Shanghai Art Gallery - Chinese Contemporary Art


Pungent Critique and Sincere Concern for Humanity – The Work of Liu Yan
by Tao Yongbai

Influenced by traditional Chinese painting methods, Liu Yan uses realism and precise brushwork to create very modern paintings. Liu Yan’s paintings are eccentric, audacious and incredibly stimulating. Sometimes stunning, her work features the ironic, which give the paintings a memorable life living drama under her brush. Despite Liu Yan’s petite and gentle stature, she paints subject matter that is daring. Liu Yan challenges the viewer by using dark humor and broad vision all the while nodding to both traditional and contemporary art.

“The painting looks like the one who paints it”, says Liu Yan, who uses her personal experiences to inspire her work. Born in the 1960’s, she grew up in a hutong in old Beijing. During the turbulent years of the Cultural Revolution, Liu Yan was sent to the countryside to become a worker. Later, the reform and opening of China gave her the chance to change her life. In 1986, Liu was able to fulfill her childhood dream of attending college. Under the influence of the old Beijing dynasty legacy and her life in an urban environment, her work became more dynamic. A fan of Beijing opera and rock-and-roll, antiques, and fashion, Liu Yan pursues a life of joy brought on by modern civilization without losing her value of history. Although she respects traditional Chinese art and culture, her art seeks to rebel against many such traditions, and she is influenced by western modern philosophy and art. Liu Yan enjoys reading Confucius and Mencius as well as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche with great interest. In her work she combines the influences of ancient classical artworks, such as those of Shi Tao, and Western painting conventions, such as sketching and coloring.

Liu Yan has proceeded in three phases: accumulation, creation, and finally transcendence.

During Liu’s ten years of study in the fine arts department of Capital Normal University as well as after graduation, she refined her art. Liu Yan adopted a traditional Chinese realistic format and style and would often paint figures amongst ancient looking landscapes. In 1996 Liu Yan returned to college to obtain her Masters degree. Going back to college propelled her into a time of great creation, and she developed a personal style. Wishing to advance beyond her previous works, Liu Yan displayed scenes of debauchery, disorder and impulsiveness. These modern figures depicted in her work are living a chaotic life; do they have empty souls devoid of meaning? Where is their spiritual homeland? With regards to the world of desire, Liu Yan is a true critic; she reflects on contemporary society and moulds it into an artistic language. Liu Yan recognizes that the oil painters of her time observe life closely and often find humor in it, but she asks the question, where does this lead the traditional Chinese realistic painter? Must contemporary Chinese art keep a distance from the realities of today’s world in order to remain elegant? The ancestors once stated, “Artworks should change with the times”; Liu Yan explores this notion by mixing a touch of the old with the new.

Beijing Opera has long been an inspiration for Liu Yan, and she is fortunate to have several friends and family members who are involved in the opera circle. She has often had the opportunity to go backstage, and it is there that she sees performers drinking cola, smoking and joking with one another. It is this world that presents itself as a picture for her work, where theatre characters and ancient celebrities pass through space in an instant, having fun and drinking with those in the present. The scene or picture becomes inspiration for Liu Yan to link the traditional and the modern. As a result, works such as, Traditional Voices and Modern Craziness, Making Up Life, and Crazy World emerged like a stream of spring water.

Liu Yan’s work has its own eccentric style and is unique for several reasons.

Firstly, Liu Yan’s artwork boldly juxtaposes the traditional and contemporary. She uses dark humor and allegory to show unusual life philosophies. Borrowing from old Chinese traditions such as calligraphy, ancient songs and melodies, and folk poems as well as antique Chinese furniture, the artist gives the viewer a sense of her commitment to China’s ancient culture. However, under such an established cultural background, each figure in her paintings appears fashionable and vivid and does not show shame in taking part in the show of money, just as those from the past did not. The money worshiper becomes a theme, one with all the negative connotations; people scramble for power and profit, they cheat each other, there is sexual desire, they compromise their morals and abandon tradition. Occasionally grotesque and absurd, the images capture the situation in glaring antagonism of the convention and the contemporary.

