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Richard Vine: “Finding simple materials to express the simple life is key to Liu Shiming’s work”

Richard Vine, New York-based writer and former managing editor of Art in America, speaks to CAFA ART INFO about his views on Liu Shiming’s art.

New York-based writer Richard Vine is the former managing editor of Art in America. He holds a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Chicago and previously served as editor-in-chief of the Chicago Review and Dialogue: An Art Journal. Three hundred of his articles, reviews, and interviews have appeared in various journals, including Art in America, Salmagundi, the Georgia Review, Tema Celeste, Modern Poetry Studies, and the New Criterion. One of his research fields is the critical tracing of avant-garde art in the context of China’s whirlwind social and political changes.

Invited by the Liu Shiming Art Foundation, Mr. Vine embarked on a week-long trip in Beijing to research Liu Shiming’s art and life. The author’s forthcoming book will be a critical biography, offering a comprehensive review of Liu Shiming’s sculptural work from the 1950s to 2010. The book will position Liu Shiming’s artworks critically and art historically, making some parallels between Eastern and Western art practice. While in Beijing, Mr. Vine read numerous sketches, letters, and manuscripts left by Liu Shiming, and talked to many of his relatives, colleagues, and students to learn more about the artist’s background and thinking. At the Liu Shiming Sculpture Museum, Mr. Vine walked among Liu Shiming’s clay sculptures. As documentary footage played in the background, at times even drowning the voice of the visitors themselves, he was immersed in a re-enactment of Liu’s memories.

On November 13th, CAFA ART INFO conducted an interview with Mr. Vine to discuss his insights concerning Liu Shiming’s art, the history of Western art and literature, and the contemporary art world.

Richard Vine visiting the Liu Shiming Sculpture Museum. Courtesy Liu Shiming Sculpture Museum.

Interview with Richard Vine (hereafter referred to as RV) by CAFA ART INFO (hereafter referred to as CAI):

I. A Critical Biography

CAI How did you start learning about Liu Shiming? What was the first occasion for you to explore Liu Shiming and his art? What were your initial thoughts upon seeing his work?

RV I was introduced to several Foundation members through mutual friends. He Miao, an artist here in China, recommended that we should meet, as did Jenny Roosevelt, a New York-based admirer of Liu Shiming, who once lived in Beijing. People in the Foundation kindly invited me to the Liu Shiming exhibition at Rutgers University in September. That was my first exposure to the work itself. Later on, we met at the Foundation office in New York.

CAI I learned that you are going to write a book about Liu Shiming. What attracted you to start and proceed with your writing?

RV Like many other people, I was initially struck by the simplicity and genuineness of the work. I have a so-called “fancy life” in the art world—traveling around to various countries, giving talks, attending openings and dinners, etc. But originally, I came from a typical working-class family. My father had to leave school at the age of 14 to work. My grandfather was a coal miner who went into “the pits” when he was 12 years old. There was a real personal connection for me to the life that Liu Shiming portrayed. Also, I have an unusual taste in music. I like American country-and-western music, which few people in the art world can tolerate. Country music is very simple. There is a joke in the business that a country song is three chords and the truth. That is the quality that I responded to Liu Shiming’s works.

CAI Can you share more about the book? Will it be a critical book or some other type of book?

RV It’s going to be a critical biography. Liu Shiming’s life was very fascinating, and intimately related to his work. You really cannot separate the two. The approach will be chronological. At the end of the book, I will have some sections positioning Liu’s work critically and art historically, making some parallels between Eastern and Western art history.

CAI What specific perspectives will you use to step into Liu’s life and art?

RV Naturally, I am fascinated by several unusual decisions that Liu Shiming made. For example, in 1961, he gave up a very comfortable position in Beijing and went off to the countryside. Later, there was the decision to suppress his formal training—not to forget it, but to keep it in the background while seeking his own simplicity of form. None of his decisions were made to gain advantage or privilege in life, but rather to dedicate himself completely to his work. He was very determined. On the outside, he was gentle and kind; on the inside, he obviously had a very strong will to make his works in his own way.

