Li Huayi: Fantasies on Paper and Enchantments in Gold

August 2, 2018
Li Huayi, 'Mysterious Valley' (2013)

Fantasies on Paper and Enchantments in Gold is a title that western audiences might view ironically, as a deliberately florid, over-the-top tease. For this we may thank an artist such as Jeff Koons, who has blurred the line between kitsch and fine art so successfully it’s no longer possible to draw the sharp distinctions that were once a staple of art criticism. In his 1939 essay Avant-garde and Kitsch, Clement Greenberg was able to consign whole categories of popular, commercial, or “academic” art to the realm of kitsch. Such neat discriminations started to unravel in the era of Pop Art and came completely undone during that brief, frivolous moment we call Postmodernism.

China too, has had its flirtation with Pop and kitsch, but Li Huayi’s Fantasies on Paper and Enchantments in Gold at the Suzhou Museum was not a postmodern joke. On the contrary, Li is an artist who reaffirms the ongoing value of the age-old traditions of Chinese ink painting, even as he innovates within the medium.

Over the past two decades Chinese artists have experimented with every western style and technique, and been quicker than anybody on the planet to adopt new technology, from video and computer work to fibreglass fabrication and 3D printing. The new techniques look to the future, but brush-and-ink reaches back into the past. It is the foundation of art in China, and a huge volume of such work is still being produced. Much of it is dry and academic, but there are many artists taking the medium places it has never been before. The list includes the figurative works of Li Jin, the abstractions of Li Huasheng, and the monumental installations of Bingyi.

Li Huayi is unusual in that he turned to landscape painting (shan shui) as late as 1992, after he had spent a decade living in the United States. Born in Shanghai in 1948, he had his first training in brush-and-ink painting at the age of six, under Wang Jimei. By 1964 he was learning western-style painting from Zhang Chongren, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Art in Belgium. From 1969-76, during the Cultural Revolution, Li took the only available option for an artist, and painted propaganda pictures. At the beginning of Deng Xiaoping’s era of reforms, although it was a time of artistic ferment, Li felt no desire to join any of the emerging groups or movements.

His life would change through a remarkable chain of circumstances, largely because his wife’s grandfather had left Shanghai in 1948 to work for the American Consul General in Taiwan. When full diplomatic relations were re-established between China and the United States, the family was invited to apply for American citizenship. In 1979 Li and his wife travelled to Beijing and sat for a surprisingly casual interview with a consular official. One month later they had American passports and by 1982 had relocated to San Francisco. After two years in America, Li had obtained a Master of Fine Arts degree, and, in his own word “had tried out all the western mediums.”

Li Huayi, ‘Rising Mist’ (2014)

“In these early years I suffered from culture shock,” he recalls. “I tried everything. I tried collage – although it was Chinese collage, different from the American version. I borrowed styles from different dynasties. I was more interested in abstraction than in landscape. When you’re in the States it’s all about freedom – ‘Show me your style and I’ll make your style work!’ In America you feel you have tons of possibilities. Too many possibilities.”

For Li, the experience of living in a completely different culture only made him feel more Chinese. The creative freedoms enjoyed by artists in America are profoundly antithetical to the traditions of art in China, where – until the advent of so-called experimental art – artists believed implicitly in the need to follow rules. Calligraphy, the quintessential Chinese art form, imposed the most precise strictures upon practitioners, while many saw copying the work of past masters as a lifelong project. For more than a thousand years the forms of art were relatively inflexible. Variety arose from whatever expressiveness an artist could inject into a hackneyed subject.

In his catalogue essay, curator Wu Hongliang, explains that the “risky” title of Li’s show springs from an account by Tao Gu, of the Northern Song dynasty, of a Tang dynasty doctor named Meng Fu, who was often called to the palace as a physician. Meng was so impressed by the sumptuous décor of the Court that he set up a small chamber in emulation. A visitor reported: “You need stay in this chamber only for a moment, and you will be enchanted by the gold and be inebriated on the paper.” Hence the Chinese-language title made up of the four characters for ‘paper’, ‘inebriated’, ‘gold’, and ‘enchanted’.

Li Huayi, ‘Longevity’ (2016)

These words refer to the extravagance of the Court and Meng’s attempt to grab a piece of this ostentatious lifestyle. The chamber suggests someone drunk with luxury, a fair description of the lifestyle enjoyed today by of the super-rich in China and other parts of the world. Never has the world been so awash with money, even if much of it – as the rage for bitcoin demonstrates – seems to be imaginary. Today’s billionaires are so rich they struggle to find ways of spending their wealth, finally turning to art as both a valuable commodity and a status symbol.

