Liang Yuanwei

The Universe of Liang Yuanwei

"Art practice is like building houses, where different people use many different materials and construction techniques. My paintings are my own little universe of materials, purposes and techniques.” (Liang Yuanwei in conversation with Luise Guest, 24 March 2011)
Liang Yuanwei with her found object work, 'A Piece of Painting' in her studio, photograph Luise Guest Beijing 2012

Painter and conceptual installation artist Liang Yuanwei represented China at the 2011 Venice Biennale. Luise Guest interviewed her before and after that experience, to find out what life is like for an emerging artist of the younger generation in China.
Liang Yuanwei in her Beijing studio, photograph Luise Guest December 2013


Critical Analysis #1

Liang Yuanwei’s first solo show at Boers-Li Gallery featured a collection of paintings that revel in the simple aesthetic pleasures of textile design yet question the medium’s greater worth. The show was comprised of a single series of 14 large-sized paintings and 12 smaller works all titled A Piece of Life (2006-08). Each work conflates process with product and high art with commercial design.
Born in Xi’an in 1977, the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) graduate is a significant member of N12, an enterprising group ofCAFA students who exhibited together in the early 2000s.  “BLDG115, RM 1904,” which refers to the apartment in which the works were executed, continued her examination of quotidian themes and the semiotics of their expression. In her “A Piece of Life” series, she painstakingly recreates patterns taken from samples of clothing, curtains, and other found materials with oil on canvas. On canvases ranging from small to staggeringly large, Liang wields her oils with a three-dimensional sensibility, scratching floral and geometric patterns onto planes of thickly applied paint. Then applying another contrasting layer of paint to the chasms created out of her etchings in the first, Liang constructs layered and textured surfaces. Liang’s meticulous process is present throughout the gallery; each strip of each painting is described in the exhibition literature as requiring up to 12 hours of work, with two discarded attempts, a smaller study and an original cloth sample corresponding to each work included in the exhibition.
What is significant in these paintings is not the marvel of the successful execution of a unique and challenging technique, but Liang’s refusal to engage in shortcuts. She paints every inch of her canvases instead of delegating the time-consuming work to assistants, as is common in a place like Beijing where works can be fabricated with great ease. Collectively, the paintings raise a series of questions: What is the significance of a medium when works in oil mimic designs in fabric? Is the defining quality of each work its process or its concept, and where do we draw the line between daily manifestations of culture and those that are elevated—or debased—to the realm of art? These works offer no explicit answers, only delicate decorative pleasures and interpretive depth for those who seek it.

The above three paintings are studies for Liang Yuanwei's 'Golden Notes' and 'Pieces of Life' series.
Photographs Luise Guest reproduced with permission of the artist

Respond to these questions about Liang Yuanwei's practice:

Structural Frame
Write an account of how Liang Yuanwei has used materials and techniques in her ‘fabric’ and ‘Pieces of Life’ paintings.

Subjective Frame
How do you think different audiences would respond in individual ways to these works? In what ways do the works prompt memories or intuitive responses?

 Critical Analysis #2

 Liang Yuanwei originally trained as a designer, and still teaches in the Faculty of Design at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, but her work crosses the boundaries of photographic practice, conceptual art, installation and the conventions of painting. In the early days of her practice she felt at a disadvantage compared to graduates who had been immersed in the traditions and techniques of painting, so she had to forge her own path and develop her own visual language, in an artworld which is not always welcoming to female artists. In her words, “It has been a lonely and difficult ten years”. One gallery owner told her not to bother because ‘there are already too many female painters’. In response to this knockback she produced a controversial photographic series, ‘Don’t forget to say you love me…’. The unique aspect of her painting practice, its deliberate, controlled and meditative aspect, is a key element of the way she works, underpinned by philosophy, Chinese history, and both Chinese and Western art history. Some critics have compared her ‘fabric’ paintings to the ‘bird and flower’ paintings of the Song Dynasty, however Liang herself credits Mark Rothko, Joseph Beuys and the feminist sculptor Eva Hesse as significant influences on her practice. Teachers who returned to China from studies in Germany, bringing a new awareness of late 20th c. developments in conceptual art, made her realise that the ideas underpinning her work were as important as the materials and techniques with which they were communicated. 
(Luise Guest interviewed the artist in her Beijing studio on March 24, 2011)

Critical Analysis #3

Liang Yuanwei’s art is driven by ideas: about calm and chaos, transience and timelessness, romance and solitude. In Salt Series—Little Clocks (2006), tiny watch hands are attached to a woman’s shirt and shoes, a passport, a cigarette pack, and a sachet of desiccant. Just as salt dissolves in water, the artist seems to say, so the things that consume us dissolve in time. For the 26 oil paintings in the series Piece of Life (2008-09), she spent up to twelve hours a day recreating with painstaking fidelity the patterns and textures of old fabric scraps. A false stroke meant starting over again from scratch, something she was forced to do more than once. The works seem to reflect on female labour and the beauties of domesticity, but the real point was the process of making them, she says: it was a way to calm her “inner motion” and tame the chaos of life. “I have always felt,” she says, “that truly great work should be silent like scenery. One experiences its deep meaning when one’s mind moves with it. 
(White Rabbit Gallery web site)

