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Hometown Boy

Updated: 2010-12-07

Hometown Boy

Self Portrait, oil on canvas, by world-renowned contemporary Chinese artist Liu Xiaodong. Photos provided to China Daily

Best-selling artist Liu Xiaodong goes back to his roots for his new exhibition in Beijing. Chen Nan reports

Liu Xiaodong believes good art requires patience and honesty. To create his latest works, he spent three months earlier in 2010 in his hometown of Jincheng, Liaoning province, which has a population of less than 10,000. He stayed at home with his family, childhood friends and neighbors, recording his life by painting, taking pictures, videotaping and writing diaries.

The result is the Hometown Boy series, now being exhibited at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing. The 30-odd oil paintings, together with more than 200 pages of diary entries, mark a return to his original vision of life.

"I had been thinking of going home for years but I was reluctant and shy to paint in front of people who know me so well," the 47-year-old artist says.

It was UCCA's invitation to do a solo exhibition that finally convinced him he needed to return home.

"The organizer asked me to create some new paintings and gave me a long time to prepare. The eagerness to return home popped into my head again," he says.

The new oil paintings, including The House Where I Grew Up, Han Shengzi Buys Land and Shu Jun with His Chubby Son, are inspired by Liu's childhood memories and people he has known all his life.

Through the works, he addresses his identity and the current state of his hometown, which was built in the 1950s. Most of Liu's family members and the people he knows in Jincheng worked for a paper mill.

"The paper mill is still the center of the town and everything there, the factory, the tall chimney, the whistle, the crowds, are the same."

But he also noticed some changes. Traveling by train, he found that much farmland had been redeveloped and his childhood friends who still live there had been laid off and put on weight.

"I thought I would feel nostalgic but the reality was different. The pace of urbanization is so fast, and when I observed and painted this, my emotions were complicated," he says.

In a statement he prepared for the exhibit, Liu writes: "Once upon a time we were hired farmhands, poor peasants, rich peasants and landlords. We were the proletariat, the working class, an army of workers and peasants. Now we are making great strides, moving single-mindedly toward the future, becoming the propertied class - and we've got the bricks and cement to prove it."

Liu left the town in 1980 to study oil painting at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Though he learned to paint at primary school he focused on martial arts at middle school. He says he was shy at university.

"My family has four children and I am the youngest, so I was pampered by my parents. They sent me to study in Beijing because they wanted me to leave this small town," Liu says.

"At university, my classmates were versatile, some played guitar or spoke English, while all I could do was martial arts and pencil sketches."

After four tough years at university he got a stable job at a subsidiary middle school to the Central Academy of Fine Arts, where he had his own studio. For two years, he painted his friends and people around him after teaching classes.

In 1990 he held his first solo exhibition at the Central Academy of Fine Arts gallery. The vivid portraits, which combine classic oil painting and modernism, made Liu a star.

"I am lucky because very few people had solo exhibitions then. People came to my exhibition and they were hypnotized because they just saw my works and no one else's," he jokes.

"I was young and I enjoyed the praise. That exhibition fulfilled my dreams then," he says.

With the money he made through the exhibition, he bought a jeep and built a studio on the outskirts of Beijing.

In 1993, he visited the United States, with his wife Yu Hong, who is also an artist and graduated from the same school as Liu. During that year he lived in New York and absorbed influences from the Western art world, but nevertheless was determined to draw in his own style.

Later, when the Chinese contemporary art market was noticed by the West and the price of Liu's works rose, he started focusing on society, rather than friends and family. He traveled to Tibet, Gansu, Qinghai and Taiwan, painting landscapes and reflecting on the country's progress.

The New Immigration of the Three Gorges, a three-by-10-meter oil painting that chronicled construction of the Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangtze River, was priced at 22 million yuan ($3.3 million) in 2003.

At the end of 2005, Liu went to the Three Gorges again with film director Jia Zhangke, who made a documentary called Dong (East) while Liu created his Hot Bed series. The series went under the hammer for more than 57.12 million yuan, which broke the record for mainland oil paintings.

Now a professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Liu says that he enjoys being a teacher and having a regular life.

"I have been wondering what an artist is. Does he behave weirdly? Is he rebellious and aggressive? Is he abnormal in society?

"For me, I just want to be a person who can paint. I make money through my brushes and canvases. I have a wife, a daughter and I go home every day. That's what I want."

As for his painting, Liu says that he will keep to his style. "I just paint what I see. I can't create a vision that doesn't exist."

Hometown Boy 

By Chen Nan

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