"Vitality in Stillness": An Interview with Curator Fran Kaufman on Liu Shiming's Exhibition at Gallery RIVAA

TEXT:Interview conducted by Emily Weimeng Zhou and edited by Sue.    DATE: 2022.8.8

DSC_7697.jpgFrom May 21st to June 16th, 2022, “Sculpting the Chinese Spirit: Vitality in Stillness” was presented at Gallery RIVAA, 527 Main Street on Roosevelt Island in New York City, featuring revered Chinese sculptor Liu Shiming (1926-2010). The exhibition was hosted by the Liu Shiming Art Foundation and curated by Fran Kaufman. Apart from the artist’s well-known sculptures, this exhibition also showcased selected sketches to reveal Liu’s creative process and educational legacy.

Liu Shiming was born in Tianjin in 1926 to a family of intellectuals, later moving to Beijing to attend the Central Academy of Fine Arts, where he apprenticed under well-known artists while also receiving classical training that included the study of Rodin’s ideas about modern sculpture.  The major sculpture he completed for his graduation from CAFA, Measuring the Land, won first prize, and was later added to the permanent collection of the Czech National Museum in Prague.  In 1958 his monumental 23 feet high work Splitting the Mountains to Let the Water Flow, was recognized as the spirit and image of China, finding a permanent home in Dongfeng Park in Baoding after being shown in Beijing. In the 1960s, Liu Shiming moved to the countryside, focusing on scenes of everyday life, capturing in clay and bronze the vitality and resilience found among ordinary people.  His strong belief in education is proven by his long teaching practice as well as by the many young artists he mentored during his life. He returned to the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in 1980, teaching sculpture until retiring in 1995. He has been honored many times for his remarkable contributions to modern sculpture, and widely recognized for his unique ability to meld ancient traditions with modern sensibilities.

On May 21st, a short panel discussion was organized at the opening ceremony, focusing on Liu Shiming’s artistic legacy and the importance of community and culture in contemporary art. Hosted by curator Fran Kaufman, the panel discussion invited Wei Liu, son of Shiming Liu, Linda Lees, Founder of Creative Cities, Tadeusz Sudol, President of RIVAA to participate.

On the occasion of reviewing the exhibition, CAFA ART INFO specially interviewed curator Fran Kaufman to share her viewpoints regarding Liu Shiming’s art, the theme, and achievements of the exhibition “Vitality in Stillness”.


Exhibition View

Interviewee: Fran Kaufman

Interview Date: July 30th, 2022

Interview conducted by Emily Weimeng Zhou, edited by Sue.

Courtesy of Liu Shiming Art Foundation and TheBLANC Gallery.

CAFA ART INFO: What special considerations do you have at Liu Shiming’s Exhibition at Gallery RIVAA? Such as the educational significance of the exhibition, how to connect more closely with the community, and etc.

Fran Kaufman: While considering which works to include in this exhibition, I wanted to select a group of works that showed Liu Shiming's range as an artist, and also to showcase both the singularity and universality of his vision. The importance of his early works was clear, such as Splitting the Mountains to Let the Water Flow. Even at the onset of his career, when he had a different point of view about making art than he did in later years, his sculptures demonstrate his sureness of hand and an immediacy of mark, which is something he retained throughout his career.

Knowing that education is such an integral part of the legacy of Liu Shiming, I felt it was important to include a selection of his sketches. The sketches are quick, often unfinished, and seem to serve as an aid to memory, offering a flood of ideas to inspire his work.

Liu Shiming’s Sketches

Because this exhibition originated in China, it was different from many of the shows at RIVAA which do not generally come from abroad. I think that is part of why it had such a wide audience — it brought something new and unique to the gallery, as well as to the Roosevelt Island community. The panel discussion on opening day, and the series of clay workshops organized by the Liu Shiming Art Foundation added to the excitement around the exhibition, drawing large participatory audiences and great interest.

CAFA ART INFO: How do you understand the uniqueness and value of Mr. Liu's artistic language in the current American cultural context?

Fran Kaufman: What is so interesting about Liu Shiming's work is that it is completely of his culture, of the people and the environment that he honored. And yet, because it so embodies the spirit of ordinary citizens, it has a universality of emotion. The musicians, the mothers, the performers, the workers that he portrays are all part of the larger human family as well as from their own world, and that translates into emotions and ideas that we can all understand. Liu Shiming also, with few exceptions, lets us see his hand at work.  His touch is evident in the carved wood, in the ceramics, in the bronzes — you are always aware that he has formed these works, that these sculptures were made with his hands, his spirit and his vision.

CAFA ART INFO: Can you elaborate on the exhibition theme "Vitality in Stillness"? What works in the exhibition impressed you most?

Fran Kaufman: Many of Liu Shiming's works seem to capture a moment in the life of people of all sorts as they go about their daily routine, often a repetitive daily chore. Within those moments there is a quiet acceptance, an understanding, so that even though the figures feel alive and vital, they convey a quiet dignity, a kind of inner stillness, as they go about these quotidian tasks. 

There are a number of works that I was personally drawn to for different reasons.  For instance, Worship intrigued me because it is so unusual within the oeuvre. It fits into a modernist tradition with a level of abstraction that would sit well next to a roster of international artists of the same time period. I like the monumentality and rough hewn quality of Splitting the Mountains to Let the Water Flow for example and the honesty and integrity of some of his self-portraits.  He achieved a lot of intensity within relatively small works, which I also found quite interesting.

DSC_2772.jpgView of the Panel Discussion at the Opening Ceremony

Exhibition View

CAFA ART INFO: What is the audiences' feedback on the exhibition and Mr. Liu Shiming's artworks?

Fran Kaufman: Judging by the number of people who came to the opening and actually spent time looking at the sculptures, the response was overwhelmingly positive and engaged. Colleagues and friends came from other parts of the city to see the exhibition, some of whom had not been to Roosevelt Island before.  It was gratifying that  they took the time to contact me afterwards to convey their interest. Whenever I visited the show, talking to random visitors or answering questions, my overall impression was that the exhibition provoked a lot of curiosity, both about the work and about the artist.  I also read some of the comments left by attendees.  It was so interesting to see that many of them picked a single work to respond to, and that there was an amazing variety in the selection of works. In my experience, that is one of the hallmarks of a compelling exhibition.

DSC_7342.jpgView of the Clay Workshop at the Opening Ceremony

About Fran Kaufman:

Fran Kaufman is a partner in Kaufman Vardy Projects, an international consultancy based in New York and Miami, focused on strategic marketing and curatorial practice as well as advising private and institutional clients. She was a partner in Rosenberg + Kaufman Fine Art for 17 years, a contemporary gallery in NYC and a dedicated center for dialogue between visual art, literature, and music. Her experience includes directing both palmbeach3 contemporary art fair for three seasons and the first Houston Fine Art Fair. Fran has curated numerous projects in the US, Europe and Latin America and is a regular lecturer and panelist on art market issues at venues, including Sotheby's Institute and NYU.  She frequently writes about art for catalogues and other publications.