CAI You just mentioned Liu's choices throughout his life. When making decisions, the artist was profoundly influenced, on the one hand, by Chinese traditional art. On the other hand, artists such as Liu must be influenced by their time's specific political and social environment. What are your thoughts on this?

RV I think we can only infer, since I have not yet come across an explicit explanation in the diaries or letters. However, if you look at the patterns of these decisions, it seems that Liu very much wanted to be a self-directed artist. He could have had a fine career—and a very comfortable life—simply doing commissioned projects. But something moved him to say no. Again, I can only guess. At the time, there was a lot of propaganda work celebrating the nobility of workers, soldiers, and peasants. And Liu initially helped to produce projects of that sort. But I suspect he came to feel that such work was not completely genuine. I think he took to heart the inner message of the era’s ideology—the vital importance of common people—rather than its outer visual rhetoric.

Liu Wei (right), son of Liu Shiming, explaining the work Boatmen on the Yellow River (1985) to Richard Vine.

II. Exploring Trip in Beijing

CAI Regarding your visit in Beijing this time, I'm sure you came across a wider range of Liu's work and archival materials. Could you please share your insights from this exploration trip with us? Is there any fresh inspiration?

RV The other day, we looked at many of Liu’s writings, drawings, and sketches, which are extremely interesting—very energetic and charming. In the traveling exhibitions, the works mostly reflect everyday life. But when you see the full body of Liu’s work, you realize that he also explored history, mythology, opera, and so on. But the consistent factor in all of this is his ability and determination to step outside himself. It is a kind of paradox in his nature that, on the one hand, he is really determined, really self-directed. On the other hand, his purpose is to explore the life of other people.

As a Westerner, this reminds me of the split in the Romantic Movement during the late 18th and 19th centuries. The Romantic Movement has two streams. All Romanticism has to do with the self. However, one of the branches is about self-glorification: the artist as genius. Percy Shelley once said that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” They presume to set the moral agenda for all humankind. In his most famous poem, Song of Myself (1855), Walt Whitman asserted, “I contain multitudes.” But there is another stream of Romanticism that flows from John Keats, who focused on what he called “negative capability.” This was essentially empathy, the ability to imaginatively enter into another position or situation—even another being. One accepts uncertainties, without passing judgment. This is the capacity that great playwrights and novelists have, which enables them to portray many kinds of people, to get inside those people and understand them. Take Shakespeare. You can read a thousand pages of Shakespeare's poems and plays, finding many complex and colorful characters. But at the end of the thousand pages, you may ask yourself: what did Shakespeare himself really believe? It is impossible to say, because he perfectly transposed himself into another world and all its inhabitants. Delve into Liu Shiming’s work, too, and that is what you find.

CAI Did you see any more small-scale sculptures made of clay or pottery? I imagine that many of Liu's sculptures constructed of clay and pottery are seldom available outside of China due to the fragility of the materials. Some significant items were cast in bronze for worldwide display. I personally found these small-scale clay sculptures interest me the most. I'm curious what you think about Liu's clay sculptures.

RV In the clay works, there is a parallel between the material and the subject: the subject comes from everyday life, and the material is everyday clay. Some of Liu’s clay works are glazed, but most of them remain raw. In the West, for many centuries, we had the notion that only certain topics are suitable for art, and they should be treated in a particular way, with particular materials, especially “noble” materials like bronze, marble, silver, and gold. However, at the beginning of Modernism, that notion was overthrown. One striking example is Duchamp’s Fountain (1917). He just placed a urinal on its side and signed it with a pseudonym, which is a way of saying that anything can be art. That is one big step toward integrating life and art, which is a very important goal for many modern artists in the West. I believe this is close to the ethos of Liu Shiming’s clay works.

Liu Shiming, Boatmen on the Yellow River,1996, clay, 6 x 23.25 x 8.25 inches.

Courtesy Liu Shiming Sculpture Museum.

Liu Shiming, Jigong Drinking, 1985, glazed clay, 6 x 10 x 4 inches. Courtesy Liu Shiming Sculpture Museum.

