In mid-September of 2019, I flew to Beijing to meet Liu Xiaodong and begin research for a monograph on his work. It was scheduled to be published by Lund Humphries for its now-discontinued “Contemporary Painters” series, edited by Barry Schwabsky (Liu Xiaodong was released on October 1, 2021.) Over the next 10 days, Liu and I met daily, talking for four or five hours at a time, with his longtime assistant Marco Betelli translating. Our wide-ranging conversations covered many subjects, beginning with his childhood in a Manchurian town with a paper mill built by Japanese occupiers, and continuing to long exchanges about the many places he had visited to paint. One of the underlying commonalities among the sites he chose was the deleterious consequences of modernization on a traditional society or group. 

From earlier research I knew that Liu was an observational painter who worked on site, often on a very large scale. I learned that he had traveled to Uummannaq, Greenland, to paint the adolescent residents of what he called, in an interview for the Louisiana Museum in Denmark, “an orphanage at the end of the world.” He had also lived among and depicted men and women in the jade mining region of Xinjiang Province, home of many ethnic minorities, including the now-persecuted Turkic Uyghur people. I was reminded of our many conversations when I saw the exhibition Liu Xiaodong: Shaanbei at Lisson Gallery, which resulted from one of the projects we had talked about in Beijing. 

Lui was very open about his process. He showed me pages of his daily diary, along with sketches, watercolors, photographs (including ones on which he had painted), and paintings he had started while making two trips to the Texas-Mexico border in 2019. In addition, the filmmaker Bo Yang has accompanied him for many recent projects, to document Liu’s interactions with his subjects and surrounding landscape. Back in New York, I watched films of Liu in Mongolia and Cuba, as well as collaborations with well-known filmmakers Jia Zhangke and Hou Hsiao-Hsien.

Liu Xiaodong, “Wedding Dress and Vegetables” (2019), oil on canvas, 70 7/8 x 63 x 2 inches (© Liu Xiaodong, courtesy Lisson Gallery)

Historically speaking, Shaanbei is considered the birthplace of the People’s Republic of China, as it is where Mao Zedong ended the Long March in October 1935. Like the Texas-Mexico border, Mongolia, or Cuba — places where Liu has traveled and painted — progress’s march and the history of global conflict have left their marks on its inhabitants. 

The exhibition comprises different examples of Liu’s immersion in the life and culture of Shaanbei. It must be seen in its entirety to sense all the facets of his deeply considered practice. Bo Yang’s 40-minute biographical documentary Shaanbei explains that Liu first traveled to this area to paint in 1985. In the film, he shows a notebook drawing he made of an elderly man living in the village at that time and asks the people he meets in Shaanbei about him.

The entire notebook, which is on display, has been digitized so viewers can scroll through the pages. When Liu visited Shaanbei in 1985, he was an undergraduate student at the Chinese Academy of Fine Art (CAFA), where he now teaches painting. In 1981, he entered a high school affiliated with CAFA after taking a national exam. He was part of the first wave of students to return to school after Mao died and the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976. He was in his late teens and had not been formally educated for many years. In 1984, he was admitted to CAFA’s oil painting department. 

Traveling to a remote rural area of China and painting the people living and working there was part of school policy, in keeping with the Chinese Communist idealization of the peasant and laborer. An observational painter who never became didactic, contrary to his social realist training, Liu never says why he chose to return to Shaanbei after more than 30 years, leaving viewers room to surmise. 

Drawing in Liu Xiaodong’s diary (© Liu Xiaodong, courtesy Lisson Gallery)

When Liu shows a drawing from his student notebook to the villagers, he is also identifying the change in thinking that began to take place while he was in art school — the move from idealizing to directly observing the subject. Shaped by the changes and events in China in the years after Mao’s death in 1976 up to the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, his return to Shaanbei is loaded. And yet, as I watched the film, I got the sense that he was trying hard to see what was in front of his eyes, and that his motivation was the same as when he was a student: empathy. It is in fact his empathetic longing to become the “other” that originally helped him break through the aesthetic agenda of socialist realism, with its emphasis on idealization and the heroic. Can he imagine what his subjects are thinking and feeling without passing judgement on them? As Charles Baudelaire described the “painter of modern life,” can he become “independent, passionate, and impartial”? 

