View of “Urban Synesthesia,” 2013 Lehmann Maupin, New York
View of “Urban Synesthesia,” 2013 Lehmann Maupin, New York

For his first solo show in the United States, Liu Wei fashions reclaimed wood from domestic interiors into a soaring, architectural ensemble, transforming the gallery space into a curious amalgam of Gothic cathedral and country home. A version of this body of work first debuted in the 2010 Shanghai Biennale, where the improbable title— Merely a Mistake— seemed to suggest that perhaps the “mistake” in question had less to do with the (obvious) craftsmanship of materials and more to do with the systems that produced those materials to begin with.

The main gallery is dominated by three massive structures, imperfectly echoing a narthex, nave, and altar (though the correspondence with a church is less about liturgy and more about architecture as a power statement). Wooden slats are intricately cut and fitted to one another in a way that could signal Futurism, the fractured city trying to exist in motion. This dynamism clashes with its make-up: weathered door frames and discarded windowsills, all in lovely, lilting tones of pea, eggshell, mint, taupe, and custard— the colors of the innocuous interior. The artist is purposefully recycling these discarded bits of middle-class living to erect something akin to the future these aspirational, artisanal fixtures originally promised. Liu makes no effort to conceal the junctures, the nails, hinges, and screws, nor does he tend to the scrapes, flaking paint, or scars. It would seem his interest lies in this imperfection, in the way these structures— at once pseudo-futuristic and nostalgic— still steep the space in the smell of wood chips.

If the installation is to be read as a church, the high priest would be China VI-No 3 (2013), a ceiling-high totem of porcelain platters and bowls, stacked and bolted into a kind of lavatory avatar. The oversized serving dish at the bottom may as well be a toilet bowl, an impression Liu co-opts by signing “L.W.,” in his best imitation of R. Mutt. Granted, the signature may hearken to the artist’s ongoing obsession with branding, but the idea of the readymade is summoned and dismissed repeatedly throughout this exhibition. Liu’s interventions may be economic, but they are also evocative. His wall-mounted “Exotic Lands” series resemble pried-off panels from decorative cabinetry, repurposed into a kind of parlor room orientalism. (It works.) Other paintings— cityscapes abstracted into something between bar codes and lattices— at first appear as curious cosmopolitans, here to gawk at their country cousins. Upon closer inspection, however, one finds the same imprecision as in Mistake: blotches of paint mar perfect lines, color fields slip over the bounds of the picture proper… If Liu is skeptical of the coexistence of the urban and the domestic, he has managed to capture the essence of each in these blends of projected form and its realization.

In the second room, Liu leaves behind his metropolitan meditations for “Jungle,” a series that features heavy canvas tucked, folded, and stitched into quiet Hulks along the gallery walls. The canvas is of a military-grade hue, which also gives it the feel of world-weary, old luggage. These flank two identical monitors, placed side-by-side on pedestals in the center of the room. The 400 Blows (2008) is a mildly trance-inducing array of faceless torsos who pull down their pants to reveal pimpled, pockmarked buttocks that each receive a solid smack before stepping off camera. This is set alongside the installation Power (2013), in which a cathode-ray-tube television is switched on and off, its status broadcast through a thin sliver of white light, which slices the screen with each flick. Their proximity begs for the pieces to be read together, as if the spankings of the one were somehow resonating in the surges of the other. It is a natural coupling, with both works imagining “power” not as something to be sought but as something that must be endured; this in turn inflects on the main gallery space, and the subtle aggression of Mistake. It is impossible to say if these domestic interiors went willingly, eager to build the monuments of the future perfect, or if they were a fatality, struck down in the name of that future. What can be said is that the result is aesthetically compelling, beautiful and brutal in equal measure.