II. Tracing Liu Shiming’s Art

CAI Liu Shiming’s early works clearly show that he was greatly influenced by the French classical style and academic training in China. However, he did not follow this tendency. What external and internal causes, in your opinion, drove him to modify his artistic style?

RV It happens to many artists, particularly at the beginning of Western modernism. Artists were classically trained, accustomed to working from live models. The conventions of pose and treatment and materials had been repeated and repeated. In order to break away, people had to make art cruder, in a sense, and yet more conceptually daring. Picasso did it, Matisse did it.

Again, there is a parallel in country-and-western music. In the old days, the classic background for a country singer was to grow up in the mountains with twelve brothers and sisters, to wear a potato sack to school, and so on. Then, one day, along comes Kris Kristofferson, whose father was a military officer—eventually a general. Kris was a literature major who won a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford. Yet when he came back, instead of teaching literature at West Point as he was supposed to do, he quit the army and went off to become a country-and-western songwriter and performer. When highly trained people make a choice like that, it’s probably because they feel that simpler ways are more authentic. The whole point of poetry, after all, is to say the most in the fewest words. Liu Shiming, who was academy trained, made a choice to leave Beijing for the provinces, and ended up using the simplest materials to create an art of profound feeling.

CAI Besides gaining life experience in rural Henan and Hebei, Liu worked at the National Museum of China, where he absorbed traditional sculptural techniques by repairing and replicating artifacts, such as figures from the Han dynasty and folk crafts, and therefore developed his own sculptural language. How do you understand these two stages in terms of shaping and developing Liu’s own artistic language?

RV It is pretty obvious that when Liu went to the provinces, he found his true subject matter. I haven’t seen much of his work from that period. The examples we have date mostly from the mid-1970s, when he returned to Beijing, to his death in 2010. During his time at the museum, he was able to handle and examine ancient earthenware figures from the Han dynasty, figures that represent carrying the happiness life into the afterworld. Recognizing the enchanting quality of figures on a smaller scale may have given him the form that he needed. Sculpture, by its very nature, tends to be large. It is mainly for public display, often outdoors, using durable materials like stone, bronze, or steel. Finding a modest scale and simple materials to express the simple life is key to Liu Shiming’s work.

CAI Some people regard Liu's work as folk art. There may be an underlying feeling that his work is not "high art," due to its intimate relationship with ordinary people's everyday lives as well as its unglazed surfaces and rough texture, particularly in his late stage. How will you respond to this discussion?

RV It’s ironic that, in Western art circles today, folk art has become a huge market. Now we have folk art museums, folk art education, and folk art fairs. We even have young academy-trained artists making what looks like folk art in a not-so-authentic way. When you encounter folk-style work by privileged art students, you’re always faced with the question of how to distinguish genuine feeling from a calculated imitation of feeling. I think you have to look at the whole life of an artist. When you survey the entire biography, and the entire oeuvre, of Liu Shiming, there is no doubt that he was sincere, and that he found his own genuine mode of expression.

Panoramic view from the second floor of the Liu Shiming Sculpture Museum. Photo: Liu Shiming Sculpture Museum.

IV. Understanding Liu Shiming in the Contemporary International Context

CAI Liu Shiming's art has a distinctive style, with a rarely smooth and delicate surface. I believe his art is different from that of any other Chinese or Western artist you've encountered. How would you describe Liu Shiming's sculptural style? I feel it is difficult to identify/label him as a specific sort of artist. He is unique both in Chinese history and in Western history.

RV I do not know if there is a particular category that he can fit. In Western art history, there are many moments that may help explain Liu Shiming in some way. You can go all the way back to the Egyptian tomb figures. People are familiar with the monumental statues of Pharaohs and their wives. However, in Egyptians tombs, there were also small clay figures about ordinary life, describing everything that can be carried on in the afterlife. The figures that Liu Shiming creates are quite similar to some Gothic sculptures as well. One thinks of great cathedrals, huge stained glass windows, and the life-size statues of saints. But look closely and you will find everyday scenes portrayed in the corners, at the margins—scenes that contrast with, and provide a context for, the glory of the God. In the 19th century, there was a French art movement called the Barbizon School. Artists left the city and went out to the countryside to depict woods, fields, livestock, and farm workers. Also, during the 19th century, social commentary artists chose themes set in cities but portraying everyday folks, often in misery. Russia had a group called “The Wanderers” (Peredvizhnik). They traveled around capturing scenes of the common life as well. In the United States, we had the movement called “Social Realism,” which attempted to convey the realities of the Great Depression. There are lots of parallels and echoes between Liu Shiming’s works and these precedents. I wish I knew more about Chinese art history, to see if there are parallels there as well.

