For those who have been paying attention to Liu Xiaohui’s artistic practice, his recent paintings would be somewhat startling for their seemingly out of “Liu Xiaohui” character rendering - formal consistency, order, or even monumentality and realistic elements in his composition have undergone a number of transformations. Even his former clean visual impression has became a rarity. As much as he continues to adopt an artistic language that’s humble and matter-of-fact in conveying the subtle narratives remains on the surface, the artist’s once intermittent emotional releases seems to have dissipated. Among his recent works, uplifted and highly conceptualized figurations appear time and time again on canvas, as their radical, contentious elements fill the canvas with vibrant colors. In his juxtaposition of offsetting composition and abstract language, the distinct order and logic Liu Xiaohui has once established are at once challenged.
To an artist, drastic transformation in one’s formal representation is ultimately prescient of a new creative phase. In fact, Liu Xiaohui has never expected his viewer to place his works within a linear framework, for instance, by which to decipher how his works have transitioned from realism to abstraction, or how painterliness gradually occupied the canvas. He implacably believes he’s always assumed the identity of a “painter” in the portrayal of “reality”; the shifting subject matters, objects, forms and language, or the signals from what seems to be a rediscovery of “painterliness” are none other than natural responses to current reality. While it’s obvious that, by simply looking at the visual representation on canvas, his practice is undergoing a transition from knowledge to experience. Perhaps it is even necessary to mention why it happened and his personal experience from the earlier years at this point – upon graduation from the Mural Department at the Central Academy of Fine Art, Liu worked for 8 years and then returned to his alma mater to teach – this piece of information is relevant for his early works, as we can often identify characteristics of the academic and style, as well as signature traits from the New Generation, which only slowly dissolved thereafter.
Liu Xiaohui’s early works especially focused on capturing the details of everyday life which embodied a kind of narrative: the extensive, mechanical and repetitive rhythms of life were often brought out by his succinct yet concise brushworks. Almost all of these details evolved around the matters in the artist’s surrounding. For example “A Day in the Life of a Female Model” (2011), is the artist’s depiction of a female model’s daily activities through illustration or film stills. The still objects, the subject and the environment maintained a mutually balanced relationship, that resonates with what Raymond Williams describes as the contemporary: an individuals being part of the urban area, as much as one may be part of a group, one remains as a lonesome wanderer. To an extend, the state projects the artist’s practice of the time, where on the one hand the works reveal certain compromise and reconciliation with his condition, as a result of his personal experience, social identity and academy traditions, visually made apparent with the rawness in his drawing that attributes him a pilgrimage-like approach; on the other hand, it attempts to reach for an inner sensibility. Comparing to those works that highlight social factors or the “present”, the artist was preoccupied with complimenting his own recalcitrant memories and emotions where the “present” belongs to no one but him.
In his “Housework” and “Untitled” series since 2013, Liu Xiaohui’s perspective shifted. His former inward references began to shift towards external realities, and his iconography begins to disconnect from the sphere of quotidian sensibilities, as he incorporates those he’s kept a distance from his actual life. With layers of impasto, regardless of the dimension of the work being enlarged or reduced, those figures that appear on canvas, whom the artist is not familiar with, are ubiquitously blurry (for example, the farmer depicted in his drawings from the countryside and the female figure in Yasujiro Ozu’s film), and this back view of the subject becomes an iconography of his painting which appears again and again. This back view is like that of a dissociative signifier or a deficit symbol, while its former references have been lifted as the artist labored over the canvas with layers of drawings that floated to the surface. These continuous layers of loosened brushstrokes suggest the artist’s hesitant, indecisive yet humble approach to his work. Even though we may draw logical inferences from his previous works at this point, particularly based on the artist’s infatuation with depicting the back view of the subject, for the artist however, his practice has begun to consciously steer away from its former narrative and planning. From the state of tabula rasa, to centering the canvas with a large-scale figure, in other words, his painting expands from leaving a kind of trace on canvas to becoming a product of his incessant repairing of that trace. In the course of reparation, Liu is reticent in comparison to his initial desires to convey and “create”. But this does not suggest that the artist has relinquished his subjectivity, on the contrary, his proactivity is fortified by means of diminished formality on canvas. As an artist who’s keen on controlling the image, Liu Xiaohui becomes more precise about the extend of his control, while at the same time, paves way for his new paintings.