Liu marks his return to Shaanbei in the painting “Two Figures from the Back in the Mountain Rain” (2022). Compositionally, he has taken something from Caspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” (1818), in which a figure faces away from the viewer and toward the landscape. One of the figures in Liu’s work is the artist himself, who strides on an incline toward the painting’s left edge, while looking across the Yan River on the right, at the city that has grown up there in the years since he last visited. One possible inspiration for this figure may be Edgar Degas’s “Place de la Concorde” (1875), an isolated example in this artist’s work. In addition to a parallel with Degas’s man striding toward the painting’s edge, holding a closed umbrella, both artists use the placement of forms as an expression of politics. 

What Liu brings together is stillness and movement, center and periphery. In Liu’s painting, his body tilts at a slight diagonal, in counterpoint to the erect figure in the middle — the viewer’s surrogate. Can we become both of them and see with an open mind what is in front of us and, as the artist’s image implies, behind us at our memories, as we move into the future? The figures’ interaction with each other and the landscape invites further speculation about the relation of past, present, and future. Between the two figures, we can see a bridge crossing the Yan River. It suggests a link between the men without spelling out what it might be. Directly above the central figure, in the distance, is a monument commemorating the Long March, which Mao proclaimed a victory (a claim historians dispute). 

Liu Xiaodong, “Two Figures from the Back in the Mountain Rain” (2022), oil on canvas, 59 x 55 1/8 inches (© Liu Xiaodong, courtesy Lisson Gallery)

What is striking and unsettling about the show’s other eight paintings, all but one of which have between two and nine figures, is how many of the individuals occupy a solitary world, whether it is because they are looking at their cell phones, standing and smoking by a gate, or singing on a temporary stage amid a nearly empty parking lot. In one painting of a sole individual, “Wedding Dress and Vegetables” (2019), the young woman in a knock-off Gucci track suit (as evidenced by its incorrect logo) is seated alone on the edge of coffee table, cell phone clasped in one hand, presumably about to get married. A white bridal gown, along with pink and dark magenta flowers, are spread out on a sofa. While salmon pinks and reds — an auspicious color in China and often the color of a wedding dress — are predominant, the scene hardly feels festive. Liu’s paintings brim with contradictions for viewers to try to disentangle. 

Liu’s subjects range in age from young children to elderly men and women. “Irredeemable Loafers” (2023) depicts a group of teenagers while “The Roar” (2021) shows hard-working peasants gathered in front of a wall, listening to a man with his fist raised, singing what the film tells us is a patriotic song. 

Working with a loaded brush and a sure touch, Liu does something unexpected: he paints empathetic portraits of people he hardly knows, who are part of distinct social groups existing within a specific geographic locale and economy in which he has immersed himself. The film shows that Liu rented a typical apartment in Shaanbei for two years in order to undertake these paintings. When I was in Beijing, we talked about this project and the possibility that I might accompany him on one of his trips there; he made a point of telling me that we would not stay in a hotel. Even when he is “played by” them, as he says of a group of teenagers who never show up to be painted, even after he has bought them what they wanted (Chinese-produced Gucci knock offs), he never loses his genuine affection for them. The rapport he establishes with his subjects varies. At times it is stretched but it is never broken. 

Liu is one of the few artists working today who has picked up where Édouard Manet left off in his synthesis of form and content. He does so by staging a scene and costuming the figures, something he learned from working closely with film directors, while making it look natural. Liu’s combination of independence, direct observation, impartiality, and passion, as well as his use of a camera and collaboration with a self-directed filmmaker, enables him to see deeper into the hierarchically divided and warring world in which we live. His primary subjects are the people modernization comfortably pushes aside, often with society’s full approval — individuals and classes that few painters in the West have attempted to embrace. 

Installation view of the film Shaanbei by Bo Yang in Liu Xiaodong: Shaanbei at Lisson Gallery, New York (photography by Mark Waldhauser, © Liu Xiaodong, courtesy Lisson Gallery)

Liu Xiaodong: Shaanbei continues at Lisson Gallery (504 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 10. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...