CAI The Liu Shiming Art Foundation has introduced and promoted Liu's art globally in recent years through cross-cultural art exhibitions and a scholarship program. I'm curious how Western scholars, artists, and audiences see Liu's work. Is there a shared set of interests or points of view when it comes to understanding Liu's work?

RV In the West, we have the phenomenon called Outsider Art. In the late 19th century, a German psychiatrist named Hans Prinzhorn was working in a mental hospital. He began to pay attention to the drawings of his patients and eventually wrote a landmark book on the topic. This inspired other artists and thinkers such as Jean Dubuffet to look at the art of people who are not trained in an art school and may be ill-adjusted to society. Previously, those works were just ignored. But people like Prinzhorn, Dubuffet, and the Surrealists began to realize the great value and great power of these untrained artists. Now, the study of their work has become a major field. There is an Outsider Art Fair today that is exclusively for work by untrained artists.

Obviously, Liu Shiming was not untrained, but he chose to adopt a style that is similar to that of untrained artists, at least superficially. However, if you look at the actual compositions of his works, the various animals and people in various combinations, you see that the relationships between the forms are quite subtle and sophisticated. In painting, people speak of positive space and negative space; in sculpture, of form and void. It would be very interesting to put Liu’s works side-by-side with works by untrained artists to see the similarities and differences.

CAI From my observation, many of Liu’s overseas exhibitions are tied to community-based art practice, which is a completely different approach to curating Liu's exhibitions than we have in China or from a Chinese perspective. I'm wondering whether this means Liu's sculpture has the potential to activate a diverse community, although we've never recognized this character in the Chinese context.

RV Today, there is a lot of emphasis on art and identity. In the past, art was only considered to be related to itself. When you entered the art world, you were supposed to leave your background behind and dedicate yourself to elevated principles. But all of that has changed. Many artists today are looking for inspiration from their families and their ethnic backgrounds. Many major art institutions are now giving African American artists more chances than the art world ever gave them before. Likewise with Latin American and Native American artists. They are getting more exhibitions, and critics are paying careful attention to them. Certainly, “Chinese-ness” might translate very well in this context. All Liu’s works are universal, but they get to the universal through the particular. That is probably the very best way to do it.

CAI Other than interacting with a dynamic and diverse community, what additional suggestions do you have for future exhibitions and art activities of Liu Shiming?

RV As I mentioned earlier, I really like Liu Shiming drawings—even though, or maybe because, they’re so casual. I think we should bring more drawings and sketches to the exhibitions and maybe develop visual dialogues between the sculptures and drawings. Another possibility lies in the relation between Liu Shiming’s art and Outsider Art. I can imagine showing Outsider artworks and Liu Shiming’s works together. The third thing is more panel discussions. I think inviting more experts from various fields would be extremely helpful. Someone could talk about the relations between Liu Shiming’s art and Russian art, someone could talk about Gothic sculptures in relation to Liu Shiming’s art, and so on, and so on. Sometimes, fields that seem like very distant and dissimilar actually prove to be very illuminating. Plus, the art world thrives on word of mouth. It is very important what people say, and who is saying it. More discussion generates a better reputation for any artist, and that in turn spurs more conversations.

Interview conducted by Emily Weimeng Zhou.

Interview transcribed, excerpted, and structured by Harry Chirui Cheng and Emily Weimeng Zhou.

English Text edited by Richard Vine and Harry Chirui Cheng

Image courtesy of the Liu Shiming Art Foundation, Liu Shiming Sculpture Museum and Richard Vine.

*Contents have been reproduced with permission from CAFA ART INFO

*Contents has been edited and authorized by the interviewee

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