Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong
Brazil, São Paulo, São Paulo Biennale 1994, p. 25
China, Macau, Contemporary Art Centre of Macau, FUTUROE Chinese Contemporary Art, 2000, p. 33
Brazil, São Paulo, Museu de Arte de Brasília, China- Contemporary Art, 2002, p. 84
France, Angers, L' Abbaye du Ronceray and Angers Museum, Propaganda, de Mao à Coca-Cola, 2003, p. 18
Portugal, Lisbon, Culturgest Galleries 1 and 2, Contemporary Chinese Art, Subversion and Poetry, 2003, p. 49
France, Beziers, Espace Culturel Paul Riquet, Et Moi, Et Moi Et Moi...Portraits Chinois, 11 Jun - 18 July 2004, pp. 5 and 29
John Clark ed., Chinese Art at the End of the Millennium, New Art Media, Hong Kong, 2000, p. 62
Christine Buci-Glucksmann ed., Modernités Chinoises, Skira, France, 2003, p. 38
Karen Smith, Nine Lives – The Birth of Avant-Garde Art in New China, Scalo, Zurich, 2005, p. 246
Karen Smith, Nine Lives - The Birth of Avant-Garde Art in New China - The Updated Edition, AW Asia, New York, 2008, p. 256
The beginnings of Li Shan's Rouge Series can be traced back to as early as 1988, with the earliest works from this series comprised of disembodied white heads, encircling clusters of Li's iconic lotus flowers and tendrils. The title of the works refer to the red face paint often seen in a theatrical context on members of Chinese opera troupes, but in Li's paintings they suggest an ambiguity of sexes, a confusion which inherently transgresses societal norms in China. In his artist statement, Li explains his artistic choices: "My use of sex derives from my interaction with society. I am not trying to educe a moral evaluation of sex per se within our culture or to pass comment upon the relationship of sex to moral values. I am motivated by the delicate balance that exists between perversity and power. This is the rational behind the Rouge Series...Power must have an object over which to wield its strength." The overt, sexual gestures evident in this series carry a symbolism that reaches beyond the taboo of sex and sexuality, alluding perhaps to the impotence of society post-Tiananmen or what critic, Leng Lin, calls "spiritual confusion" in China.
Li Shan has been considered to be at the forefront of the emergence of Political Pop within Chinese contemporary art during the mid- 1990s. But unlike his contemporaries in the Political Pop movement, Li was born almost a decade earlier in 1942. His personal experiences and ideological perspectives have influenced him in a way which allows him to be included in this movement, but also allows his oeuvre to be truly singular. Li's oeuvre is an exceptional reflection of the paradoxical relationship between Mao and his legacy with the generation who endured the full force of the Cultural Revolution. While it is easy for Western eyes to shove Li's canvases into one "style" or "movement," many graced with the iconic face of Mao, the true complexity and intricacy of this relationship cannot simply be conceded to one, deterministic label. Li, himself, asserts:
"Call it personal history. In 1989, I felt able to look back at this time [growing up under Mao]. This is why, for me, Mao is a cultural symbol and not a political one. I derived so much from that time, from that period of history. I would have been nowhere without Mao."
For Li, his art is the vehicle in which he can reconcile his personal experience of the past and of the present, the contemporary, and in doing so, implicates the collective experience of both. While other artists of the "Political Pop" movement reappropriate the image of Mao in an irreverent, almost sacrilegious manner, Li's work cannot be divorced from his personal history, one which was drenched in a divine understanding of Mao. Mao is an essential part of Li's personal iconography, a collection of symbols and ideas which reach far beyond the newly-objectified image of Mao, easily transformed into material for consumption. And while Li's paintings carry a satirical interpretation for the viewer, they are inherently a multi-faceted representation of personal loss, growth, andresolution: a heavy and profound symbol. The inclusion of the image of Mao in Li's artistic vocabulary cannot be degraded to a mere re-invention of the "Great Leader," but rather a visitation into a past that is now no longer existent. By the mid-1990s, after embarking on a more abstract route in his oeuvre, Li concluded that perhaps those works had been "too ambitious for the time, too loaded," he began his most famous paintings to date: the Rouge Series. Li affirms his change in direction: "It wasn't until I began the Rouge series that I found my true personal expression."
Two extraordinary specimens from the earlier phase of the artist's "true personal expression," Rouge Series No. 69: Mao with the Artist II (Lot 817) was executed in 1994 and Rouge Series No. 14: Mao with Flower (Lot 816) in 1990, both in acrylic on canvas. The first is a formative precursor, a visual synthesis of all that is to figure centrally and come assertively onto the foreground in Li's compositions—the ubiquitous lotus flower and the insinuation of homosexuality. The artist himself is featured leaning tenderly on the Chairman, both their heads tilted toward each other in a suggestion of intimacy and affection. Each raises his own oversized stalk with aplomb, as if undaunted by the pernicious potential of public perception. Rendered in nubile contours and a delicate peach hue, the lotus flower has evolved into a Li Shan trademark. Rouge Series No. 14: Mao with Flower finds itself submerged in an eruption of flower petals. In a matching shade of rouge, the side of Mao's countenance is demurely depicted. Lodged in between his luscious, blushing lips is a lotus flower, its stem propped up ever so lightly by his gentle fingers. The great helmsman of the People's Republic of China reveals his effeminate temperament thoroughly and unabashedly. The respective travesties that are these very images are both shrouded in an abstract sea of blue—the impossible scenes can only be found within the artist's mental landscape and nowhere else. Li Shan paints with great hilarity, subverting in the process the scarring forces of modern Chinese history as well as the debilitating pressures of contemporary society. Understanding the context in which Li was exposed to art and created art, allows the viewer to see, that for the artist, his work is not intended to be political, it is a personal journey into the past and to smooth out the wounds which have been left behind. And though many cannot help but envision Mao as a political symbol, a signifier of revolutionary zeal and authority, he has played an inextricable role in the lives of Li's generation: there is no way for distance or detachment to come between the two. Li's paintings move beyond the sphere of typical "Mao paintings," they hold a truly profound history of one artist and his own admiration and abhorrence to the man who redefined all that is China.
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