"China/Avant-Garde" of 1989 marked a critical watershed in the creative career of Li Shan. His performance piece Washing Feet attracted much attention at the groundbreaking event. For the entirety of the 1980's prior to this, Li Shan was making heavily abstract expressionist works, series such as Origins or Extension. All this, however, was just the beginning. Defying stylistic or conceptual consistency with any of the artist groups that sprung up at the time, Li Shan's work was nevertheless imbued with an aura of rationalism. The name "Extension", for example, has its roots in physics.
A passion for physics and biology, a persisting inclination first born in his high school days, has always informed his art. He left his home in Heilongjiang in 1964 and studied stage design at the Shanghai Theatre Academy. If one were to say, "an embryo was conceived between the creation of Origins and Extension, one which is bestowed with reproductive powers...there is a tension within Extension, it is almost a kind of primitive roar." Washing Feet represented the artist's very first attempt at a completely new and uncharted vocabulary, the medium of performance. Bold and intrepid, he bid farewell to what came before and was poised to start anew. It was an outdated visual system of expressionism from which he has departed, yet his tireless search for the cradle of life and its gradual formation was never to change.
Rouge Series began in the fall of 1989. After much reflection, Li Shan concluded that he "must return to the now out of the grand topics of culture and history, that [he] must redirect focus to [his] own relationship with the now, [his] experiences and [his] encounters. As a result, the canvas was met with inevitable elements of the great leader, ideology, mass movement, and finally Rouge."
A tender pink and a meandering silhouette are deployed to portray flowers in bloom—effeminate hues and soft textures characterize the subtly exquisite Rouge Series. The yielding petals reminisce of certain biological organs, erotic and with a tinge of teasing. The moniker "rouge" carries a similar air of titillation, inviting impulses of voyeurism. Within this schematic, Li Shan churns out newer variations and deeper subtexts. Created in 1989, Rouge Series No. 4 (Lot 110) reveals a rare choice of subject matter. Former American president George Bush and former Soviet Union chairman Mikhail Gorbachev, along with the ambivalent dynamics suspended between the two, find themselves featured in this work. Gorbachev's revolution dissolved the Soviet Union and ended the Cold War, for which he received reverberating praise from the Western countries. In a coincidental turn of events, Romanian president Nicolae Ceauşescu was assassinated on the very day that Li Shan painted this work, the 25th of December, ending also the Communist rule in Romania.
The two politicians emerge from the blossoming flower, as if they were its fruits. Their mouths are intertwined with the stamens and their foreheads stamped with their national emblems. An ideological ambiguity runs rampant through the imagery; the artist seems to be making suggestions yet the picture is ultimately innocuous. Zhu Qi once commented, "...in terms of mode of expression, the series can be considered a milestone in the political paintings of the 1990's, the artist hopes to arrive at a more spiritual manifestation of politics, delineating not the criticism and resistance of power, but the life, death, love and lust within pure power. One might say, Li Shan's Rouge is vague, yet it is also stern, it mocks yet it is also sincere."
The insertion of Chairman Mao into his Rouge paintings marks a heightened effort at satire and analysis. Rouge Series (Lot 112) was executed in 1995. Mao is presented, yet differing from the standard portrayals of the Chairman, here he is "rouged." Preserving only the mole on his chin, Li Shan has retained practically nothing of Mao's likeness—in this picture, his eyebrows curl upward, his eyes elongated, this nose straightened, his lips are sensual, his mouth betraying a smirk, last but not least the coquettish Mao has a flower in his pout. Redolent with incongruities, the image reveals a coexistence of seduction and rejection, passion and aloofness, finally masculine and feminine. Andy Warhol's Mao, on the other hand, has merely been mass reproduced. There is no modification, there is no distortion. Li Shan manipulates the icon of Mao with an assured facetiousness. The weight of politics and the burden of power have effectively been dispelled as a result.
Li Shan began his Rouge Series in 1989 and continued his endeavour into the 1990's. In "China's New Art, Post-1989" a group of Rouge works were exhibited; the artist proceeded to participate in the pivotal 1993 Venice Biennale and the 1994 São Paulo Biennial. Rouge Series has ever since become something of a trademark for Li Shan. The artist was quoted in the exhibition catalogue for "China's New Art, Post-1989" the following: "If we make 'rouge' a verb, and wish' to rouge" something away, this is not so much a matter of will and method, as a question of attitude. There is a warning here...And once art itself becomes an object of attention, it becomes a shoddy, vulgar copy of itself, which everyone is capable of possessing." Critics such as Li Xianting, Lü Peng have subsumed Li Shan into the league of Political Pop artists, understandably because of his treatment of politically charged iconography in Rouge Series. However, Li Shan diverges from his contemporaries (Yu Youhan's folk interpretation and Wang Guangyi's consumerist rendition) in his metaphysical investigation of the existential condition. His is not a speculation of philosophy, but a symbolic implication of the unknown beginnings of life. He has once said, "Art is life itself." Such is the essence of his art.
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