Introspective Power: A Conversation Between Richard Siggillino and CAFA ART INFO

DATE: 2023.10.23

From July 31 to September 22, 2023, “LIU SHIMING: Life Gives Beauty Form” was presented at Mason Gross Galleries, Rutgers.

This retrospective by the renowned modern Chinese sculptor Liu Shiming features more than 80 works with themes engage in the past and present, the epic, the mythological, and the everyday, which was the largest U.S. show featuring Liu’s sculptures made over his 60-year career to date, including 27 works that were exhibited for the first time in the United States. The exhibition also highlighted 12 drawings that illuminate Liu’s approach to close observational study of the human forms and everyday life.

Exhibition View of “LIU SHIMING: Life Gives Beauty Form”

On the occasion of the exhibition, CAFA ART INFO specially invited Richard Siggillino, who served as the curator of “LIU SHIMING: Life Gives Beauty Form”, Director and Head Preparator of Mason Gross Galleries for an interview. Siggillino shared the background stories of the exhibition, as well as how he understood Liu Shiming’s art.

Exhibition View of “LIU SHIMING: Life Gives Beauty Form”

梅森格罗斯画廊总监兼此次展览策展人查德·西吉利诺(Richard Siggillino)在展览现场.jpeg

Richard Siggillino introduced “LIU SHIMING: Life Gives Beauty Form” to spectators.

CAFA ART INFO: First of all, could you please give us an introduction to the background of this exhibition? How did everything get started? What is the significance of this exhibition in the annual exhibition plan of Mason Gross Galleries?

Richard Siggillino: We had initially planned on showcasing many of the works by Liu Shiming that were available in the US collection, but once we learned that we would have access to the larger collection of works from China as well, it became apparent to us that we could be much more ambitious in envisioning what kind of retrospective of his work would be possible in our space.

From there, we began the process of narrowing down a selection of works that would both cover the more well-known and quintessential aspects of the artist’s practice while also providing a broader overview of the artist’s life and work that would cover some of his less well-known pieces as well.

While we have been working more showcases featuring the work of established artists from outside of the university into our programming, this exhibition is unique for us as it features works that span an artist’s entire career while many of our other exhibitions focus on a narrower selection of works that focus on a specific series or theme within a larger body of work for several artists at a time.

CAFA ART INFO: Can you briefly explain the title “Life Gives Beauty Form,” and how this title echoes Liu’s artistic pursuit and the works included in this exhibition?

Richard Siggillino: One of the things that immediately spoke to me about Liu Shiming’s work was how it was at once deeply engaged with his own personal experiences while also centering the broader community around him as the primary subject of his artwork.

While the work certainly stands on its own on an aesthetic or technical level, to me, many of the works really function as artifacts of the artist’s lived experience, convictions, and ideals rather than as self-contained objects that simply exist on formal terms.

For this reason, I felt that it was important to choose a title for this exhibition that expressed the continuity between art and life that defined so much of Liu Shiming’s artistic career. The aesthetic qualities of his work can only be fully understood through their ability to meaningfully and sincerely capture lived experience.

Exhibition View of “LIU SHIMING: Life Gives Beauty Form”

CAFA ART INFO: It is reported that the complete collection of Liu Shiming was available to your team, which contains not only Liu’s renowned artworks but also some works to be presented in the US for the first time. How did you sort out all these artworks and gradually develop your curatorial scheme?

Richard Siggillino: When presented with the opportunity to showcase a broader selection of Liu Shiming’s work, we wanted to be as comprehensive as possible in our selection. To me, looking at pieces that an artist is less well-known for can be just as important in developing an understanding of their practice as looking at their most well-known pieces, so we tried to include a broader sampling of works from a variety of different periods in the artist’s life when planning this exhibition.


Exhibition View of “LIU SHIMING: Life Gives Beauty Form”

CAFA ART INFO: It seems you also involve some archives, for example, his sketches, into this show. What is your consideration in terms of dealing with the sculptural work and the artist’s other artistic or archival materials?

Richard Siggillino: Building off my earlier point about the importance of making space for less well-known pieces in this exhibition, I think that when looking at any artist’s work, you can develop a much deeper appreciation for their practice if you are given an opportunity to engage with the pieces that they made prior to arriving at the style that they are most well known for. Likewise, showcasing sketches, works in progress, or artistic experiments that they made later in their career can be helpful for similar reasons. Even though Liu Shiming is most well-known for his later small-scale sculptural work, I thought it was important to include these drawings as well. They present viewers with the opportunity to get a sense of the thought process that contributed to the development of his style and artistic approach.

CAFA ART INFO: In the previous interview regarding this exhibition, one of your observations to Liu’s work aroused my interest. You mentioned “while a lot of his work is very fast and spontaneous, the process that built that work is very gradual and slow”. Can you please elaborate it more? How did you get this awareness?

Richard Siggillino: When doing research for this exhibition it became clear to me that while Liu Shiming’s work stands out in terms of its aesthetic achievements on a formal level, much of the work was being driven by a deeper process of reflection and social engagement.

Much of the “fastness” of Liu Shiming’s work is evident in his mark-making and conveys a kind of spontaneity and exuberance that I think encapsulates the artists general attitude to the world around him, but there is also something that is very introspective in his work and the way he would respond to his source material. I think there is a kind of intuition and empathy that is evident in Liu Shiming’s handling and framing of his subjects beyond their rendering that can only be developed over years of personal experience both in and outside of the studio.  

