A retrospection of the past 30-odd years of progress of modern Chinese art since the Star Art Exhibition in 1979 reveals a path of constant summarization and revision. The early inclination toward macro ideas of trend, group, and style gave rise to collective art iconographies, often providing (even now) basic elements and theoretical frameworks for historical narration and analysis of social phenomena, which has sustained popularity until now since the 1990s. For most critics, Modern Chinese art, or modern Chinese avant guard art, is primarily a collective political and social phenomenon after the Cold War or the Cultural Revolution, instead of a collection of individual exploration and creation of artists (Blaze your own way --- comment on modern Chinese artists by Wu Hong, Wu Hong). In such context, we find Li Nanfeng quite unlike other artists. The artist, a graduate from the Department of Graphic Art of China Central Academy of Fine Arts in the early 1990s, like many arts of drastic and critical spirit of that age, was once an active player in the fight against official art and political pop art, and doubtless one of the contributors to the then experimental art trend and style. During the three or four years after graduation, Li lived among artists. Then in the middle of the 190s, for some unknown reason, he left Beijing for the Republic of Seychelles, went again to Europe to study later, and then moved to New Zealand. In nearly 50 years of pursuit, Li, removed from Chinas social soil, and gradually moving away from Chinese style political and social images, has formed his most individualistic and creative features ---- now his art has hardly anything to do with politics or society, and he has shifted his attention from commenting on current politics in a critical tone to first-hand experience of this land. In contrast to modern Chinese art charged heavily with social responsibility and burden, this complicated transformation seems like a living negative and ironic case.
The 1990s can be rightfully called a period when modern Chinese art entered a socialization process. Li, a passionate young artist then, made a choice seemingly like most other peers, which was in fact quite different. On the one hand, he spared no time studying modernism that had been popular in the West in the first half of the 20th century, crazy over bizarre expression methods and actively emulating German expressionism, and on the other hand, he paid equal attention to the critical expression form of modern art, as proved by photos remaining now in which he treated political leaders in comic images. Back then, his art conformed to the critical trend of that time. And he was an early blazer.
I feel acutely what criticism means to Li Nanfeng in the early years of his art career. This term has enormous and incredible magic power. As we must remember, remains of collective political and social phenomena after the Cultural Revolution were the object of attack by artists dissatisfied with the current situation then. And in the art community, this object meant conventional artists whose positions and employment were guaranteed by the state power, or artists producing paintings serving as monuments. Behind criticism lies surely some power struggle, which unfolds closely around works of art in the art field. To put it properly, rising artists must have a critical spirit before creating some complete work. To their mind, those happy and positive characters created during the Cultural Revolution were the first target of criticism, and the so called reflection of the scar art was also regarded by them as an improvement in terms of form. They, picking up the sharp weapon of liberating the personality of artists, had no scruple to express their feelings and speak out, which gradually became a trend of criticism in the field of art, including social speech and media which were interconnected and extended infinitely. It was an age unprecedented in the history of Chinese art. Those artists armed with this weaponry of criticism, most of them not working for regular art organizations or government agencies and unrelated to the authority and guarantee of such organization system, soon mastered, or shared half, to say the least, of the leadership in the art community.
Li, fully aware of the existence of gaps for criticism in his age, put that idea into practice. His pink series figure paintings and portraits of political figures are all characterized with uglification and caricature, to some degree, quite close to the corresponding Chinese image known to Westerners soon afterward, always with cynical aggressiveness. I believe that aggressiveness comes from some community moods, but for artists, such aggressiveness means glory as nonconformists. Li is no longer proud of his works of that time, thought he still admits that the existing great masters won full victories in the power struggle in the art community back then and are still leading the tide of the art world. For him, however, small landscape works in the same period created in post impressionism is more inclined to arouse his memory. Unlike the pink series, thought they dont look so complete, the unrestrained strokes and his love for Beijing lanes embodied in these works allows him some soul communication, a tendency toward growing individualistic personality. I wonder if this inclination toward personalization in painting means a chose of art preference, as in an interview he once told me that he had realized the crisis of the mission for modern art to criticize official art. When the position of political pop art is decided by the media and art businessmen, the political and social nature of art will soon become something to furnish the idea of the critical nature, which in fact has lost his former role and turned into a self-defense weapon used to seize authority. The establishment of a dominating system, in his words, is the fatal shortcoming of aggressive art. Then, his preference toward small landscape paintings is most likely his conscious choice. I know well that he uses cross-like shapes to signify wire poles in small landscape paintings of Beijing lanes. This is meaningful: during the student strike he held a glaring cross to appeal; in his woodcut works, society, politics and the cross, also appear as elements pointing to something; then these crosses in these landscape paintings of peaceful lanes must mean something.
