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

By ROBERT C. MORGAN PhD August, 2022

Over the past few 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 the latest developments. in ink painting, all of which, in their own way, have challenged the concept of traditional art in past centuries by choosing to become experimental.

On another level, few viewers have had the opportunity to experience the work of an artist working outside this domain who has brought modernist sensibilities together with folk traditions in Chinese art – a point of view previously shown through exhibitions in Beijing, Washington DC , and New York City. Liu Shiming (1926 – 2010) was classically trained in Chinese sculpture at the prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beljing during the late 1940s. While his earlier education focused on smaller, figurative works of bronze, his work after graduation (1951) slowly began to change, focusing on large-scale, publicly displayed sculpture. One of these, titled Cutting through the mountain to bring water (1959), immediately brought his work to the attention of leading critics, collectors, museum directors and other contemporary sculptors.

Despite his recent success, Liu Shiming never lost his interest or dedication to traditional folk art. Rather than sculpture aspiring to attract followers of Western modernism, Liu’s primary 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 urbanism to the rural Henan province and eventually to Hebei, where rural life dominated the scene. Liu’s aesthetic focus shifted from the fantastic rich museums to the small local ones in the middle of the daily life of the village dwellers.

Eli and the Orphans, 1974

The source of his rural residence – from the 1980s to the beginning of the twenty-first century – produced works such as magic Someone who wants to fly (1982) and the Hon Come and the Orphans (2004) in a new context. Based on their function and purpose, these works suggest the character of masterpieces, but not from a modernist perspective. Thematically, these sculptures treat the figure in ways that seem both spiritual and earthbound.

The Lovers, 1983

In one of Liu’s most celestial sculptures, titled Lovers (1983), the artist makes it clear that art is not about wealth or money, but about the sensual feelings that arise from everyday encounters. The content of this sculpture is given to how people act and interact with each other. Technically, the surface finesse of these cast bronze figures mimics a sensibility where viewers can feel a similar time and space. Liu’s viewers are not removed from these configurations. Rather, they are united in relation to each other. Art takes them to another world where the softness and delicacy of human interactions can be felt in the course of everyday events.

Boatman on the Yellow River, 1990

In each case, Liu’s sculpture characterizes the meaning of everyday life in the simplest terms, as for example, in Boatman on the Yellow River series. The changes in how the figures intertwine are again magical, but magical in a different way from Someone who wants to fly. IN Boatman series, the figures are working in motion and not deliberately placed within a dream. Liu captures both in utterly remarkable ways. This is his way, his style and his connection to the casting of these almost emblematic shapes.

In his own words, his perspective is expressed as follows: “The value and meaning of our existence . . . comes from others, from our relationships with others.” However, Liu’s detailed working method is rarely, if ever, shared with others. In a more generalized way, he describes it as follows: “Chinese methods honor spontaneity but also emphasize regularity. You must observe from close and stick things in your memory, but when you start you can’t be sticky, you just have to let them go.”

Wooden raft on the Yangtze River, 2004

Many of his colleagues and senior professors in the sculpture department at CAFA were impressed by Liu’s willingness to go against the grain, find his own way, and speak in bluntly honest terms. However, he was forced to face adversity. There was no doubt: his work did not fit the mold of many other students. He was on his way. As one of his colleagues openly stated: “Liu Shiming was either liked or disliked. There was no one in between.” There were those who saw his work only in political terms, even after he had carefully explained his primary means of becoming an artist was not political. He later clarified that what convinced him to model working-class figures came years ago when he first encountered figurative ceramics made in the Han Dynasty.

This suggests an important aspect of art, namely that art has the ability to inspire the viewer. Indeed, Liu Shiming was inspired by the sculpture made nearly two centuries ago, which led him to become an artist. This is what some critics have called it 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. Well-versed in the history and aesthetics of Western and Asian art, Morgan has lectured widely, written hundreds of critical essays (translated into twenty languages), published monographs and books, and curated numerous exhibitions. He has written comments about Art in America, arts, Art News, Art Press(Paris), Sculpture Magazine, Brooklyn RailroadAND 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 of New York Asian Art News AND World Sculpture News, both published in Hong Kong. He teaches in the graduate Fine Arts Program at Pratt Institute as an Adjunct Professor and in the School of Visual Arts.

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