Liu Ye - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale Hong Kong Saturday, November 23, 2019 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Galerie Serieuze Zaken, Amsterdam
    Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1998

  • Exhibited

    Beijing Art Gallery of International Palace, New Anecdotes of Social Talk, 8-11 December 1995, p. 25 (illustrated)
    Beijing, Mingjingdi Gallery, Liu Ye, 1997, pp. 7, 25 (illustrated on p. 25)
    Art Gallery of Beijing International Art Palace; Shanghai Library; Guangdong Museum of Art, Mondrian in China: A Documentary Exhibition with Chinese Originals, 15 March - 24 May 1998, p. 43 (illustrated)
    Reykjavik Art Museum, Chinese Contemporary Art, 2002
    Austria, Kunstraum Innsbruck; Kuopio Art Museum; Salo Art Museum; Tonsberg, Haugar Vestfold Kunstmuseum; Ystad Konstmuseum; Singer Laren Museum; Kunsthalle Recklinghausen, Facing China:Works of Art from The Fu Ruide Collection, 17 May 2008 - 24 June 2012, pp. 54-55 (illustrated)

  • Literature

    Oriental Art, April 1996 (illustrated on cover)
    Leng Lin, It's Me! , Beijing, 2000, p. 272 (illustrated)
    London, Chinese Contemporary, Liu Ye: Fellini, A Guardsman, Mondrian, The Pope and My Girlfriend, April 2001, p.8 (illustrated)
    Christoph Noe ed., Liu Ye: Catalogue Raisonné 1991-2015, Berlin, 2015, no. 95-06, p. 263 (illustrated)
    Marianne Brouwer, Samuel Saelemakers, eds., Hans van Dijk/ Dai Hanzhi: A Life with Art China 1986 - 2002, Rotterdam, 2018, p.199 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Painted in 1995 upon Liu Ye’s return to Beijing from his studies in Berlin, She Isn’t Afraid of Mondrian is an exquisite painting that radiates a quiet and sensual brilliance, combining many elements of Liu’s earliest and most discernible hallmarks. Executed generously on the largest canvas format that the artist used in the Nineties, this thought-provoking work is primarily autobiographical, and is a piece ripe for interpretation and investigation.

    She Isn’t Afraid of Mondrian is steeped in iconography and hidden meaning: ruminating on the work, the artist revealed that an artistic debate arose between his then-partner and himself, and the scene which unfurls is a direct allusion to this particular memory. The metaphorical result of this debate can be identified in the characters in the painting: the female figure’s face remains half-concealed in shadow, and the autobiographical cherubs stomp resolutely forward with Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie in tow, as if trying to drag it away from the group. The four figures are illuminated by a diagonal projection of light, as if to highlight these contradictory movements held in delicate tension. The spotlight projected upon this motley crew potently evokes the same sense of conspiratorial disquietude as the light illuminating the coterie of three in Edward Hopper’s Conference at Night, captured discussing some unknown plan in the fading evening glow. It also directly mirrors the large slab of light that unveils the unsuspecting sleeper in Balthus’ The Room, thanks to a mischievous character thrusting open a set of curtains. In this sense, the dazzling amber light in She Isn’t Afraid of Mondrian is layered in its connotations, calling to mind motifs of secrecy and mischievousness.

    Further, one detects Classical influences in Liu’s use of luminous yellow, such as Rembrandt’s Dinner at Emmaus, and the mystery which cloaks the scene. In the Dutch master’s version, the resurrected Jesus reveals himself to his disciples in a dimly lit dinner chamber, injecting the piece with awe and reverence: a new journey is underway. Much in the same way, the radiance spotlighting She Isn’t Afraid of Mondrian elicits a sense of wonder and anticipation of new beginnings. A worthy metaphor for Liu’s homecoming to Beijing but moreover, resolution at the end of a long debate, the light in this work literally ‘shines a light’ onto his new path ahead, or, conversely, mimics the way a lit corridor spills light through a door left ajar. In both senses, the present work provides us with a strong sense of journey and expedition, underscored by the marching cherubs in the painting no less.

    She Isn’t Afraid of Mondrian is also exceedingly well balanced: the attention paid to geometry and equilibrium within the painting owes its origins to Liu’s penchant for the Flemish School and later on, De Stijl. In this work, not only is the canvas’s composition diagonally separated by the rhombus of light, the work’s depth is also perpendicularly delineated by the ground and wall, and the trajectory of the marching figures perfectly aligned. The centrepiece of the artist’s fascination is Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie, now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Drawing from the push-pull of the melodious boogie-woogie that forms the titular concern of his pieces, Mondrian’s deceptively simple paintings are carefully crafted abstractions of the New York landscape in which he found himself. She Isn’t Afraid of Mondrian also pays tribute to an Abstract Expressionist whose meticulously painted works influenced Liu Ye. By the artist’s own admission, She Isn’t Afraid of Mondrian is a direct response to Barnett Newman’s Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue, a connection that lends a provocative backstory to the work. Recalling the sensationalist coverage surrounding the vandalism of the series (and its later repair) during the early to late Eighties, the present work evokes the themes of conflict but more importantly, subsequent reconciliation and repair.

    Most importantly, She Isn’t Afraid of Mondrian is a piece that represents Liu’s ability to not only draw from a rich background of sources, but his prowess as a gifted painter. Though the context behind the work may have been a contentious one, the artist’s devotion to the female character is apparent. Her rosy-cheeked face bears resemblance to varying versions of the Virgin Mary: disciplinary and angular-faced in the works of Max Ernst which a young Liu had seen in Cologne; or perhaps a traditional, nurturing and loving Madonna, her serenity captured across the Christian artistic canon. In this painting, the winged female figure thus takes on the role of both protector and disciplinarian, an apt allusion to the delicate situation of the couple’s disagreement. In the draped folds of her bright crimson dress, one also detects the beginnings of Liu’s curtain and stage series, one which began in the same year as this work. In its evocation of the stage — heightened also by the large central floodlight, as well as the Chinese operatic spear brandished by the small angel, and the dramatic prop of a pair of scissors wielded by his female companion — one gets a sense of theatrical unveiling, a gentle downplaying of the argument, perhaps.

    Above all else, this work presents the inherent (im)balance of life: where states of unresolved tensions can co-exist. In its balance, dynamism, harmonious use of colour, and the artist’s deft control of light, chromatics and composition, the otherworldly She Isn’t Afraid of Mondrian is a stunning piece. We are caught up in a story utterly Liu Ye’s own: the poetic mood of the work draws us in, manifesting into a compelling narrative of exposition, climax and resolution.

    Phillips would like to thank Liu Ye for his assistance with this essay.

Property from an Important Private European Collection


She Isn't Afraid of Mondrian

signed and dated 'liu ye ye [in Chinese] 95' lower right
acrylic and oil on canvas
200 x 170 cm. (78 3/4 x 66 7/8 in.)
Executed in 1995.

HK$18,000,000 - 28,000,000 

Sold for HK$26,550,000

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

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong Auction 24 November 2019