‘I Want to Experience the Complexity of the World’: Watch Artist Liu Xiaodong Travel to the US Border to Paint Scenes of Moral Ambiguity

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the "Beijing" episode of "Art in the Twenty-First Century," Season 10. © Art21, Inc. 2020.

For contemporary artist Liu Xiaodong, personal history is the greatest source of inspiration. His childhood in rural China and his adolescence spent in Beijing studying to be an artist inform his practice even as he travels and shows internationally today, framing the way he sees the world.

Best known for his massive paintings depicting everyday people he comes across, Liu often works en plein air, setting up his canvases outside, quickly sketching an outline, getting to know his subjects, and taking photographs to work from later in the studio.

In an exclusive interview with Art21 as part of its new 10th season of Art in the Twenty-First Century, the artist is seen on a trip to a small town in Texas, just over the US-Mexico border. The border town is inextricably linked to President’s Trump’s anti-immigration policies and the conflict that border patrol officers face monitoring the wall.

“I prefer to paint places that can’t be easily judged by a single value system,” the artist tells Art21. “I want to experience the complexity of the world.” 

Video still from Art21 of Liu working on <i>Tom, his Family, and his Friends</i> (2020). Courtesy the artist and Massimo De Carlo, Milan/London/Hong Kong.

Video still from Art21 of Liu working on Tom, his Family, and his Friends (2020). Courtesy the artist and Massimo De Carlo, Milan/London/Hong Kong.

In the video, the artist is seen painting County Sheriff Tom Schmerber and his family, some of whom live across the border in Mexico. Schmerber was interviewed on TV explaining that while he doesn’t approve of Trump’s wall, if he sees migrants trying to cross the border, he is obligated to detain them. The portrait of Tom and his family as well as other paintings Liu created while visiting the US-Mexico border are the basis of his upcoming solo show at Dallas Contemporary called Borders, which will open on January 30, 2021. 

Liu sees parallels to his own experience being Chinese in America. “Many people don’t like China now, I know…” he says, adding that while politics only leaves room for black or white, art allows for nuance. “For artists, we’re always looking for a different path.” 


Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s series Art in the Twenty-First Century below. The brand new 10th season of the show is available now at Art21.org. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series like New York Close Up and Extended Play and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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