Postmodern Frame Question
“There is no point in simulating pieces of fabric in paint when you can take a photograph of them!” – argue a case FOR OR AGAINST this viewpoint.
Liang Yuanwei, Flower Study, oil on canvas, photograph Luise Guest reproduced with permission of the artist

Critical Analysis #4

Although Liang Yuanwei's practice is not limited to the canvas, she has made a name for herself with gorgeous paintings that mix the visual appeal of tapestries with the conceptual inclinations of American Minimalism. The Beijing artist was trained as a graphic designer and now works across media, including installation, photography and found objects. There is both self-discipline and wit at the foundation of her practice, evident since her early work, umustbestrong (2004), in which she used a typewriter to type 'umustbestrong' onto the length of an entire roll of two-ply toilet paper. 

Liang is both protagonist and antagonist in the complex personal world she plays out on the canvas. 
In her first significant painting series Pieces of Life (2008), what looks at first glance to be a conventional approach to feminine beauty becomes more complex as one nears the canvas, where her rigorous painterly approach to self-cultivation and strict explorations of form come into focus. Motifs in the series are borrowed from swatches of fabric belonging to Liang, her family and friends. She reproduced twelve different patterns, including palm trees, flowers and geometric designs onto uniformly sized canvases both large and small. The artist explores light on canvas, and each one here has a field of colour with top-down gradient changes to the light, effecting a subtle three-dimensional depth. The motif is 'cut' into the thick field of paint, creating a negative space that is then filled in with colour. Each canvas is completed in horizontal strips using a meticulous process requiring time-management, focus and control. Once begun, the painting cannot be abandoned until the strip is completed, which is often an eight-hour process or more, depending on the size of the canvas. One slip of the hand can lay ruin to many hours, days or weeks of work.
Lee Ambrazy, in ‘Vitamin P2’ (Phaidon Press) 2011

Extended Response Question - 
the practice of the art critic: 
Compare Liang's practice with that of Australian artist Marion Borgelt, making references to specific works as well as to the choices and decisions that each artist makes in exhibiting their works.

Read the article below and then respond to the questions:

