It would be easy to come to Li Songsong’s show at Pace London with certain assumptions, projections, and ideas about the last ten years of contemporary painting from China. Assumptions informed by how galleries have vulgarly packaged Chinese contemporary art as a struggle for freer (market) expression. Projections on what it means for an artist to make a painting in post-Deng Xiaoping‘s China. Ideas built around an understanding mostly gathered from following the influx of Chinese painters into the western art market through glossy adverts and the occasional review in art mags. At the very best, one might think that there is a prerequisite for implied political critique in the narrative surrounding contemporary art being produced in China.
Now, going to see a show with a title such as We Have Betrayed the Revolution won’t help dispel things either. If you try to make sense of this show with this particular Manchurian filter of accumulated misunderstanding—as I did—it will upset you in the way that an internet purchase fails to meet one’s expectations. This is mostly due to using the wrong filter to understand this work, but also is partly due to a Western misunderstanding of Li’s narrative device of appropriated historical and pop culture imagery. Anyone from the People’s Republic of China will understand the references—or so I’ve been told—but for the outsider it’s a curve ball to nostalgia-ized painting. Clear the mind of expectation and you’ll quickly realize that you received a much better deal. Li is a painter’s painter and it’s apparent that he loves his craft.
The show can be divided into three categories of work: small canvases, large canvases, and large aluminum panels. The description states that the panels are “oil on aluminum,” but actually each of these pieces is an amalgamation of smaller painted panels that when fastened together complete the referenced image. The panels don’t sit flush as a uniform surface but create a fluctuating picture plane. This may sound rather shtick-y and a lesser painter wouldn’t have been able to pull it off. However, this strategy is a compliment to Li’s style of painting in icing-thick layers. At full viewing distance, these are physically dense paintings but Li has a sensitive touch to his paint, pushing and carving, and intimate moments really shine through up close.
Often the problem with large-scale paintings is that they are seldom better than their smaller siblings. They are just BIG and they tend to have the feel of a good idea bloated for a museum-sized show. Li entirely circumvents this pitfall with the paneled pieces, as they allow him to work large without losing the intimacy of much smaller work. The brilliance of this method is that the vibrancy of the small piece is preserved and then stays compartmentalized within the panel once the larger pictorial narrative is pieced together. The only way to get a handle on these pieces is by getting a bit too close for visual comfort. To properly take it all in, position yourself as you would if sitting in the front row at the theatre.
A problematic element about the aluminum pieces is where some of the seams meet. The gaps between panels are understandable, but the visible shiny bends of raw aluminum are distracting—a possible logistical issue of construction, but it’s not as if each panel was made individually and then Li had to figure out how to make it all fit together. The panels’ shape and placement in the overall picture are well thought out, and this must have been done well before paint was ever applied to them. It’s not at all a deal breaker, but more of a head scratcher.
The large canvases are just as painterly as the works on aluminum, but they struggle to match the raw energy of the other pieces. The composition mirrors the squaring effect of their aluminum companions, but unlike the panels that are assembled after painting, these pieces are painted in sections on the same canvas surface. The result is that the compartmentalized squares feel more like an arbitrary aesthetic device. They aren’t bad, they just lack the same purposefulness.
If your preference is for a more intimate experience, then there are three small works in the show that will completely satisfy. Guests Are All Welcomed, 2013 is a prime example of Li’s sensitive paint handling in juxtaposed compartmentalized sections. The smaller pieces strike a softer balance between the painterly gesture and the selected narrative. I found myself drawn into the imagery almost as much as the lusciousness of the gesture. This wasn’t the case with the larger pieces where, by design, paint dominates. The beauty of this show is that all the work accomplishes what Li set out to do. You just need to do your part and leave your assumptions with the gallery attendants.
Li Songsong: We Have Betrayed the Revolution is on view at Pace London through November 9, 2013.