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

By ROBERT S. MORGAN Ph.D 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 more recent developments in painting in ink, all of whom in their own way have challenged the concept of traditional art in past centuries by choosing to go experimental.

On another level, few viewers have had the opportunity to touch the work of an artist working outside the field who has brought modernist sensibilities together with folk traditions in Chinese art—a point of view previously shown through exhibitions in Beijing, Washington, and New York. . 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 smaller, figurative works in bronze, his work after graduation (1951) slowly began to change, focusing on large-scale, publicly displayed sculpture. One of them, titled Cutting through the mountain to fetch water (1959), immediately brought his work to the attention of major critics, collectors, museum directors and other contemporary sculptors.

Despite his recent success, Liu Shiming has never lost his interest or devotion to traditional folk art. Rather than sculpture seeking 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 the city to the rural Henan Province and eventually to Hebei, where rural life dominated the scene. Liu’s aesthetic focus shifted away from the fantastic rich museums to the small locales amidst the daily life of provincial dwelling.

Eli and the Orphans, 1974

The source of his country residence – from the 1980s to the beginning of the twenty-first century – brought works such as the magical Someone who wants to fly (1982) and Hon Edgy and the Orphans (2004) in a new context. Considering their function and purpose, these works suggest the character of masterpieces, but not from a modernist point of view. Thematically, these sculptures engage with the figure in ways that seem both spiritual and earthly.

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 emulates a sensibility through which viewers can experience a similar time and space. Liu viewers are not removed from these configurations. Rather, they are united in relation to each other. Art transports them to another world where the tenderness and delicacy of human interactions can be felt in the course of everyday events.

The Boatman on the Yellow River, 1990

In both cases, Liu’s sculpture characterizes the meaning of everyday life in the simplest terms, as for example in The Boatman on the Yellow River series. The variations on how the figures intertwine are again magical, but magical in a different way than Someone who wants to fly. IN boatman series, the figures work in motion, not deliberately in sleep. Liu captures both in utterly remarkable ways. It’s his manner, his style, and his relationship with the casting of these almost iconic forms.

In his own words, his point of view is expressed as follows: “The value and meaning of our existence. . . it comes from others, from our relationships with others.” However, Liu’s detailed working method is rarely, if ever, shared with others. In a more general way, he describes the following: “Chinese methods honor spontaneity, but also emphasize regularity. You have to watch carefully and commit things to your memory, but when you start you can’t be stubborn, you just have to let go.’

A wooden raft on the Yangtze River, 2004

Many of his senior colleagues and 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 words that were openly honest. However, he was forced to face adversity. There was no doubt: his work did not fit the mold of many of the other students. He was on his own path. As one of his colleagues openly expressed, “Liu Shiming was either liked or disliked. There was no in-between.” There were those who viewed his work purely from a political point of view, even after he had carefully explained that his primary way of becoming an artist was no political. He later clarified that what convinced him to model working-class figures came years earlier, when he first came across figurative pottery made by the Han Dynasty.

This suggests an important aspect of art, namely that art has the ability to inspire the viewer. In fact, Liu Shiming was inspired by a sculpture made nearly two centuries ago, which led him to become an artist. That’s what some critics have called aesthetic experience. In other words, the viewer becomes one with the art. A merger occurs. The source of Liu Shiming’s early inspirations is the work itself—the feel of the sculpture—which ultimately leads him to inspire others. WM

Robert C. Morgan

Robert C. Morgan is an educator, art historian, critic, poet and artist. Knowledgeable in the history and aesthetics of both 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 reviews for Art in America, Arts, Art news, Art Press(Paris), Sculpture Magazine, The 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 the New York editor for Asian Art News and World Sculpture News, both published in Hong Kong. He teaches in the Master of Fine Arts program at the Pratt Institute as an adjunct professor and at the School of Visual Arts.

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