In 1993, Li left Beijing for the remote Republic of Seychelles. For some unknown reason, he has always refused to look back on that decision, or to analyze that period of his history when he moved from the Republic of Seychelles, New Zealand and Europe. I have realized that this analysis may be something he has been trying to escape. As far as I know, he had done trade in Seychelles, living by the Western middle-class standard, and later, expelled by the local policy, suffered a fatal loss in a suit against the local government; then he moved to New Zealand, and between 2002 and 2006, suffering from spasmic melancholia, he nursed his disease in hospital in Beijing for over a year, and became more diligent on creation after his recovery. In 2008, he became Christian and was baptized in New Zealand. In 2011, guided by a Buddhist master, he got his new name Li Nanfeng (he was formerly named Li Jun) and tried settling down in Changzhou Island, Guangzhou. What I want to say here is that, if we study Li Nanfeng and his work in conventional historical views, we certainly can regard his experience in this period as an important source of logic for his works, and then he will be a typical case of experientialism. We may get some richer understanding of him by putting him in some bigger historical context and life experience, but it may mean the ignorance of the possibility of separation of the art and the artists life. Judging from either his life history points or his existing works of pure expression, the artist himself is devoted to creating a completely new self. When starting a round of creation overseas, when depicting portraits with full and thorough strokes, depressing and chaotic scenery, and when producing large quantities of manuscripts in a casual and unrestrained manner, he is starting consciously a life above any historical background, with no trace of being a victim or the regret of losing his middle-class life. The difference is that this time he has finally owned his own studio to hold his exhibition, and this new art life has increased his creation zeal. Maybe he has successfully extricated himself from historical shadows and transcended his ego. Now in his landscape works woods begin to show aligned symbolic crosses, slightly modified and mysterious.
Though Li is a baptized Christian, I still dont know whether the frequent appearance of the cross in his recent years work has something to with his strongly dramatic life. For all that, I still have no intention to trace his life story, as the plot cant represent the core of his work, which, instead, is doubtless concentrated in the free expression of his disposition, and the dialectical water and ink effect highlights his work. From his works Scenery with Crosses and the Red Edged Human Body I seem to feel his pursuit for a sense of chaos and mystery, suggesting the artists sense of loneliness and estrangedness. I, however, have always felt that that touch of loneliness has a more penetrating force in the serial portraits of Michael Jackson. I think that is the courage and loneliness removed from this world. Maybe he will smile meaningfully, like a general walking alone in a deep dark cave. Obviously, such loneliness seems approachable to others. I recall a line by King David the poet: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death , I will fear no evil, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me (Psalm 23:4, the Old Testament). In the Bible, You here mean Jah who doubtless represents the determined belief of multitudes of believers facing fear in reality. Such belief is equally important to an artist. When faced with dangers and misunderstanding, the artist fears no harm for he has a firm belief with himself. Though lonely, the artist is confident. Such confident loneliness leads us to believe that the mystery and profundity of the work of Li identify with the value of Michael Jackson.
I think Li pays equal attention to free and smooth expression, as well as expressing a sense of timeless and spaceless loneliness. Despite his freedom in expression form, Li still has to face a strong tradition --- the use of water ink and China paper. Perhaps he thinks the restriction lies not in the material and tool, so his work still oozes a strong unrestricted personality and determined will. And he has even given up the brush tones and bone lines in traditional Chinese painting. Then I know that what he wants to solve is not the issue of style and method in form. Therefore, he has broken down the boundary between genres of painting, and it is why we call his creation water ink works instead of traditional Chinese paintings. To our delight, he has cleverly extricated himself from the awkward situation of Chinese image currently popular, passionately creating ink and wash chaos --- to create a blending harmonious image using ink, wash, and China paper. Then a dynamic state has occurred in this chaotic world. If we have to express movement (including the movement trace of the soul) with ink and wash, we have to control the nature of water and ink, change their properties, and this is a requirement for expression precision. And that necessarily leads to the trap of expressionism, where Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky was convinced that human moods dont have to be restricted by conventional forms and should be allowed to be expressed at will, whereas Piet Cornelies Mondrian might calmly and reasonably express his feelings conforming to some existing rule. Though he is obviously inclined toward the former, the reason for his success in avoiding being indulged in the pleasure of expression is that he not only notices the limitation of expression of moods, but he does not shy away from the experience in reality. Instead, he observes this living existence, not so peaceful, with his own soul. And here lies his exceptionality.
