Works by Li Tianyuan
Source:Artintern Author:Jonathan Goodman Date: 2008-10-18 Size:
Li Tianyuan is a Beijing-based painter who graduated from that city’s prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1988. He is a practitioner of oil painting, which, as critic Leng Lin has pointed out, remains a vocation of particular prestige in China, in comparison to the relatively moribun

Li Tianyuan is a Beijing-based painter who graduated from that city’s prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1988. He is a practitioner of oil painting, which, as critic Leng Lin has pointed out, remains a vocation of particular prestige in China, in comparison to the relatively moribund state of ink painting. As a painter of mysterious realism, in which states of being, describing both people and nature, are often communicated without spelling out their meaning, Li creates an art that is both innocent and experienced, formally adept and thematically dense. One seeks reasons for the kinds of decisions the artist has made regarding his themes, but they are not easily forthcoming. His subject matter would appear to exist for no outstanding reason, as if the artist was taken with the idea of painting without purpose. Of course, his audience knows better than that—it is impossible for an artist to make images that deny their own content; something, even if it proves close to impossible to express, is communicated by the very act of making a picture. Yet Li’s apparently calm treatment of people and nature can seem to underscore the lack of significance in contemporary art, in which psychological and political alienation become themes by virtue of the paintings’ reticence, in which content is hidden by what passes for conformity.

But the viewer must not be confused concerning Li’s intentions. He is not a painter whose imagery is characterized by diffidence. His painterly conundrums often enact a social estrangement, so that his topic becomes the portrayal of isolation. Even so simple an image as Tree, Li’s 2006 oil on canvas, has been painted to convey disaffection, perhaps even an imminent apocalypse. A tree with wildly brushed foliage stands in the middle of the painting, rising out of a green field so actively painted it seems as much a sea as a meadow of grass. The background of the image is a rose and purple sky; manages to be natural and artificial in the same moment. The audience hardly knows whether it is looking at a magnificent dawn or twilight or the end of the world; the tree appears to be animate with dark forces that play out as dangerously alive, its light and dark green strands of leaves tossed by a strong wind. In its visionary loneliness, the tree strikes the viewer as an example of allegorical intent, yet the paint and image are handled so well one hesitates to read symbolic import into what is a remarkable image of nature. Essentially a representation taken from nature, Tree seems to work against any imposed reading, it is so strong a depiction of its own energies.

As a trope, Tree functions independently from what we would say concerning its presence; its self-sufficiency enables it to exist in a world in which our claims upon it are rendered moot. This happens quite regularly in Li’s work, which tends to remain autonomous and self-contained in the face of any easy reading of its purpose. It resists explanation and interpretation because it exists in a world of its own making, such that the imagination can only ally itself with the paintings’ visible objectives, without doing damage to them through a construal that would force a meaning upon a would-be theme. There is an inexplicability to Li’s art that serves as a Zenlike introduction to images that do not care if they are elucidated, in the sense that analysis would do damage to their esthetic. Li reclaims the imagination as a fertile ground for work that remains remote in regard to intention; by eschewing connotation, he vouchsafes the essential autonomy of his art. His ideas, then, lead back to the painting, which refuses to acknowledge what is expected of it, operating as a cipher without a key.

In Green (2006), we see a glade consisting of a wide range of greens, some made lighter by the presence of yellow, some made darker by the presence of black. On the right there are a few white verticals that look like the slim trunks of trees; a female figure stands in the lower middle right of the painting, her head turned away from us so that we can only see her hair, and her body cut off by the edge of the composition. In a work that almost anarchically mixes and muddles color, Li has painted the hands very carefully; they are frozen in an expressive position whose meaning can only be guessed at. She seems to be looking into a clearing into which the light can penetrate. While the painting appears to be a celebration of color nearly abstract in its overwhelming greenness, the presence of a witness humanizes our own participation in the image. The figure thus becomes a stand-in for our sensibility, and ourselves even though we remain in the dark about what exactly it is that she stands for.

Little Poplar, a work from 2006, also has a figure gazing at nature; in this case it is a man wearing a track suit on the right, looking at a row of young poplar trees whose yellow-green foliage lyrically celebrates the pleasures of spring. We look at the young man as he watches the poplars, uniting our concentration with his own. The subject of this painting is not only the beauty of nature, it is also the recognition of such beauty by people. Seeing is central to the work’s existence, not only in an authorial sense; the act of vision in the painting energizes it so that we too can share its exquisite imagery. Here nature is expressed with a feeling that approaches reverence; its intensity reads as a comment on the fragility of the environment. Little Poplar is unusual because it actually yields meaning to its viewers, both as a meditation on nature and as a tribute to vision as a theme. It is not nearly as dark a work as many other works by Li are.

Li demonstrates his technical skill in two paintings that incorporate figures into landscape and sky. With Mr. S, done in 2006, a young man wearing a black scarf, white sweater, and dark pants hovers over a stream that bends to the right; behind him are tall trees in a meadow, while the dark gray sky signals twilight or bad weather. In Sky at Shang Yuan (2006), a young boy about ten years of age extends his right arm into the air; his animated gaze underscores the energy of youth. Behind him is a pinkish-yellow sky, underscored by gray clouds and a number of painterly drips. In the lower part of the painting a gray landscape rhymes with the gray vest the boy is wearing; in the foreground, just behind the youth, is a dark-green landscape. The two paintings exist in contrast to each other; Mr. S looks at us with a soulful, melancholic regard; he is quite literally not part of the picture he occupies, floating above the stream Li has painted. The boy, however, seems attuned to his surroundings; this is more of a painting with hope rather than the doleful disaffection that is so often an experience of Li’s art.

Li’s complexity is hard to gauge. It may be said that the artist is a painter who often remains deliberately obscure, but who is also in control of his imagery, which regularly addresses humanity and nature. Being contemporary in sensibility, he regularly asserts the remoteness of human nature, and his treatment of nature often borders on the elegiac. In a painting done this year, Black & White, a girl stands in the midst of a thicket, looking through the trees at a brown-coated figure in the distance; mystifyingly, she holds in her left hand a very Pollock-like image, in which blots and skeins of black paint have been painted on a white ground. The image makes no sense except to prove Li’s awareness of modernism making inroads on traditions he himself makes use of. It is an example of the artist at his best, mediating between traditions in an enigmatic manner, holding back from us any easy explanation, which would lessen the impact of the image in its isolation.

Jonathan Goodman

Jonathan Goodman is a writer who specializes in articles about Asian art. He has been writing about contemporary Chinese art for more than a decade. Based in New York, he is currently teaching at Pratt Institute and the Parsons School of Design.

[Editor] Zhang Shuo