Liu Xiaodong - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Monday, February 8, 2016 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Simon Lee, London
    Ray Hughes Gallery, Sydney
    Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2001

  • Catalogue Essay

    ‘In life, I’m a realist’ Liu Xiaodong affirms, ‘therefore, I believe art ought to be realistic.’ (P. Wang, ed., Contemporary Chinese Art: Primary Documents, New York: MoMA Primary Documents, 2010, p. 162) Studying the oeuvre of the Chinese artist, no statement can ring more true. However, after a discerning look, it is not a simple realism that permeates from artist’s canvas. There is a constant sensitivity paid to the sitter’s disposition, striking a tenuous balance between life drawing and the conceptual. Whether it is the prostitutes of the city, to childhood friends – there is in essence a documentarian at work, providing minute but highly attuned view into everyday life. Formally trained in socialist realism, Liu Xiaodong seamlessly transfers those skills to capturing a new contemporary Chinese society – one where political, social, economic and even physical, dimensions have undergone immense upheaval. It is Liu’s seemingly innate ability to capture the psychology of both friends and strangers on canvas that elevates the pictures beyond the pictorial.

    By immersing himself with his subjects, Liu captures introspection: ‘I sometimes wish to express someone’s internal struggles. When you want to make a lot happen but cannot, you’re already full of contradictions. I try to represent this state in painting. You can feel a certain tenseness and pressure in my paintings…’ (B. Erickson, The Richness of Life: The Personal of Contemporary Chinese Artist Liu Xiaodong 1984-2006, Timezone 8 Limited, 2007, p. 201) There is a dichotomous nature in Liu’s work where the a fragmentary moment of life will unfold to have a multitude of layers. Relaxing in Water from 1999 is a shockingly still and beautifully idyllic picture where Liu picks up from the canonical motif of the bather. From Titian’s Pastoral Concert from 1509 to Cezanne’s Bathers at the fin-de-siècle, the history of the motif is steeped in art history. However, rather than a simple translation, Liu captures a figure in a ghostly pallor. Through the sheer stillness of the figure as she rests upon a set of murky, indefinite steps in a stagnant body of water, there is an undisturbed tranquillity of both life and death.

    Painting from life, there is immediacy to Liu Xiaodong’s line and brush. His working method permeates through the canvas formally – as his immersion into a site-specific setting garners him access into his subjects’ internal state. While Lucian Freud worked within his studio, both Freud and Liu painted from life, creating an undeniable energy and presence within the confines of the canvas. For Liu, it is the gestural ‘energy’ that has entered the paintings ‘…and it is this entering that is very meaningful.’ Moreover, once marks have been made on site, the lines become irreplaceable and thus are essential to capturing a minute moment in time. It is a staunch stance to painting from life: ‘You cannot repair it after you come back to the studio. Add one brush stroke and it is wrong. It’s different from the experience of painting in the studio.’ (Wu Hung, Displacement: The Three Gorges Dam and Contemporary Chinese Art, Chicago: Smart Museum of Art, 2008, p.31) Thus, the artist’s presence when painting is turning the gaze from the heroic moments to the day-to-day. Relaxing in Water is an imperturbable yet serene image of a woman – she is silent yet stable and completely unstirring.


Relaxing in Water

oil on canvas
129.5 x 161.4 cm (50 7/8 x 63 1/2 in.)
Signed, titled and dated 'Liu Xiaodong "Relaxing in Water" 1999' on the reverse.

£300,000 - 500,000 

Contact Specialist
Peter Sumner
Head of Contemporary Art, London

+44 207 318 4063

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 9 February 2016 7pm