White Cube, Mason’s Yard, London
Liu Wei rose to prominence in China in the early 2000s with a diverse practice encompassing painting, photography and sculpture, often presented with a touch of humour. His solo show at White Cube focused on recent sculpture and installation pieces that demonstrated the artists professed move away from figuration but which, in the process, seemed to lose some of the agility that characterised the artist’s earlier practice.
Liu presented works from three distinct series that were organised over the two floors of the gallery. Dominating the basement gallery floor stood six geometric sculptures (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, from the ‘Density’ series, 2013) – including a cube, a ball, and other less specific shapes, the larger pieces looming over the visitor. These works used layers of cut books to form their off-white surfaces; the Chinese characters printed on the books’ pages still visible along the cut edges. This paper lent a material softness to the sculptures that contrast with the hard-edged, abstract shapes they formed.
Hanging from the walls around these pieces were a series of works comprising heavy canvas sheets, in an untreated, bleached cream colour or dyed military green, the material formed over hidden wood structures (20, 21, 23, 24 in the ‘Jungle’ series, 2013–14). These works gave a real sense of the effort needed to bring the various elements together – in the heaviness of the surface material, the way the sections of canvas had been stitched together, and how they had been formed to follow the underlying structure. The canvas had been cropped and tucked using very physical gestures to adapt to the structure, while at the edges the excess material was gathered into multiple layers and fixed in place with pins or bolts.
Hanging on the walls in the ground floor space were pieces from a new series of sculptures composed of metal elements with the appearance of standard building materials (‘Density’ no. 7, 8, 9, 11, 13, 14, 2013). These metal surfaces were layered and connected in modular, grid-like arrangements – with the suggestion of potential expandability taking them into an implied architectural space beyond the sculptures’ edges. One of the metal works had left the wall and sat on lengths of wood on the floor to one side of the gallery. The metal structure of this piece contrasted with the relative flatness of the wall-mounted pieces in that it was cuboid in form; the cut and layered metal panels that made up its sides stepped and repeated to suggest a faceted, crystalline form.
The architectural impact of the work may be considered as relating to the urban environment. The articulation of urban space holds a particular significance in the Chinese context, where the built environment is developing at break-neck speed. Liu’s work has adopted aspects of this development, notably in Discover (2006) where cement blocks and broken household appliances are all stamped with the statement ‘Property of L.W.’ and photographed amongst the rubble of a demolished building, and his long-running series of paintings highlighting the extreme verticality of the modern cityscape through its arrangements of painted stripes (‘Purple Air’, 2006–ongoing).
The use of books as a material at White Cube has precursors in the artist’s earlier work, appearing in pieces such as ‘Library’ (2012) in which the layered stacks of books are cut to represent large rocks from which skyscraper-like structures emerge. In ‘Density’ the geometric and abstract solids left little trace of this earlier figurative inclination, suggesting that the artist has moved beyond a straightforward representation of the collateral effects of urbanisation on the Chinese landscape.
The works in ‘Density’ all play on the relationship between inner structure and material covering, both within the architectural space of the gallery and the imagined space that each piece hints at. Though, through his move from figuration to abstraction, the artist can be seen to have developed and refined his concern with form and surface, in doing so he has left behind the roughness of his earlier works. The space which the works inhabit or suggest has also altered from one grounded in a reality that might be shared by the audience to an idealised, even utopian, place.