Li Songsong

China Art Archives & Warehouse (CAAW)|艺术文件仓库

If certain photographs are the basis for collective memory, can effacing these images free us from the grasp of history? Li Songsong’s exhibition “Works: 2001–2004” charted his recent evolution as he circles around this central question. Born in 1973, Li is part of a generation of artists who did not experience Mao’s China firsthand but whose work addresses the afterimages of Communist spectacle. Based on archival photographs, Li’s paintings translate well-known moments—Communist Party celebrations, military and diplomatic photo ops—into elegant experiments in disavowal.

Though deploying emblems of China’s recent political history, Li has nothing else in common with the Political Pop painters of the early ’90s. Back then, artists like Wang Guangyi and Yu Youhan reworked iconic images from the Cultural Revolution in a flat, graphic style, often pairing them with symbols of China’s newly burgeoning consumer culture. Over and over again, the Chairman drank Coca-Cola and posed with Whitney Houston: It was agitprop with product placement, and it sold. By contrast, Li’s stylized renderings of revolutionary soldiers and party officials point to the endurance and degradation of these figures within collective memory. His paintings simultaneously engage and dismantle historical images and their attendant ideology. In this way, the works in this exhibition are more accurately linked to Gerhard Richter’s Baader-Meinhof cycle, 1988, and Anselm Kiefer’s “Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom,” a 2000–2001 series of over-painted photographs depicting dilapidated monuments to Mao, overgrown with narcotic poppies and dead roses.

While the meanings of the photographs Li culls are historically overdetermined, his paintings serve to neutralize the pictures’ carefully staged facts. His approach to painting deliberately distances him from the subject matter. Mechanically dividing a single photo into rectangular areas, the artist offsets each segment with variations in hue and tone. Starting at one corner, he paints each part separately, focusing exclusively on the formal elements that comprise each particular fragment. The resulting paintings are familiar but strangely drained of affect.

In Watching the Play, 2004, Li transforms a famous photograph of President Nixon and Jiang Qing (a political live wire who was also Mao’s second wife) into a kaleidoscopic patchwork that blurs the line between mark making and figuration. The viewer’s eyes scan the lush impasto surfaces, caught in the horizontal grooves and thatches of paint. The competing color schemes further denature the image, dividing the figure of Jiang into five parts. Nixon and Jiang are seated side by side, staring expectantly at each other. But behind them, a woman peers out at the viewer; like the photograph, the painting is arranged so that whoever looks at it is positioned as the entertainment. Yet, as Li’s title suggests, the audience is where the real theater is taking place: Nixon and Jiang pose for the camera and then suddenly dissolve into dabs and dollops of paint.

Li’s recent works test the limits of recognition, resting on a precipice where whatever is represented falls apart but is reconstituted by the conditioned eye. Once disassembled by the artist, the subjects of his paintings never quite cohere again. Instead, painting becomes an act of erasure, as the power of the source image recedes, usurped by the artist’s wild brushwork and cool, analytic grids. The result is a confrontation with the past that aspires to become an exorcism.

David Spalding