Liu Xiaodong is rare among contemporary Chinese artists. Most produce installations or conceptual pieces. He, the realist, documents contemporary life in China. “My only goal is to confront people and see them as they really are,” he says. This Seattle Asian Art Museum exhibition, “Hometown Boy,” presents a series of those revealing portraits and still-life paintings.

After attending art schools in Beijing and Madrid and living for three decades in Beijing, Liu returned to the small industrial town where he grew up to paint his former friends and new acquaintances doing what they do. He captured their images as they toiled in field and factory, rested at home, walked the dirt roads.

Liu views himself as a documentarian. “I don’t paint what I think, only what I see,” he says. He prefers to paint from life rather than from photos because that allows him temporarily to become one with his subjects.

There’s an intimacy to his work but no sentimentality. He opens a door, but it doesn’t reveal everything. Is the father holding his chubby infant as emotionless as he seems? Where are the people who should be enjoying the swimming pool? Is the man watching TV just tired, or has he no feelings? We see where and how these people live, but must ask: What kind of lives do they have? His paintings are vibrant, and they’re also tantalizing,

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Though his compositions are influenced by the Song dynasty of a thousand years ago, there are Western painters who have deeply affected him. Paul Cezanne and Arshile Gorky, known for strong brush strokes and rich colors, are among them.

Liu was a student in art school during that period when the Chinese government deemed social realism the acceptable art form. He has, however, moved far beyond the concepts of that time both in his subject matter and his style. Using traditional forms to address contemporary issues, he movingly captures present-day life, offering the viewer a sense of the lifestyle of the poor as well as the growing entrepreneurialism of a rapidly transforming China.

In addition to painting, Liu uses film to document Chinese life. One of these, shown continually in a gallery adjacent to the paintings, records Liu creating his art and interacting with the people he paints and the environments in which he works.

Though this exhibit focuses entirely on the paintings of his hometown, he has documented life far beyond it. One recent project was a series on everyday life in London. He’s truly a global artist who presents a view of China not often seen, an artist whose work has been presented throughout the United States and in Europe, Asia and Australia.

Also on view are exhibits of witty inked scrolls by contemporary artist Wan Qingle, and 150 masterpieces of Asian art celebrating SAAM’s 80th birthday.

Nancy Worssam: