Interview : Paitings of Li Fang


Li Fang, Autoportrait 2008

©Li Fang, Autoportrait N°3, 219x92cm, (triptyque chacun 92x73cm), Oil on Canvas, 2008

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The paintings of Li Fang look familiar. Yet this familiarity is deeply infused with an intangible, uncanny mood.

Moving away from her well-received depiction of the ephemeral presence of urban passers-by, Li Fang’s recent work concentrates on the more subtle psychological activities of individuals. Based on photos of her family and acquaintances, Li Fang captures her models in daily activities – kids eating ice-cream, a little girl looking at a mirror, a kissing couple, a woman with cosmetic mask, etc. They are our next-door neighbours; they are the faces that we encounter everyday.

However, what interests the artist is not a realistic depiction of these daily activities but hidden emotions that are accidentally set free, betraying their consciousness. The greed in front of an ice-cream, the self-indulgence and narcissism in front a mirror, the self-alienation in a relationship, the instability of identity behind our daily disguise, the cruel unsettling self-scrutiny projected to the viewers. Using large colour blocks and scratchy brushwork, the portraits speak of attitude, trading off physiognomies for personality. In the artist’s words, painting is a distillation process of the very essence of the being to retain nothing but the aura of the individual.

In the series of Jeanne, the triptych Metamorphosis, or even the self-portraits which are on show in the exhibition, the artist employs cosmetic mask which become white and stiffen once dried, thus hindering the bearer from any natural facial expression. However, unlike the Venetian mask, the cosmetic mask fuses with the skin which makes traits discernible and acts as the materialization of the otherwise invisible disguise that we carry everyday. The ambiguity between the concealing effect and the recognizable expression, results in a double play which, on the one hand, triggers all the well-contained emotions and primitive desires of the person; on the other hand, stirs a disconcerted perception on the viewers. By simplifying and distorting her subjects, Li Fang creates intimacy through alienation. Her subjects’ assertive stares, in particular, suggest that her paintings are not actually about them, but the viewer’s own reaction to their perverse circumstances. With deceptive casualness, Li Fang exposes the monstrous capacity belied by “civilized” human nature. These portraits offer no comfort to the viewer, only an unnerving complicity and confusion between the suppressed and the revealed emotions.

Born in the Jiangsu Province and raised in the fast-modernizing China of the 70s and 80s, Li Fang settled down in Paris in 2001 after some years of teaching at the University of Nanjing. Upon completion of her Master’s degree in Paris I – La Sorbonne, Li Fang started a series of new experiments on the subject of Urbanity. Working from her own photos and pictures found in magazine and film archives, her canvases act as sociological studies.

Ever fascinated with the velocity and vitality of metropolitan environments, an important element in shaping Li Fang’s aesthetics is her intuitive, reactive response to the transient urban life and the fluidity of interpersonal relationship. She adapts a highly abstract style of colour blocks which are at once minimalist and sculptural to capture the fleeting sensation of the contemporary society. Her deconstruction of the physiognomies in a painterly manner is designed to confuse the eye. The subtext is primarily motivated by the blurred, shifting and indeterminable nature of identities within an urban context. Her experiments with the layering of faces in the mask series, or the manipulation of the façade-like faces, reveals a new dimension to the onlooker. It seems that Li Fang is leading us to understand how gestures and attitudes acquire visual associations that the mind recognizes before any active reading is required by the eye.

What we see on the canvasses of Li Fang is as psychologically disturbing as it is violently beautiful. Embracing the totality of human experience, Li Fang finds an eternal beauty not in immediate pleasure, but in the timeless gap between the cherished and unspeakable.

Selina Ting for initiArt Magazine
November 2009