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Liu Shiming, Cutting Through Mountains to Bring Water, 1970, bronze

By ROBERT C. MORGAN PhD August 2022

In recent years, those who follow contemporary art in China have had the advantage of seeing – perhaps, mostly from a virtual perspective – works by artists ranging from the avant-garde, such as Western pop and conceptual art, to more recent developments. in ink painting, all of which, in their own way, challenged the concept of traditional art of centuries past by choosing to become experimental.

On another level, few viewers have had the opportunity to experience the work of an artist working outside of this field who brought together modernist sensibilities and folk traditions in Chinese art – a view shown earlier through exhibitions in Beijing, Washington DC and New York City. Liu Shiming (1926 – 2010) received classical training in Chinese sculpture at the prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beljing in the late 1940s. While his earlier training focused on bronze works smaller figurative works, his work after graduation (1951) slowly began to change, focusing on large-scale sculpture on public display. One of them, titled Cut through the mountain to bring water (1959), immediately drew the attention of major critics, collectors, museum directors and other contemporary sculptors to his work.

Despite his recent success, Liu Shiming has never lost his interest or devotion to traditional folk art. Rather than sculpture which aspired to attract adherents of Western modernism, Liu’s main audience came from ordinary working-class people living in rural areas. The result of this media attention eventually became the impetus by which the artist decided to move from urbanity to rural Henan province and eventually to Hebei where rural life dominated the scene. Liu’s aesthetic orientation has moved away from fantastically rich museums to small local museums amid the daily life of country dwelling.

Eli and the orphans, 1974

The source of his rural residence – from the 1980s to the beginning of the 21st century – brought works such as magic someone who wants to fly (1982) and the reverent Eji and the orphans (2004) in a new context. Given their function and purpose, these works suggest the character of masterpieces, but not from a modernist point of view. Thematically, these sculptures deal with the figure in a way that seems both spiritual and earthly.

Lovers, 1983

In one of Liu’s most celestial sculptures, titled Lovers (1983), the artist specifies that art is not a question of wealth or money, but of the sensual feelings that arise from daily encounters. The content of this sculpture is given to how people act and interact with each other. Technically, the surface smoothness of these cast bronze figures emulates a sensibility allowing viewers to experience a similar time and space. Liu’s viewers are not removed from these configurations. They are rather united with each other. Art transports them to another world where the tenderness and delicacy of human interactions can be felt through daily events.

Boatman on the Yellow River, 1990

In both cases, Liu’s sculpture characterizes the meaning of daily life in the simplest terms, as, for example, in the Boatman on the Yellow River series. Variations in how the characters intertwine are magical again, but magical in a different way than someone who wants to fly. In the setter series, the characters work in motion rather than deliberately poised in a dream. Liu captures the two quite remarkably. It’s his way, his style and his connection with the molding of these almost emblematic forms.

In his own words, his point of view is expressed as follows: “The value and the meaning of our existence. . . comes from others, from our relationships with others. Even so, Liu’s detailed working method is rarely, if ever, shared with others. More generally, he describes the following: “Chinese methods revere spontaneity, but also emphasize regularity. You have to observe closely and burn things in your memory, but when you start, you can’t be fussy, you just have to let go.

Wooden raft on the Yangtze River, 2004

Many of his senior colleagues and professors in CAFA’s sculpture department were impressed by Liu’s willingness to go against the grain, find his own way, and speak in openly honest terms. Even so, he was forced to encounter adversity. There was no doubt: his work did not fit the form of many other students. He was on his own trail. As one of his colleagues openly said, “Liu Shiming was either loved or hated. There was no in-between. There were those who saw his work solely in political terms, even after he carefully explained that his primary means of becoming an artist was not Politics. He later clarified that what convinced him to model working-class figures came years earlier, when he first encountered figural ceramics made in the Han dynasty.

This suggests an important aspect of art, which is that art has the ability to inspire the viewer. Indeed, Liu Shiming was inspired by sculptures made nearly two centuries earlier, which led him to become an artist. This is what some critics have called the aesthetic experience. In other words, the viewer becomes one with the art. A merger occurs. The source of Liu Shiming’s early inspirations was the work itself – the feeling of sculpture – which eventually led him to inspire others. WM

Robert C. Morgan

Robert C. Morgan is an educator, art historian, critic, poet and artist. Knowledgeable of the history and aesthetics of Western and Asian art, Morgan has given numerous lectures, written hundreds of critical essays (translated into twenty languages), published monographs and books and organized numerous exhibitions. He wrote reviews for Art in America, Arts, Artistic news, artistic press(Paris), sculpture magazine, The Brooklyn Trainand Hyperallergic. His catalog essays have been published by Gagosian, Pace, Sperone Westwater, Van Doren Waxter, White Cube (London), Kukje (Seoul), Malingue (Hong Kong) and Ink Studio (Beijing). Since 2010, he has been editor-in-chief in New York for Asian Art News and World Sculpture News, both published in Hong Kong. He teaches at the Graduate Fine Arts Program at the Pratt Institute as an adjunct professor and at the School of Visual Arts.

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