The renowned Chinese artist talks to Edmund Lee about his iconic cartoon-like paintings.
As one of the most recognisable figures in contemporary Chinese art, Liu Ye has been a darling among collectors for his paintings of cartoon-like characters rendered in vivid colours, often revealing the influences of Mondrian and Vermeer. The Beijing-based artist talked to Time Out at the grand opening of Eastation Hong Kong, at which two of his works – 2010’s Painter And Model and 2005’s Hans Christian Anderson in the Snow (After Albert Kuchler) – are currently on view.
Would you agree that you’re revealing the heart of the child within you through your paintings?
It’s not for me to say whether I have the heart of a child. But at the same time, even if you want to hide something [inside you] it’s not always possible.
Children – and especially young girls – seem to be recurrent motifs in your work.
I think the girls [in my work] are symbols that represent all humans. If I paint a man, it’s easy for him to be taken to represent one specific kind of people but if we take humans as abstract symbols, girls are the most fitting [subjects]. The abstract conceptualisation [process] is very important to me, so the subjects in my work are not just individuals but the symbols of humans in general.
Is there any special significance to this choice of subject?
If we’re talking about painting children, the French painter [Jean-Baptiste-Siméon] Chardin had been doing it hundreds of years ago. It’s not a new subject matter; I think the depiction of children and women is forever [relevant]. As for their importance to me… I feel that they can put me in a purer state [of mind], to create without involving too many other aspects of things.
You’re known to make a clear distinction between art and politics. Can you briefly elaborate on that?
To me, politics and art have always been two completely separate entities. However, the emphasis on the interrelationship between the two has often caused the misunderstanding that contemporary Chinese art is inevitably art about politics. That’s not the case. Art is… higher than politics, in my opinion; what art involves is even more mysterious and harder to express with words.
Many of the prominent Chinese artists nowadays are consistently adopting the social and political imageries of modern China, such as the Cultural Revolution. What’s your thought on that?
I think that’s perhaps due to the fact that the first generation of contemporary Chinese artists, they were mostly born in the late 1950s or early 1960s. We were teenagers when the Cultural Revolution happened, which is why it more or less constitutes a part of our memories. Then again, I think the younger generations will be [focusing on] quite different [subject matters].
The generation of Chinese artists you belong to is arguably the first to be internationally admired and collected. Do you have an explanation for that?
I think it’s possible that we’re the first generation of Chinese artists to recognise our self-worth. In Chinese history, we may be the first artists to put an emphasis on expressing ourselves. This is important not only to art but to the transformation in the mentality of the Chinese in general.
So, when was the moment that you realised you’d become famous?
Famous… [Pauses] I was very famous when I was in kindergarten. [Laughs] My teacher said I was the best painter in the kindergarten and that I would become a painter one day!
Do you recall what your earliest paintings looked like?
As a kid, I mostly painted about wars. [Laughs] There were fighter jets, cannons, tanks… generally speaking, it’s all about wars.
Were you influenced by lianhuanhua [an early form of Chinese comics]?
Lianhuanhua had great influences on China then. What we could read during the Cultural Revolution was very limited but lianhuanhua [was among the exceptions]. Some were about Lenin… October Revolution… I still remember very clearly that it was in 1918. It’s hard to explain but I was certainly impressed by its epic nature.
As an artist, do you try to incorporate any specific idea or message to each of your paintings?
I think each artist can only convey one message in his lifetime. He does that through the integration of many, many pieces of artworks. And when he finishes and passes away, you’ll find out what he’s trying to communicate.
Eastation Hong Kong’s Grand Opening Exhibition continues until May 1.