Life is far too serious not to be taken lightly.

William Matthews

Art and life are one for Li Jin.  He paints his life in all its sensual pleasure.  He does not live a compartmentalized life where after his day is done he goes into his Beijing studio, closes the door to select a topic to paint.  He simply paints his life as it unfolds, meal after meal, nap after nap, naked embrace after naked embrace.  Many artists only paint to eat, Li Jin eats what he paints – the fish he steams in his kitchen, the vegetables he grows in his garden.  I have seen in person the exuberant pleasure he takes in good food and wine.  I have watched his intense concentration as he attacked a boiled Maine lobster (after having one for lunch earlier in the day in case the promised lobster for dinner didn’t materialize), plastic bib around his neck, lobster crackers in his hand, his beard flecked with bits of lobster as he cracked and dug for every morsel.  This lobster ended up in more than one of his paintings.  I have met two of the women he has loved and they two appear in his paintings, one zaftig, the other diminutive, both painted in their full honest nakedness.  And always in the picture, the bemused, befuddled artist himself, his emotions and middle-aged body exposed to the world.  No beefcake, no cheesecake, no idealized Greek gods and goddesses in Li Jin’s world, just the ordinary, humbling human form.  Li Jin’s diaristic art is not debauched or self-indulgent.  Beneath ample breasts, dimpled thighs and bulging bellies he is engaged with delicate masterful brushwork in philosophical introspection rooted in centuries-old Chinese thought and culture.  It is time to give Li Jin the gravitas he deserves.

Li Jin is the ever-present object of his artistic gaze, but it is not an egoistic preoccupation that distances us from the artist, rather just the opposite.  His whimsy, self-deprecation and delicate, confident brushwork invite us into his world.  The viewer wants to join him at his festive table and sit in the peaceful garden so central to his view of the good life.  For all the flesh and food, this is an art in praise of the simple life.  More schulb than seer or sybarite, Li Jin appears the innocent victim of his own conflicting desires.  He is a fellow traveler or more accurately, a fellow stumbler muddling past the Sirens of desire, struggling to follow the dictates of his better self.


As Chiu-Ti Jansen points out in her fine article on Li Jin the titles and inscriptions of Li Jin’s paintings often draw upon Ming and Qing texts.  In Feast No.6 the calligraphy copies the “how-to-guides” from the 18th century Recipes from the Garden of Contentment (Suiyuan Shidan). “In the Mood of Selflessness” (2012) the title and inscription are drawn from the phrase “planting flowers and bamboo / in the mood of selflessness” from the late 16th century Vegetable Roots Discourse (Caigentan) by Hong Zicheng.  This philosophical meditation on the path to and perils of achieving a balanced and virtuous life, comparable in Western thought to Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, is a text that inspires and bedevils Li Jin as he, like its author, struggles to balance the pleasures of self and the rewards of selflessness. 

Much of his new work is quiet and intimate and its pleasures simple – a cup of tea, a butterfly alighting on a flower, the company of lover and child.  In “Real Interests Come from Simple Life Li Jin sleeps on the ground, his head on a large soft pillow, an apple and what looks like a persimmon within reach.  He seems of one mind with Hong Zicheng who wrote that “sitting by the thatched window of a bamboo hut, brushed by the breeze and moonlight, satisfies the self.”  Hong does not turn his back on the pleasures of life: women, song, tasty foods and congenial activities in moderation are not necessarily a hindrance to the Dao.  For Hong “true ambition is manifest in simplicity and purity, and integrity perishes in sweet fat.”  Hong likely did not mean by “sweet fat” the fleshy breasts and thighs of Li Jin’s many naked ladies but the point remains – the immoderate or unlimited pursuit of these pleasures “can rot your bowels and destroy your virtue.”

Poor, conflicted Li Jin seems torn between the wisdom of the Vegetable Roots Discourse and his love of sweet fat.  We never see on Li Jin’s face an expression of sybaritic pleasure.  Rather he most often seems wistful, quizzical, tired, eyes at half-mast if not closed, often yawning.  He seems to be asking, “What is this all about?  How did I get myself in this mess?”  Li Jin appears in multiple personas often in the same painting – monk, devil, scholar, soldier or sad-sack middle-aged everyman.  Just as he paints the quotidian acts of his day – sleeping, drinking tea or reading in the garden – he shares his internal dilemmas of desire: what he is versus what he knows or wishes he could be, the better self of Chinese philosophical thought versus the frail self lured by pleasure.  Just as he exposes his naked body to the world without shame or embarrassment, he reveals the constant struggle between his carnal being and his selfless aspirations.  Born in the Year of the Dog, Li Jin often puts a dog in his paintings, a bemused canine avatar observing Li Jin’s dilemma with a shared quizzical expression – a symbol perhaps of the animal nature Li Jin continually struggles to contain.

Often Li Jin presents himself between two women.  He is not some lecher trying to decide which to bed first.  Rather he seems caught between conflicting desires.  One painting is inscribed, “My Love Does Not Change.”  But the object of his love does.  He appears befuddled by his multiple attractions, by his inability to choose or his resigned unwillingness to choose between “the beauties” in his life.  In several of his new paintings he writes, “Opportunity comes within peacefulness.”  He could have as easily written, as does Hong Zicheng, that moderation is the source of peacefulness and virtue.  But surrounded by his “beauties” and troubled by his knowledge of the Way, Li Jin seems more burdened than content.


Vegetable Roots Discourse may be a good guide as to where one should go on life’s moral journey but is not without its vagueness as how to get there.  The road to virtue twists and turns with contradictions.  Too much leisure produces shallow thoughts but too much work alienates us from our true nature so one should not completely shun the pleasures of leisure.  Good conduct is to be praised but if it is done for public praise it can be the root of wrongdoing.  It is “never good to identify with the vulgar yet never good to alienate yourself from them.”  Mencius wrote that it was natural “For the mouth to desire sweet tastes, the eye to desire beautiful colors, the ear to desire pleasant sounds, the nose to desire fragrant odors, and the four limbs to desire ease and rest” but where does natural desire cross the line into self-absorbed excess?  How does one enjoy the sensual pleasures without becoming a libertine?  These are questions that Li Jin keeps coming back to in his most personal, diaristic art.  Li Jin’s battle between indulgence and moderation – the devil and monk within him – and self and selflessness is constant.  Great art comes from conflict, internal and external – the law versus natural morality in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, war in Picasso’s Guernica or Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture or the personal battle with addiction and despair in O’Neil’s Long Day’s Journey into Night.  Whether Li Jin wins or loses the fight, we the viewers of his most human and affecting art continue to be the winners.