Mysteriously, Liu Yan also combines time and space. Her art not only inherits the combination of characters and events from ancient wall painting but she places modern urban youth and people from the past in the same spectrum. As a result, her work acts as narrative for travel between the old world and the new. Here, the figures intersect in a secret space and interact as if in a performance. The viewer is able to if not take part, witness a seemingly magic scene.

In addition, Liu Yan’s figures are audacious, almost reckless in their behavior. She creates figures with exaggerated body language and facial expressions that push their actions to the limit. Although the figures often occupy the same space, they do not always share in the same story. Each character has his or her own point of view, and when Liu Yan combines them all together, the work contains an intensity that is astonishing.

Finally, the ancient dramatic characters are given new meaning by the artist inventing new fables for them to exist in. Often, the ancient characters are used solely to symbolize traditional culture and contrast modernity, but others have certain significance. Zhang Fei, an ancient hero, is used in Liu Yan’s, Make Up Life as the traditional male figure but in Traditional Voices and Modern Craziness is used as a female figure. She implies that nothing is certain, and when seduction is the theme, even the hero can turn into a different gender. Liu Yan creatively changes stories to make her picture appealing in new ways. She changes details; for instance, the wife of an emperor drinks coke, the ancient Chinese ghost catcher uses email, and a skeleton holds a batch of Chinese notes. By changing the perception of the characters in her artworks, Liu provokes the viewer into contemplating what is traditional and what is ethical.

In her complex work, Liu Yan does not consider harmonious taste as an objective but seeks to create her own art language by painting subject matter that she believes to be a current trend. In the beginning she was influenced by wall painting techniques, but she has come to discover new inspirations that have moved her towards a greater passion for creating. During her latest phase, Liu has developed her sense of colour and the use of different mediums, like Japanese painting techniques, mixing media and coloured stones. 

In 2003 Liu Yan worked with a French photographer to combine photos and paintings. As a result, she discovered a new way of making art. She found working with someone from a different cultural background incredibly stimulating, and they worked together to integrate their images. When East Meets West, became the result of Liu Yan recreating the same photograph that the French photographer once took near the Eiffel Tower. Instead of using the same model, Liu Yan photographed a Mandarin man in the foreground wearing a Mandarin hat and Western coat over his Mandarin robe. Non-traditional, the robe is trendy with an illuminated woman depicted in the chest area. The Mandarin is neither Chinese nor western; he holds the emperor’s announcement in one hand and a figure of a nude woman in the other. Liu Yan uses the figure of the Mandarin man to represent those she sees to currently be in power. Behind this figure are an ancient Chinese warrior, an American soldier and Muslim protestors. Placed in the sky is a male swan, the god emperor with a gun, a Chinese god-boy with wine and an angel writing calligraphy. And a man looks through a telescope on top of a roof. Liu Yan asks the question, “Is it not a mirror image of the unified global economy”? She continues, “Punk hippy meets god in the sky, looks ridiculous but if you think about it, it’s natural. This is Zen”. Liu Yan successfully combined her own style with the French photographer’s work to create something meaningful.

While hunting for antiques Liu Yan came upon some old books that she found fascinating. She decided to use the pages from the books to create a canvas-like surface to paint upon. Although her themes remained the same, the appearance of her work has been transformed by this new surface, allowing her brushwork to flow more freely across the surface. The old books add to the mysterious ancient characters that Liu Yan paints. This collage-like surface, decorative in its use of gold foil and composed of words of old wisdom, is juxtaposed with Liu’s controversial themes, creating a sense of irony.

As one of the “new born generation”, Liu Yan’s attitude towards life brings the traditional and the modern together using a fascinating visual language. She separates and overturns the concepts of both the traditional and the modern in her work but does not experience the cynicism like many from the “new born generation”. She is not bored of nor does she try to escape from the realities of the modern world. Liu Yan’s winning formula is her principle to display both tears and laughter in her work. As a female artist, Liu Yan does not focus on the feminine or sentiment but rather transcends such topics by savoring a wider view of life. She reveals things that are usually left behind closed doors, which she sees as being brought on by the commercial world. Through this, her audience is able to witness Liu’s true concern for humanity.



© Art Scene Warehouse and Liu Yan
Images of art by Liu Yan may not be reproduced without the prior
written presmission of Liu Yan or Art Scene Warehouse, Shanghai.