In “Cutting Through Mountains to Bring in Water” (1958), the late sculptor and educator Liu Shiming embodied the vigorous spirit of the Chinese Revolution. A bare-chested man straddles the space between two pointed rocks, as if traversing them, yet his abstracted lower half seems to materialize from the lowest point of the base. Molded with clay and cast in bronze, the piece served as a study for a larger monument installed at Beijing’s Zhongshan Park, boldly celebrating China’s re-emergence from the “century of humiliation.”
During his 84-year life, Liu helped shape a new Chinese cultural image rooted in the contributions and sacrifices of everyday people. Despite a degenerative leg condition that bound him to crutches in his mid-30s, the artist continued to lift and shape the heaviest sculpting materials into scenes of profound lightness. Liu’s latest retrospective, simply titled Passages, at Queens College’s Godwin-Ternbach Museum, solidifies his legacy as one of China’s first truly modern sculptors.
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Liu passed away in 2010, but his family and a foundation in his name have made efforts to expose his oeuvre to global audiences over the last few years. While he produced thousands of sculptures in his lifetime, the 62 pieces in Passages provide a well-rounded entry point into his creative and political range. From his early years working in a socialist realism vein to later embracing modernism and Buddhism, he maintained that simple communal joys — such as working together, raising the next generation, and thriving in community — transcend all individual self-interest.
Liu’s early career in the burgeoning People’s Republic instilled an appreciation for collective identity. While working at the China Sculpture Factory, he contributed reliefs to the People’s Heroes monument and sculptures to the Workers’ Stadium and People’s Revolution Military Museum. The miniature works from this era were no doubt inspired by the Soviets and his own experience as a farm worker. “Measuring Land” (1950), his award-winning graduation piece from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, was inspired by his own observations during the 1949 land reforms. And in “Discharged from the Hospital“ (1954), a man bearing a striking resemblance to Vladimir Lenin embraces his wife and new child.
During the Cultural Revolution, Liu was one of many artists sent to the outer provinces of Henan, Baoding, and Hebei to assess the rural classes’ commitment to Maoist ideals. The captivating yet frank “Re-Education” (1980) explores these tensions. An intellectual and peasant appear seated together in a tiny shack, yet a significant distance still exists between them. Others are more vernacular and relay the lifestyles of peasants from his own experience, such as “Wooden Raft on the Yangtze River” (1989) and “Seated Woman Holding an Apple” (c. 1980s).
In another piece from this era, “Man with a Boat and Cormorants” (1986), a tall, plainly dressed fisherman carries two long boxes around his neck, in which the three perched fishing birds drop their catches. As with “Cutting Through Mountains,” the man’s legs are obscured by an abstracted base, while his cap and mustache again bear a remarkable resemblance to Lenin. One of Liu’s most fully realized works on display, the piece speaks to his growing reputation as a sculptor of the people.
Perhaps the strongest aspect of Passages is its keen understanding of Chinese politics, devoid of the usual Western chauvinism. In “Guangling San” (1986), the title of which references an ancient melody, an abstracted face grows from atop a black mountain. Liu mourns the government execution of his neighbor Ji Kang, who played the zither, but rather than leverage this against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as a whole, the title card merely emphasizes how conflicted Liu must have felt.
Likewise, the emotive “Looking at Each Other Through the Cage” (1990) shows two sparrows facing each other, one in a cage of crooked black wires. Liu believed that sparrows and people have a close relationship; as such, his decision to paint their plumes red and leave the piece uncast heightens their vulnerability. His critiques of the Cultural Revolution were thus not fatalistic but allegorical; he made careful interventions without wholly condemning the CCP.
Over time, Liu began incorporating ancient techniques and Han dynasty symbolism while working as a conservator at the National Museum of China, as well as aesthetic elements from European modernists such as Henri Matisse. A solitary woman lying in prayer appears to have few defining features, yet other standing nudes show a masterful attention to detail. Many of these works were produced during the period of increased diplomatic relations between China and the West, demonstrating how art-making practices shifted with geopolitics.
In his later work, made while caring for his young grandson, Mengmeng, the child-rearing process takes center stage, as does his own self-reflection. Liu had married into a family and dutifully assumed the role of stepfather, and his commitment to them unfolds in a series of dignified bronze portraits of his wife, Hao Shuyuan, and Mengmeng. In a 1989 self-portrait, made of wood, his somewhat boxy figure clutches a crutch flatly against his side. The use of a lighter material here raises interesting questions about his own self-image, particularly since he produced very few self-portraits. Perhaps he perceived his own body as temporary compared to the memories preserved in bronze.
Many of the works in Passages were cast at a later date, making their origins somewhat difficult to ascertain. The museum opted to date them by their casting, which is helpful for the specific objects on display but somewhat obscures Liu’s creative timeline. Additionally, the drawings included here are carbon copies sent by the foundation, leading me to wonder about the status of the originals. To be sure, though, the sketches of everyday people included here, brought to life with just a few lines, give deeper context to Liu’s mastery of the human form.
Perhaps the most moving work of all, however, is a tiny portrait that may be somewhat autobiographical. Made shortly after the death of his mentor, Jiang Feng, “Someone Who Wants to Fly” (1982) portrays a man stretching his arms, which are adorned with fake wings. Despite bricks carved into the base, his legs and feet once again are not fully molded. Is this dreamer still standing on solid ground, or actually taking flight? For an artist rendered immobile throughout much of his life, Liu’s centerpiece — presented at the gallery entrance — speaks to his ability to traverse the world through his art.
Passages: Sculpture by Liu Shiming continues at the Godwin-Ternbach Museum (Klapper Hall, Queens College, Flushing, Queens) through August 18. The exhibition was curated by Louise Weinberg.