- Li Shan
- Rouge Series C
- 107 by 163 cm; 42⅛ by 54⅛ in.
- oil on canvas
Hosane Auction, Shanghai, 26 June 2011, lot 1122
Acquired by the present owner from the above sale
Lü Peng, 90s Art China 1990-1999, Hunan Fine Arts Publishing House, Changsha, China, 2000, p. 140
Art is life itself. --Li Shan
In 1989, Rouge Series C (Lot 1031) was completed, marking the beginning of the entire Rouge series. The work represents the artist’s profound artistic transition away from Fauvism and Expressionism, moving toward a palette of brilliant pink hues and taking inspiration from Chinese folk aesthetics to develop a singular style of his own. This metamorphosis opened the door to the artist’s “political pop” style that emerged in the 1990s, in which the artist depicted androgynous political figures. Along with Zhang Xiaogang, Wang Guangyi, and Yu Youhan, the artist was among the first group of Chinese artists invited to exhibit in highly prominent Western exhibitions. Rouge Series C was illustrated in Gao Minglu’s 1998 touring exhibition, Inside Out: New Chinese Art, whose venues included the Asian Association of New York, PS1 in Queens, the San Francisco MoMA, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the Monterrey Museum of Contemporary Art in Mexico, and other international art museums, these publication record is a testament to the work’s highly representative nature.
Li Shan was born in Heilongjiang province in 1942, and enrolled in the Shanghai Theatre Academy in 1974. In the late 1970s, the artist’s Primal Beginnings series established a unique, personal style, which extended through the 1980s. When many of the '85 New Wave artists were still students in the academies, Li Shan was already in his prime years. Belonging neither to the schools of the Beijing or southwestern artists, Li Shan had the fiercely independent spirit of the Shanghainese artist. His distinct and profoundly influential style in the 1980s stood starkly apart from the style of the Rational school of painting, led by Wang Guangyi and Shu Qun, as well as the New Figurative Art movement led by Mao Xuhui and Zhang Xiaogang. Instead, the artist was heavily influenced by Gauguin and other Western Fauvist painters when he began the Primal Beginnings series. Mixing scenes of civilization with ancient totems and primitive symbols, the artist used a style of abstract expressionism to illustrate the original nature of life. Ever insistent upon his individual style, the artist - amid the powerful '85 New Wave moment - created the Extension series, its style even more heavily abstract, using the round circle as one of the important thematic symbols, connecting to the traditions of Eastern philosophy while leading the viewer to a place of profound contemplation. Primal Beginnings and Extension both showcase the artist’s expressionist style while also containing flavours of mysticism. Gao Minglu summed up Li Shan’s works from this period as having the effect of, “opening up Eastern mythology, extracting the stories of the origins of man in the Chinese tradition and expressing them in abstract forms and images.”1
Beginning in 1988, Li Shan entered a new creative era. Surface No. 1 and Surface No. 2 mark the emergence of the colour pink upon the artist’s canvases, as well as the petal-like forms that would come to be iconic. 1989 marked the birth of the Rouge series, which feature flourishing flower petals rendered in soft pink with flowing, continuous lines. Mild and gentle in their luster, they emanate an exquisite, subdued beauty. These enchanting petals invoke female reproductive organs, setting an erotic yet lightly humorous tone, just like the name of the series, “rouge”, is suggestive of erotic sensuality, leading the viewer’s imagination to forbidden places. Rouge Series C, the lot on offer, was created during this critical year that represented the birth of the Rouge series. Pink flower petals dominate the canvas, blossoming toward either side. The political seal framed in the centre prefigures the paintings of political figures that would follow after Rouge, the series of works with Mao Zedong with a flower in his mouth blurring the lines of gender and authoritative power of the political figure. It was upon this foundation set in 1989 that the artist - through persistent experimentation and the adding of new elements and deeper meanings - carried his artistic concept to full fruition.
Li Shan began work on the Rouge series in 1989, a project which continued into the 1990s. In 1993, at Hong Kong’s “China’s New Art, Post-1989” exhibition, the entire series was displayed as a complete collection. It was later also exhibited at the 1993 Venice Biennale and the 1994 São Paulo Biennial. These prominent exhibitions solidified the series as an important milestone in Li Shan’s artistic career. Li Shan also extended the motif to other subject matter, like Rouge Horse (Day Sale Lot 852) and Untitled (Day Sale Lot 853). In the exhibition catalogue of “China’s New Art, Post-1989” , Li Shan explained, “I am using ‘rouge’ here as a verb. When I attempt to ‘rouge’ something away, it is neither a matter of will nor method, but rather an asserted attitude, a relentless cautioning… Once art becomes the object of attention, it is reduced to a poor copy of itself, something that all of us can possess.” In the 1990s, critics such as Li Xianting and Lü Peng classified Li Shan into the Political Pop movement, undoubtedly because of his use of political symbols in the Rouge series, but the difference between Li Shan and other Political Pop artists (such as Yu Youhan, who included folk elements in his works, or Wang Guangyi, who highlighted consumerism culture) lies in Li’s interrogation of the state of life, of existence, this most mysterious and unfathomable realm. Rather than existential or philosophical speculation, the artist offers a symbolic suggestion of the unknown origins of life and the state of existence. As he himself once said, “Art is life itself.” This is Li Shan’s fundamental belief.
1 Gao Minglu, “From Elite to Small Man”, Inside Out: New Chinese Art, The University of California Press, Berkeley, 1998