- Li Shan
- Surface No. 2
- oil on canvas
Acquired by the present owner from the above
Important Private Asian Collection
At Li Shan’s solo exhibition, “Building the Rouge Empire: Paintings from 1976-1992,” held in Hong Kong in 1994, the artist showed for the first time a painting from 1988, entitled Surface No. 2 (Lot 1047). The Shanghai critic Wu Liang commented on the work as follows: “In another of his grid paintings, [Li Shan] has added the gaudy face of a woman, and equally gaudy lotus blossoms. Later, in another two more paintings entitled Surface No. 2, the thick rouge on the gaudy woman’s face and the earlier images of lotus blossoms reappeared unexpectedly, as if the genes of his later Rouge Empire series were lurking therein.”1
As Wu Liang suggested, from the time the gaudy female figure and lotus blossoms made their initial appearance in Li’s painting, Surface No. 2 and up through the mid-1990s, Li Shan continued to paint these symbolic images, sometimes combining them with portraits of Mao Zedong, the five-pointed star and other Chinese political symbols. These works comprise Li’s important Rouge series.” In 1993, examples of the Rouge series hung in “China’s New Art, Post 1989” held at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, curated by Chang Tsong-zung and Li Xianting. In the exhibition catalogue, Li Shan wrote: “If we use ‘rouge’ as verb, and wish to ‘rouge’ something away, this is not so much a matter of will and method, but rather a question of attitude, a very noisy warning. Whenever art becomes an object of attention, it then becomes a very poor copy of itself, which everyone is capable of possessing.”2 What Li Shan seems to be saying here is that the artist must discover an artistic philosophy and an artistic language appropriate to his or her own life and experience.
After appearing in the Hong Kong exhibition, paintings from the Rouge series traveled to the 1993 Venice Biennale, the 1994 São Paulo Biennial and other major exhibitions that signaled the arrival of Chinese contemporary art on the international stage. In addition to making their mark internationally, the Rouge series was an important milestone in Li Shan’s professional career, and served as the basis for critic Li Xianting referring to Li Shan as one of the key practitioners of 1990s “Political Pop.”
Examining Surface No. 2 (1988), not only do we discover clues to the Rouge series, but more important, we can observe how the Rouge series works of the 1990s evolved out of their 1980s predecessors. Surface No. 2 is permeated with a macabre sense of humour. The centre of the canvas is occupied by a solid black rectangle, a portion of its borders trimmed with black fringes which reach out like tentacles. Hovering above the ends of the rectangle are two clusters of erogenous rouge-coloured blossoms, out of which multiple tendrils are growing. Almost incredibly, at the horizontal ends of the painting, Li has symmetrically positioned two female figures, their bodies partially covered by the black rectangle. The women appear to be grasping the black rectangle, but at the same time, they seem organically connected to it. The mood here is different from that in the later works in the Rouge series, which are more refined, colourful and luxuriant, and tinged with a different kind of eroticism. In Surface No. 2, while solid colours are used in a restrained manner, the depiction of the flowers and the women still presents viewers with any number of sexual innuendoes.
In fact, Surface No. 2 is closer to the thinking and methods evident in Li Shan’s works from the 1970s and 1980s. Li was born in Heilongjiang province in 1942, graduated from the Shanghai Theatre Academy, and taught in the academy after his graduation. In his early career, he was influenced by the works of Henri Rousseau, Gaugin and other western artists, paying close attention to actual living experience. In the late 1970s, Li initiated a series entitled “In the Beginning.” As Li recalled, “I started that series in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when I first began painting in oils. ‘In the Beginning’ represents my Expressionist period. At the time I was also influenced by Primitivism.”3 Drawing on the techniques of abstract expressionism, Li combined icons of ancient culture, primitive people and totemic symbols in his canvasses, imbuing them with a sense of mystery.
At the time of the “85 New Wave” Li Shan was already a mid-career artist. As countless associations of young artists sprang up throughout China, his works became increasingly individualistic and self-oriented. But he was also influenced by the “reading fever” that had overtaken China at the time. But while the majority of “New Wave” artists vigorously engaged in philosophical speculation, Li Shan was more attracted to books about science and technology, specifically mathematics, physics and biology, and this interest of his gradually found expression in his works. He soon began to explore such ultimate questions as the basic nature of art with an almost scientific rationality. At the time, Li wrote: “I will redefine art, something I have to rethink from the very beginning. That’s because our long held assumptions about art being something real and substantial are now starting to crumble.”4
Li Shan’s most recent Extension Expansion series takes off from there: Extension Expansion borrows concepts from physics. Most of the works are in black and white, applied with a flat colour technique. If there is a living, embryonic connection between the In the Beginning and Extension Expansion series, some kind of regenerative force… there is a tension, a kind of primitive cry that is constantly extending and expanding.”5 In the Extension Expansion series, simplified geometric symbols appear in a fuzzy “circle” suspended in an impenetrable space, as well as black and white rectangles, like the rectangular black object in Surface No. 2. In two paintings from Extension Expansion, Continued (1987), the composition is quite similar to that of Surface No. 2, but the seductive females in the latter work appear as totemic figures reminiscent of those in “In the Beginning.”
If In the Beginning and Extension Expansion can be said to fully represent Li Shan’s early period, then which marks his maturity as an artist, encapsulates all the works in his formative years. In this sense, Surface No. 2 with its intrinsic depth of thought and ceaseless exploration is a milestone from which to look back on the 1980s and 1990s. As critic Gao Minglu has written, Li Shan’s practice “…has its own inner logic, yet it also is consistent with the logic of the development of contemporary art in China.”6
1 Wu Liang, “On the Road to the Empire of Rouge.” In Li Shan: Building the Rouge Empire: Paintings from 1976-1992. Hong Kong: Alisan Fine Arts, 1994. p. 11
2 China's New Art/Post 1989. Asian Art Archieve, 2001. p.18
3 Liu Chun: “The process of painting is the process of the artist seeking his own inner truth: An interview with Li Shan.” In Art, Life, and the New Wave: Dialogues with 41 Chinese Contemporary Artists. Yunnan People’s Publishing House, 2003. p. 23
4 “An Interview with Li Shan.” In Materials of the Future: Documenting Contemporary Chinese Art from 1980-1990. March 4, 2009. Online archive, Asia Art Archive (www.aaa.org.hk)
5 Liu Chun, op. cit.
6 Gao Mingu. A History of Contemporary Chinese Art, 1985-86. Shanghai: People’s Art Publishing House. p. 184