• Artist: Li Jie
  • Critic: Monica Dematté
  • Opening: 16:00 - 18:00 / 23.04.2011
  • Duration: 10:00 - 18:00 / 24.04.2011 - 27.05.2011
  • Address: ANART. 2F, Building 13, M50, Shanghai.

Li Jie is a good painter
Monica Dematté

"Li Jie is a good painter" one day told me M.H, a precious friend who is also one of my favorite painters, with whom I often have good conversations on art. We have a pause. To say that someone is a good painter today seems to be somehow diminishing. "Artist" is a more comprehensive word and has a wider meaning. And, especially, is more suitable to that large group of people who nowadays work in art without creating it with their hands. How would one define someone who does not paint, nor sculpt, nor draws or photographs, but just describes ideas and asks someone else to execute them? Depending on how successful this person is in the media and commercial world, she/he has a good chance to be considered a great artist, mainly because, in my opinion, those who have the power to judge have, in their turn, long lost the ability and the sensibility to appreciate the 'non-conceptual' aspect of an artwork. But this aspect, I strongly believe, is still a very important aspect of making, appreciating and 'feeling' art.

"People here in Beijing told me I am too traditional, they told me that this kind of work won't go, because it is not contemporary". I listen to Li Jie's words in astonishment. I can't believe these kind of categories are still there, in people's mind, in today's China. I say 'still' because I know that, when the so-called contemporary art started to gain attention, everybody was afraid of not being contemporary enough.

Does it make sense? I ask myself. To me, not at all. To be contemporary is not a task; moreover, I don't agree that being contemporary means to be good. It might mean to be 'trendy', but trends pass fast, and I believe artists and their artworks would like to last. Why not wondering about the 'poetic', 'creative', 'unique', 'true', 'authentic' and, why not, even 'skilful' quality of an artwork, instead? Don't these qualities tell more, and more in depth, about an artwork than the definition of 'contemporary'? I think so.

I am not a trendy person, I have never been, and I am not keen on trendy people either. To be trendy is easy for anybody who is intelligent and clever. To achieve depth and to be true to oneself, to have something relevant to express is much more difficult. One has to see things clearly and to work hard to express them in the most suitable way, according to one's ability. One has to face loneliness, and the suspicion, skepticism, stupidity of the world around. One has to insist despite hardship, if one really feels the need to express her/himself. China is now very 'trendy' in the contemporary international art market, and for this very reason it is now more difficult to be oneself in China, as an artist, than it was in the past or, I believe and hope, than it will be in the future. Hopefully, trends will let place to something more durable and more meaningful.

Li Jie paints
Li Jie paints. She spends most of her time painting. I guess she enjoys it, she finds it meaningful. That's why she devotes her life to it. I have not seen the works she has produced before the current series, I imagine she has studied painting and, most likely, Chinese painting, because she masters the brush and the ink well.

When I first saw her works she was still in Luoyang, where she grew up and worked. Her paintings are difficult to photograph, the strokes are so subtle and the ink so pale that only the real works fully reveal their silent, non-spectacular flow.

It has been widely considered to be 'proper' for women painters, both in the East and in the West, to choose flowers and plants as a subject. A 'minor', intimate, domestic theme, suitable for the 'feminine' character. I have often found those vases of flowers painted by amateur female artists boring, obsolete, merely decorative. I might have been wrong in some cases, but I am still convinced about the majority. Li Jie has found inspiration in the vegetal world as well, but her plants are edible. Being a good cook, she must have been captured by the infinite variety of vegetables one can buy in the market, and have had the curiosity to translate them from a three-dimensional, colorful though short lifetime, to an immortal sphere made of grey strokes on a white background. I imagine her on the kitchen table, eyeing the eggplants and the beans she has bought for lunch, suddenly driven away by a need more urgent than appetite, taking out paper and brush, and starting to trace fine line after fine line, fascinated by the subtle elegance of each, lost in pleasure and excitement.

Like in Jesus's famous miracle of the "multiplication of breads and fishes", Li Jie's vegetables proliferate; the original one or two samples are drawn from every viewpoint and juxtaposed as if there were dozens of them. There is an endless abundance of each variety of vegetable, as if, through painting, she could provide enough food for her whole life, or if she was drawing the illustrations for a book of domestic botany.

Reading the titles of her early works I have the chance to review my Chinese lexicon. Pumpkins, carrots, radishes, bitter gourds, eggplants....a whole world is there. At first she keeps varieties separated, and collocates the subjects in the center of the painting, leaving a great deal of empty space around. Dimensions are quite small (45cm x 50cm), and the 'essence' of each vegetable is drawn with smoothness.
Later on Li Jie starts, I imagine, wondering how she can render these vegetables more 'cool', how she can add a conceptual value to them. By then she has decided she wants to spend time on this idea, and moves to Beijing.