In this sense Li Huayi is commenting ironically on the commodity status of his own paintings that sell for high prices and are constantly in demand. In particular he is referring to a set of large screens covered in gold foil, upon which he has painted detailed images of trees and fragments of landscape. While he can only be pleased with his booming popularity, Li wants to let us know that the “luxury” aspect of his work is merely a side-effect of a deep meditative engagement with remote locations in provinces such a Sichuan and Guizhou, and his intensive study of the Old Masters.

The ‘commodity’ Li is producing is distinguished by its scarcity, because each painting is the fruit of long, drawn-out labours with the finest of brushes. It would be impossible to mass-produce such work or farm it out to assistants. Such a limited output necessarily increases the sense of a painting as something rare and valuable.

Li is conscious of what it means to be a contemporary artist painting in a style more readily associated with the masters of the Southern Song (420-478 CE). Critically speaking, a certain degree of irony is unavoidable. If a western artist painted in the style of a medieval master it would be considered pastiche, no matter how skillful the execution. This may not (yet) be the case for a Chinese ink painter, as the medium’s strong relationship to the past constitutes such a large part of its identity. Nevertheless, in a milieu so focused on the rapid changes of the present day, ink inevitably conjures up a feeling of nostalgia for a much simpler world. The irony springs from the impossibility of recapturing such a world.

Most people probably respond to Li’s work in the same way that viewers must have responded to a great painting in ancient times: with awe and admiration. Those craggy peaks, twisted trees, mists and clouds still make a deep impression on our imaginations. They encourage the same meditations on eternity and transience, on the seen and not-seen, that we find in the classics of Chinese landscape painting.

The appeal of such work, for those who take time to stand and absorb all the nuances, may be intrinsic to the nature of the human mind. Edmund Burke’s 1756 reflections on the Sublime and the Beautiful are as relevant today as they were in the Romantic period:

“Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger,” wrote Burke, “that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” (Part 1, Section VII)

Burke would have had no difficulty applying his ideas of the sublime to paintings such as Rising Mist (2014) or Mysterious Valley (2013), where we feel ourselves surrounded by rocks, mists and rushing water, with no clear sense of our own standpoint. All that is solid seems to disappear into the rising vapours, making our footing seem precipitous, with the possibility that a false step might plunge us into the void. To be imaginatively absorbed by this fearful landscape, then to take a step back, is to experience what Burke calls “delight”. In vulgar terms it’s the same frisson one feels when emerging from a gruelling sequence in an action or horror movie.

Li Huayi, ‘Wandering in the Mountains’ (2013)

Burke concentrated on those sensations he felt to be universal and timeless. As every human being can discern the difference between darkness and light, so too should he or she feel the same emotions when confronted with the spectacle of natural forces beyond their control.

Li’s work engages with this question of what may be seen as timeless and universal in art. His paintings strive to step outside of time, or at least to minimize the effect it has on the way we engage with a work. Standing in front of monumental pictures such as Antique-like Beauty in the Cliffs (2012), or Wandering in the Mountains (2013), it’s easy to forget whatever we know about art history or context, and be swept up by the sheer drama. We imagine ourselves standing at some place within the landscape, feeling dwarfed and overwhelmed by the spectacle of untrammelled nature.

All of this is profoundly antithetical to the ideals of classical Chinese landscape painting, which sought an ideal harmony with nature. In philosophical terms painting was conceived as a way of connecting with the Dao – that “path” that in the words of Zhuang Zhou (AKA. Chuang-tzu) (369-286 BCE) cannot be seen, cannot be heard, cannot be formulated, and cannot be named. An artist was thought to draw closest to the Dao in the primal moment of creation, when through a process of contemplation he was able to channel his vital energy – or qi – into a first brushstroke.

Simon Leys (AKA. Pierre Ryckmans) writes that “painting – more specifically landscape painting – constitutes the visible manifestation and the highest incarnation of China’s true religion, which is a quest for cosmic harmony, an attempt to achieve communion with the world.”

Kuo Hsi, an artist of the Song period, viewed the quest for harmony in more prosaic terms, as a vision of peaceful habitation: “There are painted landscapes that one travels across or contemplates; there are others in which one can take a stroll; and there are still others where one would like to stay and live. All these landscapes achieve the level of excellence. All the same, the ones in which one wants to live are superior to the rest.”

