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Liu Shiming Sculpting the Chinese Spirit: Vitality in Stillness Exhibition Review by Vittoria Riccio

Updated: Jul 18

Liu Shiming’s sculpture is coming back to New York, at the Roosevelt Island Visual Arts Association (RIVAA), for a solo exhibition hosted by the Liu Shiming Art Foundation and curated by Fran Kaufman, in collaboration with Linda Liang at theBlanc Art Space. Liu Shiming. Sculpting the Chinese Spirit: Vitality in Stillness showcases the artist’s career through a progressive display of terracotta models, small-scale bronzes, and preparatory sketches, while carefully narrating the daily lives of ordinary people. The show inaugurates a series of exhibitions and events whose international breadth is to transform Roosevelt Island into an “island of art,” in the words of RIVAA founder Tadeusz Sudol.


Attendees enjoying the exhibition.


Liu Shiming (1926-2010) is among the most celebrated Chinese sculptors. He attended the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) of Beijing in the late 1940s, soon gaining international acclaim, as his works traveled as far as the Czech National Museum in Prague. In the 1960s, Liu abandoned Beijing to live and work in the provinces of Henan and Hebei, where the observation of ordinary life in smaller cities and rural China had a permanent impact on his art. This artistic evolution is perfectly exemplified in his solo exhibition at Gallery RIVAA.


Late artist Liu Shiming works on a sculpture in his studio.


Upon entering the space, the visitor is welcomed by two bozzetti in terracotta, Looking at Each Other through the Cage (1990) and Mother Returns (1993). Their placement, right at the entrance, almost evokes the first steps of the artist’s creative process, introduces us to Liu’s workshop practice, and expresses the promise of their imminent conversion into bronze – a promise reflected in the other sculptures that populate the space. Untitled, quick sketches complement these models; disseminated on the gallery walls, they provide us with yet another insight into the process of artistic creation. Some barely outlined character studies echo the workers and mothers on display in the vitrines; they transport us in the life of ordinary Chinese people, while we become onlookers into Liu Shiming’s own observations. Almost hidden on a small pilaster, a sheet with seven studies for a male figure offers an opportunity for contemplation; the figures’ movement captures the eye, surrounded by the busy mix of visitors and sculptures.


Installation view in the exhibition “Sculpting the Chinese Spirit: Vitality in Stillness” at RIVAA in 2022.


The arrangement of the pieces accompanies the viewer through a chronological succession. Cutting Through Mountains to Bring in Water (2006) marks a first stage in Liu Shiming’s career, and a visual landmark for the visitor entering Gallery RIVAA. The piece – a re-creation of a larger sculpture on view in Beijing in 1958 – embodies the fundamentals of traditional sculpture and fulfills its propagandistic intent. The heroic male figure tears the bronze mountain; originally a metaphor of heroism and valor, in this new context, it seems instead to open the way for the smaller figurines that signify Liu Shiming’s artistic evolution. After this monumental rendition, in fact, the scale is dramatically reduced, and we are introduced into a domestic, more intimate, dimension.


Cutting Through Mountains to Bring in Water. Reproduced in 2006, Bronze, 34x37.5x18inch.


Beginning with the heroic embodiment of the Chinese peasant, classical imagery seems, at first, to constitute a recurring inspiration that continues in Someone Who Wants to Fly (1982). The pose, the open wings theatrically stemming from the central block of the body, are reminiscent of a classical winged victory; the scale, however, denotes an incongruity, further emphasized by the title that forces us to reconsider any historical connotation and finally brings us back into a familiar human sphere. We are invited to come closer, carefully observe the details, and this “victory” inevitably turns into a man. This work seems to illustrate the passage between a traditional idea of sculpture and the everyday subjects that begin to populate Liu Shiming’s artistic developments. Someone Who Wants to Fly functions as an intermediary step, opening the gates for a parade of musicians, farmers, performers, common people. The set-up of these works mirrors – and materializes before our eyes – Liu’s life experience and artistic evolution; it recounts his formative years at CAFA and tells us of his travels and his investigation of the lifestyles in rural China.


Someone Who Wants to Fly. Reproduced 1982, Bronze, 9.2x6.2x2.4inch.


This first group of works is followed by a series of autobiographical sculptures that include several depictions of Liu’s grandchild Mengmeng and culminate in a minute Self-Portrait (2000). In this, the artist enclosed himself in a circular space woven with branches, surrounded by regular objects – a kettle, a stove, a bird, and a TV – allowing the visitor into his personal space, while drawing a connection between his own depiction and the nameless figures that surround this sculpture. Among these, the sinuous shapes of Worship (1980) serve as a transition between the personal and familiar sphere and the generic representation of mundane activities, while possibly hinting at modernist sculptural forms.

Self-Portrait. Reproduced 2000, Bronze, 4.3x5.5x5.4inch.


Pacing through the space, one element becomes evident: the variance in color and material that animates the exhibition, catching our gaze to divert it on the materiality – or rather, the attention to material – of the sculptures. The warm tones of wood alternate with the dark and cool flesh of the metal, the black and white sketches hide rare flashes of color. The fundamental role played by the medium confers a tactile feel to these pieces, highlighting the significance of the seemingly menial tasks performed by these characters.

Worship. Reproduced 1980, Wood, 4.1x21x7.2inch.


The importance of materiality in Liu Shiming’s sculpture can be observed, for instance, in Eastern Han Storyteller (1976). The small figure could almost go unnoticed among the larger self-portraits, or the more elaborate scenes of bucolic work; however, this replica of an Eastern Han pottery speaks to Liu’s background, his experience as a restorer at the National Museum of China in the 1970s, and ultimately to his concern with the ancient Chinese art, material, and the more tangible, side of art.


An attendee enjoying Liu Shiming’s wood sculpture Eternal Love: The Continuation of Life.


The focus on medium and workshop practices blends together with heroic sculpture and portrayals of ordinary life in the space of Gallery RIVAA, providing us with an impeccable narration of Liu Shiming’s creative process and artistic career, as well as a tale of daily life in 20th-century China. Liu Shiming. Sculpting the Chinese Spirit: Vitality in Stillness displays the artist’s universal quality through his attention to details and represents the perfect complement to the international intentions of Gallery RIVAA.


Liu Shiming working at the Chinese History Museum(now known as the National Museum of China) in the 1970s.



Attendees participating in the clay workshop at RIVAA.


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