Objects' carrousel
The original spontaneity must become something more complex, now that those works become the 'real thing', no longer a hymn to horticulture or to pure fun. Sizes expand, a rich variety of gorgeous vegetables are juxtaposed in the same long scroll (up to four meters). Less empty space is left, dozens of vegetables are either placed orderly side by side or amassed together, although they are spread out in a bi-dimensional space that never tends to attain the third dimension.

At one point Li Jie either must have got bored with the vegetables, or maybe she needed to do some restoration work in her new living space and had to purchase a certain quantity of screws and nails. Whatever the reason might be, she started to draw these objects. The result is very different from the previous: whereas vegetables possess organic forms, each one being very unique, having peculiar textures and rounded lines, men made objects are mainly characterized by straight lines, perfectly geometric forms, and uniformity of appearance. I am quite sure Li Jie has perceived these fundamental differences right away: screws, nails, wires... are amassed in a crowded space that leaves no breath. Here one does not think of the painter's enjoyment, confronted with a colorful amount of beans and tubers; rather, one imagines the drawing process as more similar to an automatism, and this difference resembles the one existing between the work of a peasant, who changes task many times a day, and a factory worker at the assembly line, repeating endlessly the same movement. These amasses of screws, of nails, of bicycle chains, make us think - feel - sense - the obsessive rhythm of working in a factory - be it Luoyang's "First tractor's factory' (where Li Jie was employed in early days) or any other.

The viewer is taken prisoner by a suffocating amass of things, to the point that she/he feels like being swallowed by them. Differently from traditional Chinese painting, where it is the viewer's imagination that makes her/him enter the painting creatively so to 'fill the voids', here we sink in an abyss without space for breath and thought. It is true that both the vegetables and those nails - buttons - screws - wires are part of everyday life. But they allude to very different lifestyles. My personal taste - not contemporary and not trendy, I know - goes for the 'organic' world. The reason is not only ethic but very painterly too: I feel that Chinese brush and ink perform at their best when they trace lines variable in thickness, when they can be used to their greater possibility, that is to portray 'life'.

There are scrolls (this oblong size has become lately the artist's favorite) that contain a great variety of those objects that end up filling everyone's house, necessary or superfluous, disregarding their formal beauty, elegance, quality. We see bottles, slippers, note blocks, brushes, clips... and the feeling is to have been dipped into the very heart of a dumping ground. All of a sudden we are faced with the squalid sloppiness of the objects that populate our houses and engage our eyes daily.

Other paintings' subjects are inspired by more specific items, for instance  electronic-related, such as mobile phones, calculators, computer components. They make me think of the photos taken by some Chinese artists few years ago, although these works obviously go through a very different and more subjective process, the one of translating a sea of solid, concrete objects into fine grey lines that intersect one into the other.

A world of lines
I have been sent the most recent works, those that will be shown in the forthcoming exhibition in Shanghai. I have to sharpen my eyes and twist my neck to examine them in the computer - unfortunately I won't be able to see the original pieces before writing about them. There is one of an impressive size, 80cmX350 cm, entitled 'threads', and  'lines', as in Chinese these two are expressed by the same word, 'xian线'. When specifically referring to drawing, though,  'xian' may become 'xiantiao线条'.

I feel that here Li Jie has regained a more natural and comfortable painting pleasure, as she has looked for any kind of thread or wire she could find in the market, and has then enjoyed the process of adapting her brush to all those different textures. Besides that, the fact that every single line is curved enables the brush, skillfully handled, to fully display its rich expressive possibility. This looks like a jungle, rather than like a rubbish bin: inorganic, 'dead' objects like threads and wires become alive thanks to the supple work of hand and wrist. I much prefer those works where the painterly skills are fully exercised, rather than those where repetitive and stiff items fill every corner to suffocation.

Li Jie has recently created different visual forms, such as one painting (60cm x 130 cm) where she has disseminated buttons along a line in an irregular shape that leaves much emptiness around. It is a rather successful way to combine imagination and automatism.

The 'sofa' and 'quilt' subjects, as far as I can see from the reproductions, do not take much advantage from the traditional Chinese technique of rendering clothes and materials with simple yet forceful brushstrokes. The quilt's wavy surface resembles  mountains finely sketched out of a myriad of fine lines; the more complex the composition, the more effective the visual result.

As a suggestion to the painter, I wish she can chose to pick up the brush in moments when she does it with authentic joy and pleasure, being rapt in the process of following and reproducing the unpredictable fluidity of lines and silhouettes. That lively feeling will then be conveyed through the painting to the eye and soul of the viewer. No need to find an artificial, conceptual justification to this enjoyment.

Vigolo Vattaro, February 12th, 2011