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Liu Xiaodong’s Expressive Realism

Words:

Edd Norval
October 22, 2021

Chinese artist Liu Xiaodong is interested in people and places. He captures both, in everyday scenes that appeal to his sensibilities - whether that be for an expression, a composition or a particular feeling. Part of the Neo-Realist movement, the artist does more than portray reality as it is in one particular moment, utilising expressive elements to highlight certain attributes, drawing on intuition as much as physical perception.

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Like Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon, two artists whose paintings retain a very cerebral appeal, Xiaodong adopts a similar manner of expressing the realities experienced by his subjects, highlighting their despair or elation through various elements like form and colour. 


Injecting scenes with something intangible allows the Chinese artist to comment on the broader social and political implications of the moments he chooses to capture, highlighting particular atmospheres that seem to impose themselves onto his subjects, a recognisable feature of economic moods and broader social epochs manifesting in daily interactions.


However divorced from world events an individual may feel does little to actually remove them from their entanglement in the zeitgeist. You might not watch the news, but your neighbour does. Born and raised in an environment of totalitarian dictatorship, Xiaodong understands and communicates exactly how pervasive the feeling of oppression is and how inescapable it can be.

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Utilising broad brushstrokes, the artist never challenges the integrity of the nature of his pieces - often highlighting fairly stark community or personal moments. It is with his technique, evocative of the aforementioned artists and all the way to Vincent van Gogh, that Xiaodong’s characters are able to come to life.


This life that we speak of mightn’t be the jovial zest one would associate with the phrase, rather the 'life' he gifts his characters has a kinetic appeal, in command of human potential in the face of the mundanity of day-to-day living. We see enough detail to get to know each character, but not enough to detract from the overwhelming aura of each piece. In some way, this aspect of his painting could be considered the protagonist. 

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Empty packets of food and other detritus lie around while television sets and various other symbols of our modern world vie for centre stage against his characters - locals in a highly globalised framework. Understanding these characters as drops in the ocean makes their plight feel instantly hopeless, mere leaves being blown around at will by the wind. In drawing attention to them, Xiaodong elicits sympathy and empathy, portraying universally relatable moments of deep honesty, integrity and vulnerability. 


Focussing his lens on developing nations, Xiaodong acts as a creative documentarian who frames his staged fiction to display elements of bitter but disarming truth. We see the bleak lives, the monotony, the pointlessness of it all. But we also see the shielding family, the community and the sense of togetherness - qualities not always at the forefront of more developed contemporary societies.

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