Exhibition View of “LIU SHIMING: Life Gives Beauty Form”

CAFA ART INFO: Although Liu’s work is widely recognized to be related to Chinese context in his themes, material sand technique wise (some also identified his work as Chinese folk art), many of his sculptures can still arise a sort of universal experience and resonance. From your perspective, where and how did such resonance be cultivated and developed?

Richard Siggillino: Much of Liu Shiming’s practice was grounded in depicting his daily lived experiences as well as those of members of his community. I think that whenever an artist engages with this kind of material in their work, subject-matter that can often be very specific from a cultural or historical standpoint can become a vehicle for expressing ideas or realities that are much more complex than what is being depicted at first glance. I think that what makes Liu Shiming’s work so powerful for a variety of people with different experiences or backgrounds is that he would often use very specific subjects to convey or explore more general or universal idea themes that anyone could relate to.

I think there is something incredibly affirming about finding commonality with someone’s experiences when they are quite different from your own on the surface.

CAFA ART INFO: I noticed that you used “gestural work,”an expressionism-related term, to describe Liu’s sculptures. It seems that there is a hidden connection between Liu and Western modern art, though the so-called “modernity” is undoubtedly developed from different routes and cultural soil. Do you think this is a perspective to comprehend Liu Shiming's art and concept?

Richard Siggillino: I think there can often be an impulse to attribute certain approaches to making to a specific cultural or historical perspective, but taking a broader view of the history of art from a global standpoint, formal concerns such as the gestural quality of a work or the way in which its materiality is made evident are concerns that artists have grappled with for as long as people have been making art.

What is interesting is seeing how artists from different time periods address and contextualize these formal considerations while responding to the times and societies in which they live.

I think that while much of Liu Shiming’s work uses mark-making and gesture to express an emotional orientation towards his subject matter, this is done much more subtly than it is with many of the works by western expressionists. Much of his mark-making reaffirms his hand and body in a way where his presence can be felt in relation to his subject and material in a more holistic fashion. I think that a lot of western expressionists saw subject matter and mark making as more of a means towards the end of personal expression in contrast.

Exhibition View of “LIU SHIMING: Life Gives Beauty Form”

CAFA ART INFO: I read some feedback/interviews from the exhibition site at Mason Gross Galleries. When it comes to the question regarding the most impressive works of Liu Shiming, some recalled the Monumental sculpture “Cutting Through Mountains to Bring in Water”, while others are in leaning to his small-scale clay sculptures, such us “Mengmeng”. Although they may not learn about the background story of these works, it seems they can sense the humanism behind them. How do you understand these two different types of Liu’s work?

Richard Siggillino: These works definitely address common themes of uplifting the everyday person as the artist’s primary subject, but I think that the historical backgrounds and the understanding of the role of the viewer for both of these pieces are distinct.

For many of Liu Shiming’s smaller, more gestural works that he made later in his career, there is a degree of interiority in his method of looking and the way in which he orients the viewer in relation to the work that is often not possible for larger scale, public sculptures such as “Cutting Through Mountains to Bring in Water”. While both bodies of work are engaged with similar themes and are both certainly made in response to the artist’s environment and the historical and political circumstances that he lived under, I think that there is more of an interplay between the personal, private experience and concerns and subjects that are more relevant to a larger public audience or society in his later work.

CAFA ART INFO: It is interesting to notice the relationship between Mason Gross Galleries and Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University. As a university-based art space, to what extent are your annual exhibitions/art events related to the school? What kind of external artists/exhibitions/art events will Mason Gross Galleries consider to introduce and present?

Richard Siggillino: Our regular programming consists of 9 annual exhibitions which are mainly focused on showcasing works from current students, faculty, and the alumni of our program. Getting the chance to showcase Liu Shiming’s work was a tremendous opportunity for our student body to engage with the work of an established artist from outside of our institution.

In addition to “Life Gives Beauty Form”, we have been pursuing similar opportunities to introduce students to the works of other artists from a range of cultures and practices.  This includes an annual exhibition series inaugurated last year featuring solo exhibitions of indigenous artists every fall.

Exhibition View of “LIU SHIMING: Life Gives Beauty Form”

CAFA ART INFO: It seems many of your outreach practices are making efforts to approach broader communities apart from students and faculty of Rutgers University. Which communities are targeted by Mason Gross Galleries as potential audiences/participants? What (educational/socially responsible) goals would Mason Gross Galleries like to achieve by including broader communities?

Richard Siggillino: Our aim is to expose as many people to our programming as possible, but we are currently focused on engaging the wider New Brunswick community as well as the student body throughout Rutgers, beyond just Mason Gross. Additionally, we invite local high-school students to our space for field trips, workshops, and extracurricular programs throughout the academic year as well.

Ultimately, we want to not only foster a greater appreciation of the work that we are showcasing with a broader audience, but also make our space and arts-related programming accessible to more people who may or may not be coming from a fine arts background themselves. Our galleries are always free and open to the public, including weekend hours.

Interview conducted by Emily Weimeng Zhou, edited by Sue/CAFA ART INFO.

Courtesy of Liu Shiming Art Foundation and Mason Gross Galleries.