Curating the Self: The Art of Liang Yuanwei

When I visited Liang Yuanwei at her Beijing studio in early 2011 she was one of the few artists I had met willing to speak frankly about the frustrations and disappointments particular to women in the Chinese art world. Last December I visited her again, back in her same studio in Blackbridge Artists’ Village, after she had controversially represented China at the 2011Venice Biennale, exhibited her work inLondon and spent three months working in Berlin.
I first encountered Liang Yuanwei’s richly textured impasto canvases at the White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney and was eager to find out more about her practice. Her early paintings simulated patterned cloth, checked or intricately flowered. Pieces of fabric were collected from friends and relatives, some with a personal significance and attached to memories, others of a deliberately banal nature, like striped flannelette sheets or pyjamas. Her meticulous technique results in a recreation of these fabrics, creating an ‘all-over’ abstraction with a twist.
For the series Piece of Life she painstakingly recreated the colours, patterns and textures of these fabrics, working slowly and laboriously, section by section. The paintings evoke the domestic and the homely, and the unsung labour of generations of Chinese women. Her painting practice, in its deliberate, controlled and meditative aspect, is a key element of the way she thinks about her work, underpinned by her reading of philosophy and her knowledge of both Chinese and Western art history.
Born in 1977 in Xian, Shaanxi Province, she has lived and worked in Beijing since graduating from the Central Academy of Fine Arts. As we sat in her studio, drinking green tea, surrounded by her canvases and installation pieces, she told me about a journey that has taken her from reluctant studies within the Design Department (because her father would not permit her to study Fine Arts, fearing the unpredictable and uncertain life of the artist) to her current position on the cusp of significant international recognition, with shows at Pace Beijing, the London Art Fair and the Venice Biennale.
From early hardship as a self-taught painter forced to ‘lose face’ by persuading undergraduates to show her how to stretch a canvas to her current status today has not been an easy road. Liang tells me she had to develop a thick skin and ‘act tough’, fighting for acceptance in the testosterone-fuelled Beijing art scene, especially in dealing with gallery directors such as the one who famously told her in 2005 that she had better become a photographer as ‘there are already too many female painters’. Her response: a series of photographic self-portraits called Don’t Forget to Say You Love Me When You F...Me, a parody of erotically charged photographs of women, with the artist herself as pouting object of the male gaze.
During our conversation Liang Yuanwei refers to a range of artists who have been of great significance to her, including the pioneering sculptor Eva Hesse and the painters Luc Tuymans, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter. In 1995 some of her tutors at the Central Academy returned to China from Berlin, bringing with them ideas about art which were quite new to her, including the work of Joseph Beuys. This has informed her developing practice as an installation artist working with found objects and non-art materials. She realised that the ideas underpinning her work were as important as the materials and techniques with which they were communicated. ‘Art practice is like building houses, where different people use many different materials and construction methods. My paintings are my own little universe of materials, purposes and techniques,’ she says.
A year and a half later, back in Beijing in a bitterly cold December, we again sat drinking fragrant tea as I asked how her selection for the 2011 China Pavilion at the Venice Biennale had changed her. She is a little wary, and asks why I am interested in the work of women artists. ‘Feminism is just a word, generated from Western systems,’ she says. ‘There is no feminism in China.’ Venice left her bitter, with a strong feeling that her selection had been merely tokenism. The space within which she had to install her work was small, dark and difficult, and she attracted criticism from curators and critics for ‘not being Chinese enough’. The politics of the experience have burned her, leaving her a little more cynical and disillusioned. ‘I was chosen because I was young and female, to make China look good,’ she said with some sadness.
Liang Yuanwei installs her work in the Chinese Pavilion at the Venice Biennale
Her plan for the Venice work was appealingly simple. The five artists selected for the China Pavilion were each asked to create a work representing one of the five pervasive Chinese flavours or scents: tea; lotus; medicinal herbs; incense and for Liang's work the unmistakeably pungent smell of China's traditional white spirit, ‘baijiu’. She decided to pump the baijiu through rubber tubes in and around large metal barrels, creating a very loud soundscape as the spirit splashed into the metal, and developing an increasingly rancid smell over time. Wine spurted from three lumbar puncture needles at the top of rubber hoses into metal basins and then was pumped back up to continuously repeat the process. She explained that her chosen material – the liquid spirit - was authentically Chinese and real, as well as representing ‘high mountains and water streaming’, that staple of traditional ink painting. And baijiu, of course, is made from crops and thus also represents the farmers and the countryside.
Liang Yuanwei ' Plead Rain', installation view China Pavilion Venice Biennale, Chinese wine, rubber hoses, water pipe, metal construction, lumbar puncture needles, can, metal basin, pump machine, wire, electric power source
After Venice she stayed in Berlin for three months and visited Documenta 13 in Kassel twice, an experience which proved an epiphany. It has been a year of studying, thinking, writing and observing the differences between the art worlds of China and Europe. ‘I found the problems I am facing as a woman artist are very different to the issues faced by artists internationally,’ she told me. ‘Women artists in China, especially women artists over the age of 35, are in the minority. Things are still very unequal and there appears to be no change.’ The time away from China has been important, allowing her to think deeply about her practice and incorporate new ideas. ‘Everything now is connected – both memory and future,’ she says. ‘I now think more about the relationship between myself as the artist, my work and the world. I have become a curator of myself.’
She has returned to painting with a vengeance, working on a series of canvases using the motif of fish – single creatures as well as in in seething complex patterns – as a development of the diptych works presented in the “Golden Notes” exhibition at Beijing Commune in 2010. She is interested in the science of colour and is concurrently experimenting with lipstick as a painting pigment. She showed me a range of fabulous reds and pinks which she has applied to crumpled paper in drawings of geometric precision, after which she watches the changes that take place in the colours as they fade from strong reds to softer browns. These will at some point become a new series of paintings. This quite radical experiment with such a “female” material seems a fitting metaphor for a woman who has struggled to find her artistic voice and remain true to herself, succeeding in quietly forging a successful career through sheer determination and persistence. She is now embarked on a path which, she says, is a ‘balance between fear and trust’, an artistic trajectory in which she finds herself, like other artists, trying to make sense of the dramatic transformation of China, and the new possibilities which emerge.
Liang Yuanwei, experiments with liptstick on paper, 'Pomegranate' series
photograph Luise Guest reproduced with permission of the artist
Despite an understandable reluctance to be labelled or pigeonholed, Liang Yuanwei makes artworks which thoughtfully reflect a unique vision of her experience of the world.


  1. What are the most significant influences on the conceptual and material aspects of Liang Yuanwei's practice?
  2. What are some of the obstacles that she has fought to overcome?
  3. Explain some of the innovative and experimental ways that she uses materials
  4. Discuss Liang Yuanwei's installation for the Venice Biennale - what were her conceptual intentions and how did she convey them to audiences?
  5. Compare her work with young artist Gao Rong (see her page on this web site) - what are some of the key differences and similarities in their practice?
  6. Write a feature article for an arts journal or web site about Liang Yuanwei - focus on TWO key works to analyse and interpret.
"What if?"
Liang Yuanwei's most recent series of works began with experiments using lipstick as a pigment. What other unorthodox materials could be the beginning of her next series of works - and WHY?

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