Liu Ye is a contemporary Chinese painter known for his stylised depictions of childlike figures in imaginative, bright-hued scenes. Using the ‘painting within painting’ technique as one of his key creative methods, Liu’s playful self-invented worlds often contain hints of narrative tension and a ruthless undertone.
Born in 1964 in Beijing, China, Liu’s early interest in narrative drawing was fostered by his father, who was an author of children’s books. As a teen, Liu read stories and fairytales by Hans Christian Andersen and Alexander Pushkin, and from the age of 10 trained under the artist Tan Quanshu. In the 1980s, Liu studied industrial design at Beijing College of Arts and Crafts and mural painting at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Liu was particularly inspired by Piet Mondrian’s geometric compositions and his use of primary colours, which would later become recurring elements in his own oeuvre.
After completing his artistic training in China, Liu went abroad and completed his MFA at Hochschule der Kunst, Berlin. During his six years in Europe, Liu spent six months at Rijkasakademie in Amsterdam in an artist residency programme.
Liu’s art reflects his ongoing interest in Western aesthetics, ranging from Mondrian to Vermeer and the ideals of the Bauhaus. Unlike his contemporaries, Liu’s works are less associated with the political climate in China in the 20th century. Instead, he seeks a universal understanding of humanity through a modernised, international lens.
Liu’s The Sailors with Red Flag (1998) sold for $4,796,239 at Christie’s in May 2022. Belonging to the sought-after ‘Sailor’ series Liu debuted in 1995, it depicts a theatrical scene of four aspiring sailors looking in the same direction on a tiny island. His earlier series 'Probes' embodies a Surrealist sensibility reminiscent of René Magritte.
Another genre that Liu has worked productively in is portraiture, and he is known for his ongoing series of portraits of Chinese female celebrities. Feminist writer Eileen Chang, singer Zhou Xuan and the era-defining silent movie actress Ruan Lingyu have all been Liu’s subjects. The Goddess (2018), which shares the title of Ruan’s famous movie, is one of five portraits Liu created for Ruan, capturing both the power and vulnerability of this tragic persona.
In 2018, his solo exhibition Liu Ye: Storytelling, curated by Udo Kittelmann, opened at Prada Rong Zhai, Shanghai and later travelled to the Fondazione Prada, Milan from 2020 to 2021. Liu's work is held in numerous public collections, including M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong; Long Museum, Shanghai; Today Art Museum, Beijing, among others.