Among the works completed in the two recent years, Liu Xiaohui’s “repair” works are more apparent, or rather his will to repair has been more intuitive. The subjects for his repair are an assortment of impressions drawn from works made over a decade ago – similar to the back view of the figure, this action of getting dressed and the dressing mirror can be backtracked to ink drawings from the first series of “A Day in the Life of a Female Model” in 2007. In fact, getting dressed and undressed in front of a mirror marks a common scene in the artist’s everyday life. When he described this series, he mentioned observing his own and his family members’ changing process. In addition, the yellow color in the background of the painting is identical to the one on his wardrobe (which has previously appeared in his “Untitled” series). Rather than considering Liu’s new works as opening a brand new chapter in his artistic practice, its impetus is instead to return to the past. In its course, the subjects and notions are being fortified in his orderly everyday life. Only until the moment of execution, would these experiences and self-controlled tension be respectively challenged and released, which brings us back to the formal transformation stated at the beginning of this text.
It is also worth noting that the transformations underway are inseparable from the artist’s work preference: compare to completing one work at a time, his process can be intermittent. For example, he would make edits and repairs to the paintings he set aside six months to a year ago. For Liu, every kind of outcome (or end result) in painting is a “wishful step” towards its “end”. Thus, we can imagine that the psychological process unfolds in the artist’s mind must resonate with the action of changing clothes (being between dressing and undressing): both envision the unpredictable, ambiguous state of being. In comparison to his earlier narrative laden paintings of peaceful views of a figure’s back, the artist no longer tries to balance that stability in his painting, but rather searches for a point of counter-logic that may be challenging through the rounds of repetitious repairs. The exaggerated movements, contrasting vibrant colors and the apparent lines of contour for example, unanimously underscore the artist’s mental space - one that is more radical, impulsive, and struggling, to a point that their revelation suggest that his overall composition has destabilized for the first time.
If we were to review the documentations from the various periods of the artist’s practice, we’d discover that the emergency of this instability was gradual, and made particularly apparent through the “growth” of the plants (in other words, the color blocks in green, yellow and black) in his paintings: they were initially absent, then sprouted behind the mirror and the figures, and eventually became alienating objects that competed for space on his canvas. The figures’ actions no longer stimulated the same response as those dressing/undressing. These geometric, angular color blocks compress into the image; their movements seem to eschew and escape from something, as if they were in immediate danger of being devoured by the vegetation. In the artist’s repairs, the mirror, which initially served to signal the image narrative and interface between reality and fiction, have also deviated from the artist’s original attribute. Instead, it is now released as geometric forms that framed the composition of the painting, or according to the artist, has became one of the “factors” of the painting – along with the contours and color blocks to represent the figures, vegetation and stones, they together deconstruct the image. For instance, we can hardly identify the three mirrors in “Untitled – Three Mirrors”, neither would we be able to determine the relationship between the mirror and the figures (as if they are about to step into the world behind the frame). On the left, a block of black insipid of its base layers jumps out of the canvas, while only the foot beneath it still reminds the viewer of the artist’s train of thought. As to whether the figures are real or fictional, or whether there is an accessible path to dive into the image, these are no longer questions the artist is concerned about. For him, what’s more important is the image’s growing process, especially how forms are configured in the image. Where the subject of the painting does not necessarily need to be constructed clearly, they are more like the outcomes of the artist’s reorganization of experiences from his subconscious.
As Liu Xiaohui believes, his artistic practice embodies a description of “truthfulness”. A notion that is obviously not the common reality we are confronted with, but a certain unachievable reality out of the artist’s accumulation of experiences. Before touching on this reality, the artist continues to confront the struggles and breakthroughs of the individual from the external world, or even with oneself. From this perspective, every brushstroke on canvas becomes a self-imposed mystery.