Liu Xiaodong’s The Loafers

Liu Xiaodong 刘小东 _(born 1963, Jinzhou, China; active Beijing, China), The Loafers (Erliuzi 二流子), 2022. Oil on canvas, 188.3 × 215.9 cm. Princeton University Art Museum. Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund and gift of the P. Y. and Kinmay W. Tang Center for East Asian Art, in celebration of the Tang Center’s 20th anniversary. © Liu Xiaodong. Photo: Joseph HuIn partnership with Princeton University’s P. Y. and Kinmay W. Tang Center for East Asian Art and in celebration of the Center’s twentieth anniversary, the Museum recently acquired The Loafers by Liu Xiaodong, one of the most prominent social realist artists of his generation. Liu creates monumental paintings that are the result of direct observation of sites of social change and human displacement. The Loafers is a cornerstone of the artist’s series Shaanbei, named for the northern part of Shaanxi province, in northern China. Set in a region rich in history, the series is Liu’s most personally significant and ambitious project to date. As a student at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in the 1980s, Liu frequently traveled to the Shaanbei area, in particular the city of Yan’an, nestled within mountains. While Yan’an’s most famous landmark is a Tang dynasty (618–907) pagoda, its modern fame rests on its association with Mao Zedong. During the Chinese Civil War (1927–49), Mao famously retreated to safety with his troops and followers in a journey known as the Long March, which ended in Yan’an. It was in this city that Mao found a haven and laid the foundation for what was to become the People’s Republic of China. Liu’s return to this area in 2018 provided an opportunity to observe civic and environmental changes in the region.

The subjects of The Loafers are six young people, ranging in age from twelve to sixteen. They are pictured in the mountains of Yan’an, with its ancient pagoda and city walls in the distance; a line of apartment blocks in the upper left hints at encroaching modernity. These teenagers represent millions of children in China who have been raised by their grandparents and left by themselves as working-age family members migrate to pursue jobs in larger cities. They are aimless and bored, frittering away their money on counterfeit luxury brand clothes and mobile phones. The teens are set in a tableau that references the tradition of plein air painting, with its careful portrayal of the landscape—but although realistic, the scene is fictitious. In The Loafers Liu offers a surreal combination of bold color and intense character depiction that searingly narrates the tensions between civilization and nature.

Zoe S. Kwok
Nancy and Peter Lee Associate Curator of Asian Art