Solo exhibition of Li Jikai 李继开

Curators: Selena Yang and Martijn Kielstra
Venue: Canvas International Art
Exhibition Period: 8 March 2008 to 26 April 2008
Supported by: Oooit Art

The campus of Sichuan Academy in Chongqing is surrounded by residential blocks adorned with an abundance of colorful paintings. The two constantly smoking stacks of the adjacent large power plant create a striking visual contrast. On the streets, you’ll see a vibrant mix of students carrying their sketchboards, workers, and street vendors. This is where it’s happening; this is the breeding ground where many of the Chinese artists known in the West received their education. Li Jikai earned his degree here in 1999 from the Department of Oil Painting and later completed his MA in Fine Arts in 2004.

Chinese art critic Zhu Qi is impressed by the visual language developed by this artist. Zhu sees in Li a representative of a new generation that goes further than the major movements we know in modern Chinese art. The first generation had to fight for their freedom, including the Cruelty of Youth group. Later, they were followed by the Scar Painting group. That generation portrayed the significant struggle and pain that had to be overcome. Many of these artists gained recognition in the West through exhibitions like “China Avant-Garde,” which was displayed in various locations in Europe and America in the early 1990s. Zhu refers to Li’s work as representative of a new development that portrays “mini-pain.” This mini-pain is caused by material prosperity and the associated sense of emptiness. Zhu wrote in response to the “Art of post-’70s” exhibition held in Shanghai and Beijing in 2005: “Li Jikai takes the painting of the post-’70s to an in-depth revelation of the internal condition and the nature of self, forming a self-expression for such nature which is unique for his generation.”

In 2006, Li Jikai’s work was showcased at the Qingdao Art Museum in the exhibition “Chongqing Chilis.” This exhibition is a reflection of the versatility and quality that was born at the Sichuan Academy. The exhibition’s name refers to the hot peppers that define the spicy and exciting flavor of food in Sichuan. It signifies that these painters infuse art with exuberant and spicy colors and flavors. The exhibition received substantial attention and positive reviews in China, emphasizing once again that significant developments are occurring in the art world outside of the capital, Beijing.

Two of Li’s paintings, “Yangzi” and “Nighttime Yangzi,” were featured in this exhibition. Both of these paintings from 2006 depict a solitary head floating like a ball on the waves of a river. The head resembles a little pig, and its snout has an almost endearing expression. The Yangzi or the Yangtze River flows through Chongqing, and together with the Yellow River, it forms one of China’s major lifelines. With bold brushstrokes, Li portrays his feelings, a lonely figure as a plaything of the modern life that surrounds and engulfs him.

Li Jikai has found a very distinctive way to capture his world in paintings and, more recently, in sculptures. Typically, a solitary young boy is the central element in his paintings. He considers himself an outsider, more of an observer than a participant in the life unfolding before his eyes. The ever-present large crowds in China, the screaming billboards, and the media bombard him constantly with images. He cannot discern any direction in them that could lead to something meaningful. This excess and aimlessness have reinforced Li’s belief in searching for answers within himself. After all, he understands himself best. In this manner, he attempts to shed all vanity and nonsense and return to his own source, as he puts it; he wants to demonstrate his steadfastness in this way. He uses the freedom offered by his generation in a highly individualistic manner.

Li Jikai doesn’t place much importance on style, and precisely because of this, he has been able to develop a pure and distinctive visual language, which is well-suited to the increasingly liberal spirit prevailing among the youth in China. The loneliness, exacerbated by the “one-child policy,” takes on a more dramatic form in his paintings. The days of large families that once formed the core of Chinese society are gone. Siblings and cousins are becoming increasingly scarce. At school, classmates become the peer group for a young individual in development. At home, both parents and grandparents focus their attention on this one child. This child carries the weight of all their future dreams.

Li Jikai’s art sometimes exhibits a serene quality, with undivided attention to a small reality, which can also be found in the work of Co Westerik in Europe. The full concentration on a solitary figure representing a certain feeling is directly derived from the painter’s own experiential world. Sometimes, he seems almost engulfed by the Yangzi River. At other times, we see him as a lonely boy standing on the globe as if he were the sole living being in the universe. In the painting “Skull” we see a boy holding a box with a skull on it. It may symbolize a schoolboy’s interest in nature. But perhaps there is another meaning behind it, that of a growing boy questioning the status of the long tradition of ancestor worship in China within his generation.

In some of Li’s paintings, I see traces that initially bring to mind Jackson Pollock’s drippings. However, I wouldn’t want to see more than a distant resemblance in these traces. They can be better understood in the tradition of an ancient Chinese painting technique known as “po mo,” or dripping or splashing ink. This technique has been used for centuries, and until the late 1990s, the painter Chang Daqian gave it a very distinct interpretation.

The aforementioned paintings “Yangzi” and “Nighttime Yangzi” have many of these dripping paint traces in the lower portion. Much can be gleaned from them; these are the residual marks of freely dripping paint from the brush. These marks almost reveal the preparation of the painter’s brush, showing the path taken before Li makes the bold brushstroke on the canvas. The grand movement of painting is captured in these traces, and they are now part of the constructed image.

In the painting “Child,” the paint traces run from the eyes of an endearing little figure like tears. Here too, the dripping traces seem to have occurred by chance, but at the same time, they form an essential and significant part of the representation. Li Jikai’s mastery of the technique makes him a sensitive and driven painter. Just as in his visual language, Li Jikai also forges his own path in the technique of painting, making the choices that are crucial for himself. He creates his own world.

The World of Li Jikai, By Lucien van Valen, 2008