For his first exhibition in the UK, the Lisson Gallery
has invited Liu Xiaodong one of Chinas foremost artists and a painter of international stature to produce a new body of work in London for his inaugural show with the gallery. Over a period of six weeks, Liu documented his encounters with Londoners, much as he has done previously, while living and painting among residents of Tibet, Japan, Italy, Cuba and Israel. Focusing on three local businesses, two pubs and one Middle Eastern coffee shop, Liu produced one near-lifesize oil on canvas and eight acrylic photo-paintings at each location. As part of his direct and conceptual approach to painting, Liu writes and draws in a journal and takes photographs before building a temporary studio insitu, in order to paint en plein air or xiesheng as it is known in Chinese.
While each venue, dubbed Green Pub, White Pub and Egyptian Restaurant for the purposes of these paintings, are all within striking distance of one another hardly more than half a street away from the gallery as per his title their subjects are distinct in tenor and timbre. Lius portraits range from the two couples who run the pubs who hail variously from American, West Indian, Polish and French backgrounds to a gesticulating toddler, a dog and a fancy-dress cowboy. The empty upstairs room of the Egyptian restaurant adds further contrast, hinting not only at the spaces alternate use as a meeting and storage room, but at cross-cultural complications encountered in the painting of such a religiously sensitive environment, as well as obliquely referencing the ongoing political uncertainty in the Middle East.
Liu says, My only goal is to confront people and see them as they really are and the artists immersive method of individual and collective portraiture results in pieces that have participatory and performative dimensions, while their scale often matches that of filmmaking, an activity Liu is well versed in, having previously worked as an actor in Wang Xiaoshuais acclaimed The Days (1993), or else as producer and subject of award-winning documentaries about his own practice. Lius London residency has been documented by celebrated filmmaker Sophie Fiennes, whose complementary portrait of the artist at work will also be on display in the gallery.
Liu Xiaodong is a painter of modern life, whose large-scale works serve as a kind of history painting for the emerging world. Liu locates the human dimension to such global issues as population displacement, environmental crisis and economic upheaval, but through carefully orchestrated compositions, he walks the line between artifice and reality. A leading figure among the Chinese Neo-Realist painters to emerge in the 1990s, his adherence to figurative painting amounts to a conceptual stance within a contemporary art context where photographic media dominate. His compositions are painted with loose, casual brushstrokes and layered with meaning. While he works from life, he chooses sitters to supply ancillary narratives to landscapes or situations. This participatory dimension to his practice, where projects are also documented by diaries and films, reflects an urgent sense of interconnection: Society and art, he says, should be like breathing one breathes in and the other breathes out (2008).