As mentioned just now, Li pays no particular attention to ink and wash as special symbols to convey traditional culture, but his free expression and use of imagery has something magically identical to the spiritual pursuit of traditional Chinese painting. Of course, we have no direct evidence that Li trained regularly in traditional Chinese painting. Instead, the only seen ink and wash style is more inclined toward the Western expressionistic painting taste. However, this conclusion drawn by analyzing images has directly and roughly shown the understanding and heritage of so called modern art by Li. For him, the first thing is for modern art not to bind expression of personality. What he advocates in art language is to express personality by resorting to some proper form in a free, direct and strong manner. Such expression process may be exciting and effective for beginners. For artists of some understanding, however, to some degree, the indulgence in personality expression conceals the concise and imagery method in treating feelings in paintings created by traditional Chinese painters. This kind of compromising forward attitude was adopted by modern school artists, such as Tan Huamu, Guan Liang, Ding Yanyong, and etc, who studied overseas in the yearly 20th century. In fact, it may be said that Li shares the same attitude and methods with great masters of the last century --- a passionate, individualistic, and the expression form blended with the latest Western imagery, and their initial pursuit of the modern (postmodern) trendy and most direct departure from the current art situation. This logic has been emulated and experimented by numerous contemporary artists. But only few gifted artists have managed to integrate the Western form with the classical Chinese spirit and mix them into a completely new individualistic language. Then the road and choice taken by Li has some value of prediction. In the words of sir E.H.Gombrich, Most Western artists are obsessed with resolving the issue of art instead of expressing their own personality (The Logic of Vanity Fair, E.H.Gombrich). This quote doesnt mean my denial of Lis individualistic language and unique subject matters, and that is a style that makes people feel greatly sad for its power and chaos in expression. Should he merely indulges himself in this expression of ultimate conquering power, then this awful pleasure in personal feelings would extend infinitely, and the value of the artist would be limited by individuality, independence, closeness, and secretness, which means a negative attitude in the art world, making it hard for new sources of thought to appear.
I have talked so much fore the mere analysis of the creation logic of Li Nanfeng, which leads to the conclusion that: either the chaotic and profound images under his brush, or his exploration that seems to have nothing to do with the skills used in imagery expression, they show that he is charged with heavy responsibility. In terms of both his own moods and the macro art world, he looks like a walking Nazirite with a cross on the back, only that he is determined to walk down this road of loneliness. At this point, I am compelled to reason out the thought behind his self cultivation.
Just as I mentioned just now, analyzing Lis thought source based on his life history may bring us richer information, but it might be attained only at the cost of ignoring the artists effort to divorce reality from imagination. And the artists avoidance of his history in a deeper sense means his refusal to identify his work with history. To show respect for the artists will, I can only attempt to analyze his deeper pursuit from the form and subject matter of his work. And it is also because that the most direct impression of his work is a kind of unconscious expression state --- a nearly primitive expression of emotions, it seems that I have first to touch on the idea of human consciousness. Whether it is Enst Cassirers creation theory about symbolic animals, the two fundamental issues of ethics --- the will and morality put forward by Arthur Schopenhauer, the unconsciousness theory raised by Freud and Marlos, or the heroic impulsion theory of Becker, they all point to the most primitive impulsion that makes us human. And their commonality is doubtless the emphasis of human subjective unconsciousness, which runs counter to Marxist philosophy. I am not so ignorant as to have these giants contend in this short essay. But for the purpose of analyzing the artist, it is more convenient and proper to use Arthur Schopenhauers theory of Will and Beckers theory of heroic impulsion.
I believe that both Arthur Schopenhauers theory of will and Beckers theory of heroic impulsion have a great deal with the active engagement in practical careers. Does I intend to do what I want mean that the will is free? Arthur Schopenhauers answer to this is No. He thought desires could be attributed to internal and external causes, and the latter cause are better agents. In other words, the appearance of a will necessarily gets external causes involved, so the will is not free (On the Freedom of the Will, Arthur Schopenhauer). Because the will is not free, then the human heroic impulsion occurs (Of course, Becker expounds on heroic impulsion by starting with human inborn fear of death) (The Denial of Death, Becker). The nature of many trying to change the existing environment is to seek self redemption by doing so. In the classical age, God had to be trusted with such self salvation, and only way to self redemption is by believing in God and confessing your original sins. It was only after the Renaissance, man began to gain other means to achieve self redemption. According the logic of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber, since the religious reform, man has been invested with a life-long duty, the meaning of a certain labor field has inevitably become the earthly outcome of religious ethics, justifying believers engaging in worldly activities. Or we can believe that man believes in God through another channel --- doing unspiritual affairs. The opening of this path must first obtain Gods tacit approval. Then the role of religious movement leaders, say Luther, became exceptionally important, as they were doubtless Gods messenger. I dare not believe that God will not modify his will.
