Liu Wei - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction Hong Kong Tuesday, June 8, 2021 | Phillips

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  • Introduction

    For more than two decades, Liu Wei had risen into international prominence alongside the leading generation of contemporary Chinese artists including Zhang Xiaogang, Fang Lijun and Liu Ye, who grew disillusioned with the conflicting ideologies and artistic utopias in the world around them. Growing up in a turbulent age amongst ever-changing social-political values and opinions, Liu saw little to no stability in daily life. He observed dramatic changes in a contemporary society that had become overwhelmed by the rigorous urbanisation of China's cities, particularly in Beijing, where he felt that organic stimuli and a respect for the natural world were being abandoned. Documenting this growing gap between reality and the ideal in his prolific oeuvre, Liu's Purple Air V is a visually striking painting that impressively evokes China's radical transformation in the 21st Century.




    Beijing cityscape, 2012



    Abstract Landscapes


    Painted in 2006, Purple Air V is a spectacular early piece from the emblematic series of the same name that has become fundamental to Liu's celebrated, uncompromising interrogation with his viewer regarding human experiences conditioned by architecture and landscape. Demonstrating his matured style, the present painting harkens back to motifs Liu experimented with in his earlier work, thereby offering the viewer insight into his now well-developed themes. 


    The concept of an 'abstract landscape' stems from Liu's major work produced for the 2004 Shanghai Biennial, Looks Like a Landscape (2004), that garnered him significant international acclaim. For this piece, Liu capsizes the perspective of traditional Chinese landscape painting through the digitally rendered composition of a mountain 'landscape' that is actually photographs of nude body parts that have been merged together. Despite the nature of the work intended to counteract the previous idealisms of what Chinese contemporary art should be, the work, to Liu's surprise, was gladly accepted into the most influential biennale in the country. 


    Liu Wei, It Looks Like a Landscape, 2004

    Collection of M+ Sigg, Hong Kong



    Akin to Looks Like a LandscapePurple Air V subverts traditional landscape painting in its presentation of an abstracted metropolis. Though the flattened perspective bears traces of Chinese shanshui (mountain and water) painting, a more contemporary comparison can be made between Liu’s construction of landscape form and that of Huang Yuxing’s. Both artists explore the boundary between abstract hallucination and physical reality in their dazzling depictions of landscape. However, while Huang achieves this effect by repeatedly stacking colourful brushstrokes across the whole canvas, Liu’s contrasting approach also considers areas of negative space and the dialogue that emerges from juxtaposing the crowded with empty. 




    Huang Yuxing, Liquidus (2015) at the Yuz Project Room, Shanghai



    Similarly, Liu's approach of deconstructing the city into fragments is reminiscent of Swiss-born German artist Paul Klee's renowned abstract cityscapes, such as Dream City (1921). Like Klee, Liu transforms a complex, bustling skyline into simplified line and structure, within which variances in colour and pattern introduce an impressive sense of dramatic depth. In the case of Purple Air V, the chaos of urban living is articulated through elongated columns painted in varying shades of grey that transfigure the architectural elements of high-rise buildings. Intermixed with the silvery lines toward the middle of the work are isolated slivers of electrifying orange and yellow that vibrantly illuminate against the otherwise monochromatic composition, recalling the blinding image of sun reflecting off skyscraper windows. As the mass grows upwards from the lower half of the canvas beyond the constraints of the top edge, the magnitude of the vertiginous city is intensified as an intimidating mountainous form that looms over the viewer in a seemingly never-ending way.




    Paul Klee, Dream City, 1921



    Like Klee's Dream City, among the vertical lines in Purple Air V is an opaque orb that stands out from the otherwise sharp edges. Located in the upper right quadrant of the painting, it vaguely embodies a sun or moon's radiance dissolving into hazy grey sky. Though the blurry perimeter of the circular form can be interpreted as being clouded by polluted city sky, the fading, shining shape alternatively represents an emerging or disappearing sun at dusk or dawn, signifying the passing of time and hope for a new day. Aware of how his abstract compositions can draw differing readings, Liu has commented:



    "I am with the viewers, in the quest for meaning. I hope the viewers could use my works as starting points or points of reference in their discussions, contributing to their own thinking. In this sense, art means freedom. Not only am I free as a creator, the viewers are free as spectators as well."
    — Liu Wei


    Digital Cities


    At its core, Purple Air V encapsulates a visceral, spatial reaction to the surplus of human experiences conditioned by Beijing's restless cityscape - which largely owes its urbanisation to developments in technological innovation. Often engaged in cross-disciplinary mediums including that of digital media, Liu manifests the same transitional vision in Purple Air V. He begins his process by taking photographs of his surrounding urban landscape, before using the images as material to generate the digital lines he transposes onto the canvas. The result, unique to the artist and now instantly recognisable, are abstract images that bring to mind the view of an imposing cityscape, but also the interconnected cities on the miniature electronic circuit boards that are the foundation of our digital world.



    Liu Wei's studio in Beijing, 2016

    Courtesy Fondation Louis Vuitton



    Paying homage to the auspicious Chinese omen that although a place consumed by grey represents impending turmoil, in fact, it can be viewed as purple air bringing vitality, the Purple Air series illustrates the enigmatic duality of Liu’s motto, ‘art is a question about reality after all’. With this abstracted narrative in mind, we come to understand that the thin, abundant vertical shapes in Purple Air V are a study of the ethos of rapidly urbanising contemporary landscapes. And within this world, it is through digitalised disorder, laid out on canvas, where Liu finds and presents his personal sense of peace. 


    Collector's Digest


    Since his first European solo show, Purple Air, where this work made its debut at Grace Li Gallery, Zurich in 2006; his multi-faceted works continue to show in solo exhibitions internationally, including the White Cube, London in 2014; Long March Space, Beijing in 2018; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland in 2019. Liu has participated in multiple Biennales including two installations at the central show of the Venice Biennale May You Live in Interesting Times in 2019.


    Many more of his works can be found in major collections worldwide, including the DSL Collection in Paris; the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and the M+ Sigg Collection in Hong Kong, which holds another work from the Purple Air series.




    • Provenance

      Grace Li Gallery, Zurich
      Acquired from the above by the present owner


Purple Air 5

signed and dated 'Liu Wei [in Chinese and Pinyin] 2006' on the reverse
oil on canvas
250.5 x 180.2 cm. (98 5/8 x 70 7/8 in.)
Painted in 2006.

Full Cataloguing

HK$1,200,000 - 2,200,000 

Sold for HK$1,764,000

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Head of Evening Sale, 20th Century & Contemporary Art

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction

Hong Kong Auction 8 June 2021