Judged by the standard of this bucolic ideal, Li Huayi’s landscapes seem infernal, apocalyptic. No-one could make their home on these barren, craggy peaks in a realm of roaring waterfalls and perpetual mist. It could be argued that Li’s imagery charts a profound disjunction between humanity and nature, a complete lack of cosmic harmony.
Where traditional landscape provides a space of retreat from the world; a fantasy of a peaceful, harmonious existence in tune with the natural world, Li shows us a vision of nature that is hostile or simply indifferent to the human presence.

There are no human figures in Li’s paintings but one presumes that humanity is represented by the gnarled and twisted trees clinging from rocks, dangling upside-down from a ledge or pushing out horizontally from a cliff face. Are we to identify with those trees, holding on tenaciously as nature grows more violent and destructive?

Francis Cheng writes that “In China, landscape painting was not a naturalist art in which man’s presence was reduced or from which he was absent altogether; nor was it an animist art through which man sought to anthropomorphize the external forms of landscape. This art was also not content with merely recording the beauty of certain places that man could contemplate at leisure. That man is not represented in a painting as an actual figure does not mean that he is not there. He is eminently present in the features of nature, which as he experiences or dreams them are nothing other than the projection of his own deeper nature, which is completely pervaded by an inner vision.”

One need not read Li’s works as allegories for climate change, or any other banal and specific issue. His metaphors are much more open-ended. Li is painting a world on the brink, where there is no longer any place that offers escape and sanctuary. His methods may be very similar to those of the old masters who used expanses of mist to create a bridge between mountains and water, between the seen and the not-seen, but he is not merely asking us to lose ourselves in contemplation of those ambiguous vistas.

If we accept Li’s landscapes as a ‘projection of his own deeper nature’, we can only speculate as to the influence of his long residency in the United States. It’s possible to see echoes of Mark Rothko’s numinous abstractions, with their tragic overtones, and perhaps Barnett Newman’s zips, which were associated with the Sublime. His practice of partially concealing a work with another painted screen, as in Lying on Snow (2008) or Episode of Cloud and Water (2010), is another way of disrupting the ‘harmonious’ aspect of a landscape, making us conscious of the artifice involved. One thinks, momentarily, of René Magritte, who demands that the viewer recognize the difference between a pipe and a painting of a pipe. Li invites our imaginative absorption into a landscape, but insists that we recognise it is only an image, not a mystical pathway to the Dao.

Li Huayi, ‘Episode of Clouds and Water’ (2010)

Li is obviously drawn to all the classic paradigms of traditional Chinese landscape painting, but cannot view the world in the same way as his predecessors. During the Qing dynasty the literati painters retreated from the world of politics and power, becoming hermits. During the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution, Li retreated into the circumscribed space of propaganda art, then experienced the perfect freedom of artistic life in the United States. In America he felt both the alienation of the cultural exile and the exhilaration of the prisoner set free. These mixed emotions have found expression in landscapes that are more turbulent than anything produced by the old Chinese masters, but not as gloomy as a late painting by Rothko. Li’s paintings are not at all depressing. They have a luminous quality, a barely constrained sense of excitement or – to use Edmund Burke’s terminology – delight.

In his famous Remarks on Painting, the artist Shih-Tao (1642-1707), emphasised the moral associations of mountains and water. He praised the mountain’s dignity, its spirit and creativity, its harmony and etiquette. He described water in terms of its kindness, purity and constancy. For Li Huayi, a reader of Shih-Tao, the lesson was not lost. In his works, a mountain will display many of the same qualities discussed in the Remarks’: “the boldness it shows in its terrifying drops, the elevation by which it proudly dominates, the vastness it reveals in its massive chaos, the smallness it discloses in its lesser approaches.”

Li’s “fantasies on paper and enchantments in gold” reveal all the boldness of the mountains, but little of the harmony and etiquette. His raging waterfalls and torrents display none of the “kindness” that Shih-Tao associates with the liquid element. If there is a moral dimension to Li’s landscapes it is found in their vision of a world that has lost its sense of duality, forgetting how to balance yin and yang. These paintings engage with an era in which materialism has run rampant, where the pursuit of perfect freedom has led to a fearsome imbalance. Li shows us a vista of nature in rebellion against the many indignities it has endured in the name of progress. One thinks instantly of China’s pollution and overcrowding, but it’s a spiritual malaise that is being charted. The terror and the exhilaration springs from the thought that nature, in its awesome, unstoppable power, will have its revenge.

Li Huayi:Fantasies on Paper and Enchantments in Gold
Suzhou Museum
27 September – 17 December, 2017

Published in Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, Volume 17, Number 3, May/June, 2018