Liu Rentao’s caricatures resemble those of Otto Dix and George Grosz. In fact, his style is a kind of Chinese verisme, and deploys exaggeration and distortion as rhetoric in a social j’accuse. Workers and peasants are the losers in the economic reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping—the very workers and peasants Mao once declared to be the pillars of the Communist Party, and thus Chinese society. The days of the “heroes of the people” are over. Because the supply of labor is excessive, workers are mercilessly exploited today. They have to work much longer than the law allows for a pittance, they can be laid off at any time, and are not protected by unions or social security. They are victims of the boom.
B. Fibicher, Mahjong: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection, Ostfildern, 2004, p. 206.
« Liu Rentao is a young artist in terms of his career. To date he has not participated in any of the major exhibitions of contemporary Chinese art that have reached the outside world (with the exception of two works featured in Art At The Handover at Blunden Oriental, London, in 1997). Neither has his work featured in many of the national or independent exhibitions in China. Liu Rentao is part of the younger generation of Chinese artists that are just beginning to emerge from the impact of the 1985-89 pioneers who continue to be a formative influence on contemporary Chinese art. Furthermore, Liu Rentao lives in Liaoning, one of China’s harsh north-eastern provinces, from which dialogue with the more commercially developed Chinese centres, remains limited. In modern times outside visitors are few.
The north-east was the gateway via which the Japanese forced their invasion upon China in the 1930s. Naturally rich in coal, oil and gold, the region was a valuable prize for the invaders who were not slow in investing time and energy to develop these industries. When the Japanese were finally vanquished, with Liaoning located on direct access routes to the Soviet Union, in 1949 when China was liberated Soviet assistance in the form of scientific and industrial expertise was concentrated in this area. Then, relations with the Soviet Union became estranged, and with Deng Xiaoping’s reforms and opening to the west, foreign investment shifted to more convenient, southern locations. Whilst the industries of the north-eastern provinces linger on, a modern consumer market has not developed in the same way as in more southerly counterparts, with the result that Liaoning’s former prosperity has declined into an economic reality of survival. From agriculture to industry, the notion that hard work, though hard, would reap rewards for farmers and workers alike has been turned upside down as modern consumer cultures demonstrated that it was possible to make money by being smart and not working hard – in the sense of physical labour – at all. Thus, with the highest rate of agricultural and industrial workers in the country who have directly experienced the swing from being fairly well-off to nearing the low end of the prosperity scale, Liaoning is a province rather at odds with modernity and developments in modern China. As state enterprises decline nation-wide and independent concerns rise to take their place, the people seek in inveigle themselves in the upward curve of prosperity. They lack experience. The road is full of frustrations. As cold clime dwellers, they are hardy people. Laughing hardship in the face, they are fiercely proud. Perhaps it is the effect of regional decline upon regional pride that is the sexual frustration implied in not a few of Liu Rentao’s paintings.
Europeans confronted by these works most naturally think of Freud – Lucian for painterly analogy and Sigmund for psychological implication. After Watteau, of course. In the earlier works, bleak, harsh and totally unerotic environments are home to pale, withdrawn and uncommunicative figures divided from each other by invisible walls of impotence. Colours are bright, intensely so, but that does not mean they are warming, life-imbuing or there to indicate hope. Essentially they are a visual metaphor for hope, but here they serve only to contrast the hope that is denied the lovers in their most intimate moments. Consummation is an impossibility. To this, the figures in Liu Rentao’s paintings seem resigned.
In more recent works, the surface of the paintings has become deliciously smooth and the figures wrought with a sense of substance and realism that might make us wince. The posturing is all too familiar, and yet what differentiates these works from any Western equivalent is the Chinese backdrop against which they are set. This is most apparent visually in the form of Lao Guan, the disfigured worker who is a feature of a large number of Liu Rentao’s works. Lao Guan is neighbour, friend, and a store of knowledge on local history. He represents the very soul of the Chinese socialist notion of the honest peasant farmer. With little education to provoke philosophical thoughts or questions, such people formed the core of the agricultural machine that put rice on the nation’s table. In several compositions, Lao Guan stands with his back to the viewer, gazing across the field and their luxuriant crops to a rainbow on the horizon. It is that crock of gold promised to all those who undertook the struggle. In the light of modern economics, we know that it is a beautiful illusion. A simple, dedicated man like thousands of others in the countryside, Lao Guan does not. His faith holds firm. And in it lies all those nonsensical proscriptions for recovery, of the kind that Lao Guan himself is shown delivering to Liu Rentao’s other leading male, the stocky life model with whom he has worked for several years. This lump of a man is made to represent the lost generation, denied broad education and vocational training, caught in a tide of changing ideological, social and moral values. This is the root cause of his inner weakness and masculine impotence. He is a modern-day Samson, his locks shorn clean away.
The winds of change are signalled by the artist himself who through painting shows awareness of the situation. Isn’t it said that acknowledging the facts – the ill in eats away at the soul – is the first step to recovery? But neither recovery nor miracle cures are the message in Liu Rentao’s painting. Empty promises do not concern him. The facts of life as they appear to him are rich enough to provide the raw meat of inspiration.