Beijing artist Liu Wei is a key player in the rise of abstract art in China, creating installations, paintings, and mixed-media works that have often been interpreted as references to the urban landscape of his home country. In this current two-venue show at Lehmann Maupin in New York, he is addressing not urbanization or globalization per se, but rather, the way in which these factors impact our perception of reality. Setting up an obstacle course that both obscures and frames his new works, Liu makes us acutely aware of the act of looking, adding a degree of discomfort to the experience, suggesting the disorientation produced by rapidly changing urban environments.
Transparent Land (2016), at the gallery’s Chrystie Street location, is a site-specific environment that, on the one hand, looks like a miniature golf course and on the other, like a three-dimensional representation of a cubist painting. In this work, a length of green military canvas, perhaps a sly reference to politics, covers a hilly central platform, surrounded by odd sculptures and mirrored surfaces. Various-size sheets of metal, punched and hammered into irregular shapes, have been painted to resemble horizon lines fading from bright blues or sunset reds to black. Reflections bring the ceiling skylight to the floor, turning the space upside down. Walking slowly through this collection of eccentric objects can be akin to strolling through a foreign territory, where the unfamiliar landmarks are at once surprising and disorienting.
Far more challenging is Liu’s installation at West 22nd Street, titled Center of the Earth (2016), a huge mirrored box that bifurcates the gallery, cutting through walls and rechanneling the flow of visitors. The reflective surfaces throughout establish a confrontation between viewers and their doppelgangers. This is very existential work providing no escape, certainly not in the paintings hanging on surrounding walls, canvases on which silver oil paint is troweled on thickly creating the effect of cement walls and bricked-up windows.
In many ways, these exhibitions demonstrate Liu Wei’s progress. Whereas his earlier sculptures were made from debris from construction site, these pieces don’t rely on ready-made materials. The artist has created his own artifacts, exploring textures and forms in a highly individualized manner. Like many of his generation in China, he veers away from specific references to his particular culture or national identity. Instead, he offers up a phenomenological experiment whose underlying intent is much more universal.