The ceramic sculptures of Liu Jianhua are an exercise in desire, the consequence of skilled craft and unabashed sensuality. Liu Jianhua, born in 1962 in Jilan, Jiangxi province, began working while still a teenager in the ceramic factories in Jingdezhen; he then studied in the fine arts department of the Jingdezhen Pottery and Porcelain College from 1985 to 1989. Currently an associate professor of fine arts at the Yunnan Arts Institute in Kunming, he has shown internationally in Australia, France, and England, with solo exhibitions in Taiwan and Hong Kong. What is most interesting about his current work is its transformation of everyday ceramics into a language of fine art: his eroticized presentations of headless and armless figures wearing tightly fitting qi pao dresses and sitting in shallow bowls place the viewer in a privileged position.
Clearly, Liu Jianhua makes use of the great Chinese craft tradition, posing his figures in blue-and-white porcelain bowls. Often the sculptures include small, brilliantly colored flowers, whose decorative cast attracts the eye. But there is also something more than a bit disturbing about these headless figures as they pose provocatively for their audience. The lack of a head removes any sense of identity, and so the figures create the eerie feeling that they are completely subject to the gaze of the viewer, performing poses that make them vulnerable. Despite the fact that Mao spoke highly of women, asserting that “women hold up half the sky,” these figures are anonymous, sexualized representations, reduced to models posing provocatively in a dish.
Anonymity, of course, is a problem in a country such as China, whose huge population and cultural tradition of serving the group make it hard for individuality to flourish. Liu Jianhua calls attention to the lack of identity in China through his headless figures, much as Magdalena Abakanowicz portrays the extreme emptiness of totalitarianism by creating groups of headless torsos. While the Chinese artist’s work is superficially prettier, it too carries a warning—namely, that we are living in a society in which individualism is at grave risk. The poetry of everyday life becomes subject matter for Liu Jianhua, who comments, “In visual experience, the symbolic value of the objects of everyday life evokes many associations and fantasies.” One can see how Liu Jianhua presents the results of his research, creating figures whose evocative power extends from a willingness to be disturbingly vulnerable. In Color Ceramics Series Play (2002), the viewer encounters a headless, armless woman in a black qi pao, sprawled in a blue-and-white porcelain plate filled with small flowers. The scene is extremely pretty, to the point of being decorative, but the implications are darker, closer to erotic fantasy than to simple adornment.
In Color Ceramics Series Potted Landscape (2002), a female figure sits in an extremely shallow ceramic dish, offering an easy and pleasurable glimpse of her body: her right leg lies flat, the left, with its bent knee, partially extends. On her right foot she wears a red strapped shoe, the other is bare. Here, again, as happens so often with Liu Jianhua’s art, enjoyment starts to mix quickly with the forbidden; everyday life creates a sexual aura that lingers in the mind of the audience. Liu Jianhua works out tableaux that are meant to seduce, but he is also intent on making social statements that are not easily forgotten. The result grabs us in a direct way, but it also plays with a political reality that is as important as the sensuality of the art itself.