction of the landscape and the still life, Liu Weijian confidently uses the styles, techniques and methods that can be found in the DNA of any good contemporary painter. In other words, his approach to painting is sentimental, not scientific. This positions the image in an equilibrium between its pictorial representation and it's being within the world.
Liu Weijian’s paintings tell us that the work of art, just like the individual that created it, must fight to see its existence, its story, and its personality recognized. He creates intimist paintings that are born from the need to solitarily confront existence and, as he affirms, from the need to “force one’s own nature”. Obviously, he is not the only one to incarnate the figure of the solitary and intimist artist, moving along the path laid out for him by artists like Giorgio Morandi, when he painted his still lifes and landscapes, and Edward Hopper, when he brought the rural American landscape, and the offices and bedrooms to the canvas and the sheet. Nevertheless, unlike Morandi and Hopper, Liu Weijian is not a still life or landscape painter, he did not choose to paint objects and landscapes in order to explore his art but to show his own existential condition.
In some of the paintings created in the second half of the 2000s, the silent static nature of the scene is disrupted by improbable interferences that pull the image into the oneiric sphere. For example, we find two lions crouched in front of a building in the middle of nowhere (Lion’s Sorrow, 2006); a pig with its throat slit at the foot of a monument (All the Death Would be Sacrifice, 2006); a figure portrayed from behind in a semi-empty room with a large window and an armchair that has mice circling it (Crow’s Feather, 2007). It is the silence and the fixity of the representations that unite his body of work, even where he allows for a narrative structure, the image remains suspended in a metaphysical dimension.
In their temporal fixity, these paintings pose unanswerable questions. Or, one might say, they ask questions that lend themselves to contradictory answers. Several of René Magritte’s paintings have helped us understand Liu Weijian’s complex position. In La condition humaine (1933), Magritte depicts a canvas on an easel in front of a window with drapes on either side. While the landscape reproduced on the canvas within the canvas can be seen as autonomous to the view outside the window, it is also perfectly superimposed. Magritte used this visual strategy in other realist works with the same formal and conceptual schema. These paintings maintain that while the reality is illusory, the painting always tells the truth. The same window and the same formal and conceptual schemata return in other paintings that would contradict the ones of which we have just spoken. Le Clef de champs (1936), depicts a landscape that is both intact, when seen through the window frame, and broken into the window’s pieces of glass that have fallen to the ground. Here, unlike what was expressed in La condition humaine, Magritte affirms that everything within art is fiction. We thus find ourselves before contradictory aesthetic conceptions that each have their own intrinsic truth: it is as undeniable, in fact, that art always tells the truth, as it is that art is always fiction.
Unlike Magritte, Liu Weijian does not claim to be an absurdist visionary nor does he filter the mystery of the world through oneiric experience. He confronts his own life experience: his work is the expression of the contradiction of he who wants to affirm his identity without renouncing the intimate dimension of the personal moments of his own life within his work. These paintings depict what the author has seen, the sensations that he has felt when he entered in contact with the object being represented. Since his work gives an image to casual encounters, the picture does not privilege one subject over another; there is no emphasis as each element is put on the same plane. The work equipment he paints, for example, is not exalted for its mechanical capacity, nor does it refer back to sales catalogs or advertisements as with the American Pop artists of the sixties. Common objects, like a suitcase or a lamp, that appear in these paintings are not represented because of their utility or design, but for their relationship to man as shown by their use. These subjects are as enigmatic as a man. This same dynamic characterizes the paintings that depict urban and natural landscapes, in which each horizon connotes something beyond, a place where the eye is incapable of arriving. The human subjects are predominantly seen from behind or are so small that their features remain unrecognizable. This also occurs when Liu Weijian depicts himself through a shadow projected by his silhouette on a wall. In whatever way he depicts reality, one gets the sensation that he is chasing himself and that in this escape; painting is the preferred tool to represent the stops on an interior journey whose true ultimate goal is self-knowledge.
Starting from these essential premises, Liu Weijian has used real experiences to elaborate the metaphor of the voyage. He undertook long journeys, first by studying them on the map, then by imagining and planning them according to his observations of the symbols and codes of reading recommended by the large map he keeps hung on the wall of his studio. Liu Weijian met the majority of the subjects that we now find on his canvases on these journeys. He did not paint them in person, as would a landscapist or a still-life painter, and though he often photographed the things that struck him most, he never looked at the photographs when he painted. As we have said, his work is a reconstruction of the memory of the moments and casual encounters he experienced in his life.
The trips that Liu Weijian tells us of in his paintings lacked a specific purpose, instead, they are animated by tension with something that is not clearly defined, and they find their purpose within themselves. This way of understanding the journey, which may remind westerners of the German Romantics of the 1800s, is not foreign to Chinese tradition; in the distant past, and for many centuries the Chinese viewed the journey toward distant and unknown places as an instrument for the individual to achieve self-realization. Whether they were journeys undertaken to observe nature or the environment, or to gain scientific knowledge, self-reflection or were religious pilgrimages, the solitary journey studded with difficulties, guaranteed intense personal participation. Like the German Romantics, once the desired destination is reached, Liu Weijian cannot identify what it was that he was seeking. As we know from the German Romantics, the sense of emptiness that is created when the destination is reached exhibits how the act of arriving involves a releasing of the tension that fed the desire to begin the journey. Thus we have journeys devoid of obligatory stops but marked by pauses that articulate both time and distance. Liu Weijian reminds us that it is the various sensations of the hotness of day, thirst, the coldness of the night, the worry of getting lost, and the fear of moving forward, that characterize and mark the different moments of the journey. All of this can be found within each one of Liu Weijian’s paintings, as the singularity of the subject being represented embodies its universality.