Liu Xiaodong: Painting Ambiguity with a Social Realist's Brush

Feb. 23, 2024

Beijing-based Liu Xiaodong, one of the most prominent social realist artists of his generation and Princeton University Art Museum’s Sarah Lee Elson, Class of 1984, International Artist-in-Residence, left impressions across the Princeton campus and community this week.

Liu visited Professor Cheng-hua Wang’s ART 218/ EAST 238 “Ten Essential Topics in Chinese Art and Culture,” Irene Small’s ART 566: “Seminar in Contemporary Art and Theory: The Global Contemporary,” and CHI 418 “Advanced Chinese: Contemporary Literature and Film,” cotaught by Luanfeng Huang & Jing Wang.  His tour culminated in a conversation with the Nancy and Peter Lee Associate Curator of Asian Art Zoe S. Kwok, cosponsored by the Tang Center for East Asian Art, that drew a capacity audience on February 22. A&A graduate students Yutong Li and Zhuolun Xie accompanied Liu throughout the week to translate.

A graduate of the prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, Liu has served as a Professor of Oil Painting there since 1994.  

The meaning in Liu’s works is rooted in their settings. His two most famous series focus on China’s Three Gorges region where the construction of a mammoth dam caused the displacement of over a million people, and Shaanbei, the northern area of Shaanxi Province, celebrated as a center of China’s communist revolution: two changing worlds full of historical and political meaning. 

“What I find intriguing is that Mr. Liu endeavors to portray the human condition of various social changes, such as displacement, labor, consumerism, and the sense of non-belonging among teenagers,” said Wang.  The choice of setting, she says, “adds layers of meaning to the painted scenes, some even political in nature.”

A group sits around tables in a classroom oriented toward a wide screen showing a painting

Liu Xiaodong discusses his Hot Bed No. 1, 2005, with Cheng-hua Wang's ART 218 class (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Liu spoke with Wang’s class about his practice and influences. Intrigued by their complexity, subtle social and political innuendos, and representations of internal narratives, Liu explained that he draws inspiration from Chinese scroll paintings and admires Chinese calligraphy for its diversity of strokes.

Taking as his example Hot Bed No. 1, depicting a group of figures in China’s Three Gorge’s Dam region, Liu spoke of capturing his subjects in an impressionist style. But unlike Claude Monet, who completed works in under two hours, Liu worked on this 32-foot long painting for over a month.

Applying impressionist techniques at this monumental scale meant reshuffling times of day in his renderings, so that a figure’s torso gleams in the mid-day sun while his head was painted at dusk under a sky that shows the faint pink of sunset.  

“For me, they are like still frames from a film,” said Wang. “We, as the viewer, do not know what has happened beforehand and what will happen next. The scenes are emblematic moments that appear as if cropped from a cinematic depiction of local life.”

Liu Xiaodong speaking into micorophone

Liu Xiaodong (Photo/Joseph Hu, Princeton University Art Museum)

This unapologetic approach to painting life as it comes also shows up in other ways.  The unfinished corner of Hot Bed, for example, is free of paint not for effect, but because Liu ran out of it. And he drew the class’ attention to the smudges and footprints on the canvas, incidental to his having worked on the ground.  In other works, fully-fledged figures are surrounded by random bursts of color because, in place of scenery, Liu used the background as his mixing palette. He replaces scenery with handwritten text in another work, placed there by the depicted figures.

While candor frames his technique, Liu aims for ambiguity in his expression.  “Despite this label invoking Social Realism in art as promoted by the Chinese government, Mr. Liu’s works in fact do not provide simple straightforward readings on the reality of life,” said Wang, “They lead audiences to contemplate how the concepts of document, history, reality, and representation negotiate within them.”

Liu in fact aims for ambiguity.  “If the message is too specific it becomes propaganda,” he said, “and if it’s not specific enough it becomes illustration.”  At the very least, he said, “as long as we can find one funny point, that’s enough for me.” 

The work purchased by the Princeton University Art Museum, Brawler, perfectly exemplifies this set of intentions. In it, a group of teenagers lingers in the mountains of Yan’an, celebrated as a birthplace of Chinese communism. They represent millions of aimless youth in China raised by their grandparents, as working-age family members pursue jobs in larger cities. According to Kwok, “In Brawler Liu offers a surreal combination of bold color and intense character depiction that searingly narrates the tensions between civilization and nature.” Absent the knowledge to identify the politically-charged backdrop, says Liu, the viewer can recognize that the teenagers are wearing faux Gucci and take in the chaotic terrain.

Setting his paintings in locations rife with social change and tension, Liu cannot avoid political associations with his work. “I usually get asked questions by journalists regarding politics,” he said. “But I do believe that the power of humanity would overshadow politics. Of course, politics will control many aspects of life, but I wish that we can open our eyes and see more of the kind aspects of the world.”

Above all, he hopes his work is thought-provoking. “Simply put,” he said, “my intended viewers are thinkers.”

Liu Xiaodong in conversation with Zoe Kwok, to his right, with Zhuolun Xie, to his left in a filled classroom

Liu Xiaodong in conversation with Zoe Kwok, to his right, with translation by Zhuolun Xie, to his left (Photo/Joseph Hu, Princeton University Art Museum)