In “Cutting Through Mountains to Bring in Water” (1958), the late sculptor and educator Liu Chiming embodied the vigorous spirit of the Chinese Revolution. A shirtless man straddles the space between two sharp rocks, as if crossing them, but his abstract 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 set up in Beijing’s Zhongshan Park, boldly celebrating China’s re-emergence after the “century of humiliation”.
During his 84 years of life, Liu helped shape a new Chinese cultural image rooted in the contributions and sacrifices of ordinary people. Despite leg degeneration that tied him to crutches in his mid-thirties, the artist continued to lift and shape the heaviest sculptural materials into scenes of profound lightness. Liu’s latest retrospective, simply titled passagesat the Godwin-Ternbach Museum at Queens College, solidifies his legacy as one of China’s first truly modern sculptors.
Liu died in 2010, but his family and a foundation in his name endeavored to exhibit his work at global audiences during the last years. Although he made thousands of sculptures during his lifetime, the 62 pieces of passages provide a well-rounded entry point into its creative and political range. From his early years working in a vein of socialist realism to later embracing modernism and Buddhism, he maintained that simple communal joys — like working together, raising the next generation, and thriving in community — transcend any self-interest. .
Liu’s early career in the burgeoning People’s Republic instilled in him an appreciation for collective identity. While working at the China Sculpture Factory, he contributed reliefs to the Monument to the People’s Heroes and sculptures at Workers Stadium and People’s Revolution Military Museum. The miniature works of this period are undoubtedly inspired by the Soviets and his own experience as an agricultural worker. “Measuring Land” (1950), his award-winning graduation piece from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, was inspired by his own observations during the land reforms of 1949. And in “Leaving the Hospital” ( 1954), a man with 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 but candid ‘Re-Education’ (1980) explores these tensions. An intellectual and a peasant appear seated together in a tiny shack, but a significant distance still exists between them. Others are more vernacular and relay peasant lifestyles from his own experience, such as “Wooden Raft on the Yangtze River” (1989) and “Seated Woman Holding an Apple” (c. 1980s).
In another play from this period, “L’Homme à la barque et aux cormorants” (1986), a tall fisherman in simple clothes carries two long boxes around his neck in which the three perched fishing birds deposit their catches. As in “Cutting Through Mountains”, the man’s legs are obscured by an abstract base, while his cap and mustache again bear a remarkable resemblance to Lenin. One of Liu’s most comprehensive works on display, the piece testifies to his growing reputation as a sculptor of the people.
Perhaps the strongest aspect of passages is his acute understanding of Chinese politics, devoid of the usual Western chauvinism. In “Guangling San” (1986), whose title refers to a ancient melody, an abstract face grows from the top of a black mountain. Liu mourns the government’s execution of his zither-playing neighbor Ji Kang, but rather than leveraging this against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as a whole, the title card simply highlights how Liu must have felt conflicted.
Similarly, the emotional “Looking at the other through the cage” (1990) shows two sparrows facing each other, one in a cage of twisted black wires. Liu believed that sparrows and people had 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 therefore not fatalistic but allegorical; he made cautious interventions without completely condemning the CCP.
Over time, Liu began to incorporate ancient techniques and symbolism from the Han dynasty while working as a curator at the National Museum of China, as well as aesthetic elements from European modernists such as Henri Matisse. A solitary woman reclining in prayer appears to have few distinctive features, but other standing nudes show masterful attention to detail. Many of these works were produced during the period of heightened diplomatic relations between China and the West, demonstrating how artistic practices evolved along with geopolitics.
In his later work, produced while caring for his young grandson, Mengmeng, the process of raising children takes center stage, as does his own reflection on himself. Liu had married into a family and dutifully assumed the role of father-in-law, and his commitment to them is shown in a series of worthy bronze portraits of his wife, Hao Shuyuan, and Mengmeng. In a wooden self-portrait from 1989, her somewhat boxy figure clutches a crutch flat against her side. The use of lighter material here raises interesting questions about his own self-image, especially since he made very few self-portraits. Perhaps he perceived his own body as temporary compared to the memories stored in the bronze.
Many works of passages were sunk at a later date, making their origins somewhat difficult to determine. The museum chose to date them by their casting, which is helpful for the specific objects on display but obscures Liu’s creative timeline somewhat. Also, the drawings included here are carbon copies sent by the foundation, which makes me wonder about the status of the originals. Certainly, however, the sketches of ordinary people included here, animated in just a few lines, give a deeper context to Liu’s mastery of the human form.
However, perhaps the most moving work of all is a small portrait that can be somewhat autobiographical. Directed shortly after the death of his mentor, Jiang Feng, “Someone Who Wants to Fly” (1982) features a man stretching out his arms, which are adorned with false wings. Despite having bricks cut into the base, his legs and feet are again not fully cast. Is this dreamer still standing on solid ground or is he actually taking flight? For an artist who had been immobile for much of his life, Liu’s centerpiece – displayed at the entrance to the gallery – is a testament to his ability to traverse the world through his art.
Passageways: sculpture by Liu Shiming continues at the Godwin-Ternbach Museum (Klapper Hall, Queens College, Flushing, Queens) until August 18. The exhibition was curated by Louise Weinberg.