Last year, Li Songsong had a solo exhibition at Pace Gallery in Beijing. He showed The One, which invited viewers to enter a long and narrow passageway formed by blocks of various shapes and colours. Although this work symbolises Li Songsong's stylistic shift from figurative representation to pure chromatic and formal expression, what has remained constant is his concern for the practice of painting itself. Barbeque (Lot 717) was created in 1996, when the artist had just graduated from the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Not a simple figurative work, it captures a precious moment in Li Songsong's early career and gives us a rare glimpse into the very origins of his artistic style.
Born in 1973, Li Songsong graduated from the affiliated secondary school of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1992, after which he immediately began training at the Painting Studio Four of the Central Academy. Painting Studio Four was established in 1985, when a new current in art swept through the entire China and resulted in the famous '85 New Wave Art Movement. The opening of the studio was indeed a sign of the times; compared to its three counterparts, Studio Four focused on creativity and the promotion of modern art. It was a cradle of contemporary Chinese art, and its relatively liberal principles of instructions shaped Li Songsong's artistic direction. Most interested in reflecting on the nature of painting itself, he was dissatisfied with the classicism and realism promoted by the other painting studios. Stylistically, he pursued insouciant expressionistic brushwork, hoping to develop his art beyond a foundation of pure mimetic representation.
In Barbeque, Li Songsong depicts four youths around a live fire in impressionistic brushwork. Their clothing is contemporary, in contrast to the historical photographs the artist would later prefer to use as models. They variously crouch, stand, sit and stare at the sky in different poses and with different expressions, but all seem at ease. Rather than tackling epochal events and history in all its grandness, Li Songsong returns to the depiction of everyday scenes. He strives towards the representation of a momentary reality and fills it with the texture of life. His quick, sketch-like brushwork seems to capture life even as it inexorably fades away.
After 2000, Li Songsong has consistently pursued a project of deconstructing images, taking as raw material important photographs of recent Chinese history, from the Second Sino-Japanese War to the Cultural Revolution. Employing his unique half-abstraction, the artist vaguely conveys the scenes and figures in vigorous and impressionistic brushwork and thick layers of paint. He has also achieved other formal breakthroughs, such as patching together several canvases to anatomize and represent images and creating painting surfaces that resemble relief sculpture. With an emotionless and clinical tone, Li Songsong dissolves the contents of his paintings and introduces a distance between the viewer and the original images, thereby drawing attention again to pure painterly expression.
Upon closer inspection, however, Li Songsong's reconstruction of images actually results from painterly experiments. Pictoriality remains his foremost concern. “I choose images that I deem appropriate. As soon as I decide I have to do something with a certain image, I immediately think of ways to forget it. I divide it into pieces. Working on one piece after another, I am not too concerned with the business in its entirety, and moreover I try not to manage it too much.”1
Compared to Li Songsong’s typical works, Barbeque represents the artist’s point of origination in pure pictoriality. It allows us access into his aesthetic foundations, not only crystallising his meditations on painterly expression and formal beauty but also foreshadowing his later abandonment of figurative subjects in favor of pure abstraction. Seen from this perspective, Barbeque is indeed a precious window into the making of the consequential artist.
1 Li Songsong, “Li Songsong in Conversation with Ai Weiwei and Feng Boyi,” 2004
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