HONG KONG - For Li Jin, it’s either food or woman, and such devotion to sensual pleasure makes him a devout epicurean. His love for good food is well documented in his often diaristic works, depicting again and again all sorts of gastronomic delights: enticing seafood, fat-reeking meat, sashimi platter, grill on sticks, plump peaches, grapes on vines or big round turnips. When he doesn’t paint food, he paints himself and other people, mostly women, and all manner of them: naked, scantily clad, fully dressed, posing like Olympia, dancing like a Matisse, picnicking sur l’herbe, fornicating or simply being.

But what really characterises Li Jin’s paintings is the feast of colours, the humour and the playfulness that vibrate with a jubilation of life. If you ask him he’d say carpe diem, for life is all about play, not only because he trusts ‘as little as possible in the next day,’ but because life is too long not to be taken light-heartedly. That’s why instant gratification from everyday objects is important to him, for nothing is more real than a satisfied body.

Li Jin’s Love Affairs of the Mortal World.

Play is one thing Li Jin excels in. He juxtaposes images with interesting calligraphy – sometimes downright ironic and other times completely irrelevant. In A Portrait of Meat and Vegetables, a parade of food ingredients is interspersed with calligraphy, inscribed with a sutra text that chastises the sin of sensual pleasures; while Seafood Banquet is laid upon a tablecloth of Mao’s grandiose lyric poems. Sometimes he is more straightforward, populating the paper with the character for ‘eat’, as if the images of meat and cake were not enough to sate his appetite. Li Jin also uses calligraphy in other mischievous ways, reinventing the literati tradition of painting inscription that serves to enrich the meaning of a work.

Li Jin’s A Portrait Of Meat And Vegetables.

It is hard to say whether his playfulness is a result of him embracing modernity or the literati tradition. The cheeky parodies of Western masters such as Matisse and Manet, the explicit innuendoes and dirty jokes, the everydayness of the subjects, the deprecatory depiction of himself including the often bemused look on his face, all seem to originate from a spirit that is contemporary and rebellious. Despite all this, there is also something profoundly old-fashioned about Li’s works, not least the literary erudition and the literati ideal they display. Li Jin might have replaced the idyllic fishing boats and shepherds with fish and mutton, court ladies with common prostitutes, but he has never lost track of a scholastic pursuit for spiritual freedom, which to him is achieved through returning to the mundane and the physical.

Li Jin’s Nothing Is Everything.

As the Chinese saying goes, ‘extreme vulgarity is elegance’1, so we would be gravely mistaken to think him little more than a materialist, for behind all this seemingly hedonist indulgence is the quest for what the Epicureans would call ataraxy – a state marked by the lack of fear and perturbation that ultimately leads to happiness in its own right, achieving complete freedom and the greatest degree of spiritual self-sufficiency, the greatest pleasure per se. All this is reflected in Li Jin’s works, in which the sensual is also transcendental, for they elicit the most intimate response from individual experience through the images and the calligraphy that accompanies them. But they are also decisively anti-metaphysical, as they always circle back to the roots of such transcendental state of happiness, which are grounded firmly in human or animal flesh, of which his colourful and fun paintings never fail to remind us.

The Roots of Pleasure, a selling exhibition showcasing the paintings and sculpture of Li Jin, will be held from 24 October through 5 November, 2014 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong Gallery.

The saying comes from The Book of Songs; its original meaning is that customary practice can become courtly rituals when they are widespread enough.