But as regards the religious reform after the Renaissance, man has obtained Gods applied consent to engage actively in worldly affairs. Furthermore, it is a necessity to achieve self salvation through self Nazaritism, and the only way to become a devout believer of God. In that case, those modern artists, critical inheritors of the past and present situation, I believe, are a special group actively pursuing worldly values, and somehow subtly connected with the spirit of capitalism in their profession. Artists during the Cultural Revolution were nearly crazy in collecting Gold glorification images in European classical paintings, and the only purpose was to attempt to better devote themselves to the political deification engineering and private religion. The existence of numerous red, bright and light images showed the savior is with us. Maybe the reason why Artists then could create these Utopian sights with an innocent conscience was that they were firmly convinced that devout believers of God would be redeemed, and they failed to repress their inner agitation. Say the bliss creator in We (a dystopian novel by Yevgeny Zamyatin) who regards others happiness dialectically. With no political power but wonderful pictures, he is able to convince people of the political views and life attitude he advocates, and make artists holding different views and in a peripheral stance feel shame for being nonbelievers of God. Later, shortly after the appearance of the gap of reality criticism, those artists with different views, who hadnt had enough time to digest the essence of the so called post modernism, could hardly wait to embellish their pursuit of free expression, so much as they even willfully believed that God had changed his will, allowing species in the earthly world to commit themselves to earthly disasters, they questioned God and put forward plans to change the reality. Those artists with different views later turned into what we call representative modern artists. Like Luther, they were transmitters of Gods new policy and line, and heroes of a new age. Finally, these heroes deconstructed peoples idea of the original holiness and authoritativeness of museums by means of full-scale occupation of exhibition spaces. In a word, through a combination of capital, media and the policy of offering amnesty and enlistment to rebels, they began to use altisonant and seemingly caring words and new formula to calculate the happiness of the public (formerly the people), as well as the future of art. I want no longer waste time proving the autocracy of these artists. This already suffices. I must keep a clear head to shift the subject to Li Nanfeng.
The charm of Li lies in his lack of purpose, unlike numerous heroes in modern art who regard it their duty to save more individuals. In contrast, the numerous repressive and strongly expressive cross scenes, the red-edged human bodies in a chaotic and helpless state, and the neurotically provocative cross-turned manuscripts, all this unconscious expression of the real feeling of his surroundings and experiences is more likely to arouse sympathy. I cant ignore the zeal in his temperament. Here,
a persons value and action, in a tone of blurry mysticism and pessimistic existentialism, show themselves throughly. It seems that nobody can restrict the impulsion of an expressionist. However, Lis soul is not floating --- an equally great number of small watercolor painting with bright sun, playing colors, and smooth strokes, demonstrate that he is seeking for a pure land for his soul at the same time, and his kindness gives us a sense of infinite security. These small watercolor paintings, showing no inferiority to his big works in depth, is a farewell to this victimized world and return to the quiet pond of his soul, where he has the chance to peep through the narrow gap between the hell and heaven, hoping to see a beam of sunshine. One of the main reasons why I ignore the greatness of heroes is that their subjective initiative is most likely extreme hypocrisy. In comparison, Lis indirect warning for me to pay attention to the souls real experience is so thought provoking!
Here lies the charm of the expressive art. It is really hard for me to judge Li work with philosophical words or by ethic criteria as art usually is off limits to such interpretation. The artist is unrestricted by heart, temperament, or will, nor is he affected by distractions, nor is he valued by ethics. To his mind, there is no such things as greatness, nobleness or ultimateness, among people, as the experience of each individual has completely equal value. I think the case of Li will finally lead to the old subject on the individual value and actual performance. Being an active worldly doer, or being a lone virtue practitioner, this has always proved to be a paradox and confusion in the life of an individual. In the final analysis, people who value wisdom all face the problem of salvation from this world, and Lis experience has provided us the possibility to solve it. I am wonder the expulsion of Adam from the heaven described in Paradise Lost by Milton shows that from the every beginning God has given man the wisdom to save himself in this earthly world. And angel has also told Adam:
With your practice,
Combined with your knowledge, and
Your faith, virtues, patience, temperance,
And love, called later
Benevolence, the soul of all other things,
Youll not leave unhappy
This paradise, and in your heart,
Here is still another paradise of more bliss.
Suppose the paradise corresponds to the bright reality we are aspiring to, then when we are disappointed at what we have been long expecting for, the angels propitiation offers us this comfort: With practice, self control, and benevolence, your inner heart will become a new and more cheerful paradise. Now I can be bold enough to approve Lis avoiding talking about his past, because it is no longer so important to him as well as others, no matter how it had become his paradise and his regret ofter its loss. For the present, this imaginary paradise created in art holds more value to him. It is the ultimate logic behind his divorcing his life from the art world. Anyway, man really has the wisdom to create an ideal world, and we should be proud of this!
Exhibition planner of Guangdong Museum of Art
Written in Xiaozhou Village, Guangzhou
June 12, 2012
编辑： 艺术家 本文来源：Beauty of the cross — art experience of Li Nanfeng