Interview : LI Fang


LiFang 05.01.2008 paris chacun 130x81cm huile 2008

© LiFang 05.01.2008 paris chacun 130x81cm, huile sur toile, 2008

閱讀中文版本
Click here for an review by initiArt Magazine

LF - Li Fang
ST - Selina Ting for initiArt Magazine

Touch of the time

ST: When one looks at your paintings, one feels energy and vitality. There is also the employment of large colour blocks which gives a strong touch of the time, of the epoch.

LF: I think to capture the spirit of our time is a challenge to every artist, but also a mission imposed by each epoch to its artists. As an artist, my concern is to represent the mentality and spirit of my contemporaries through a personal artistic language.

ST: This is what you did in the series Passers-by which you started in 2006. Why are you so fascinated with the passers-by? What do they stand for you?

LF: The Passers-by are the reflection of a city, like a mirror or a micro-society, if you want. Their ephemeral presence, or the passing, represents to me the rapidity, the constant rhythmic changes of a crowd in an urban space. It’s full of vitality but also of ambiguity, because at the core of it, is a strong desire of self-pursuing and self-effacing. Also, the alienation and the indifference among these anonymous entities are the signatures of our time. My paintings evoke these familiar situations which seem to be invisible to us in our daily routine.

ST: Over the last 5 to 7 years, there are changes in subject but the brushwork seems to be the same.

LF: Movement is an important element in my artistic conception and perhaps the most obvious and immediate in terms of visual impact. The sense of movement is conveyed through the large blocks of paint posed on the canvas. Such execution resembles to the grouping of pixels in the formation of a digital image. When an image gradually emerges from millions of pixels, it is a sort of movement in itself. Besides, to represent our present life situation with digital visual effect is very justifiable. I didn’t consciously keep the brushwork. It’s more a need in the representation.

ST: Normally, this kind of colour blocks gives the impression of heavy and static, but in your paintings, they are working on the opposite. How did you manage it?

LF: Yes. In fact, in traditional paintings, colour blocks are employed to create a sculptural effect which is voluminous and stable. For the Expressionists, they are used to express strong and vigorous emotions. On the contrary, I use light and bright colours, smooth strokes and visible direction of brushwork to give a new sensation of colour blocks, that of lightness, movement and vibration.

ST: Over the last 5 to 7 years, there are changes in subject but the brushwork seems to be the same.

LF: Movement is an important element in my artistic conception and perhaps the most obvious and immediate in terms of visual impact. The sense of movement is conveyed through the large blocks of paint posed on the canvas. Such execution resembles to the grouping of pixels in the formation of a digital image. When an image gradually emerges from millions of pixels, it is a sort of movement in itself. Besides, to represent our present life situation with digital visual effect is very justifiable. I didn’t consciously keep the brushwork. It’s more a need in the representation.

ST: Normally, this kind of colour blocks gives the impression of heavy and static, but in your paintings, they are working on the opposite. How did you manage it?

LF: Yes. In fact, in traditional paintings, colour blocks are employed to create a sculptural effect which is voluminous and stable. For the Expressionists, they are used to express strong and vigorous emotions. On the contrary, I use light and bright colours, smooth strokes and visible direction of brushwork to give a new sensation of colour blocks, that of lightness, movement and vibration.

ST: That’s why we feel the certainty, the confidence and the energy of these “walkers”. We project a very positive image of ourselves once we are in the public space, the social arena. This is a very 21st century attitude. It’s true that your paintings are more about attitude than details. Although they are portraits, they are not figurative, their faces are blurred; their clothes are reduced to fabrics. We see their silhouette and we feel their attitude. There is room for imagination between abstract and figurative in your work.

LF: This is also what I am really interested in. I use colour blocks and lighting to deconstruct the physicality of the body and to reduce its volume. At the same time, the fluidity and diffusion of the colour blocks blur the boundary and the relation between several images. This blurring effect consciously induces a spectator into imagination. The space between abstraction and figuration is delicate.

ST: Simplification plays an important role, once the details are eliminated, what left is the essential, and this is the reduction and concentration at the same time, like the minimalists, less is more.

LF: I like minimalist. I know precisely what I wish to transmit onto my canvas and I felt strongly for it. The essence is to capture the aura, not the expression, not even the emotion, but the aura. This is the key to my paintings.

Li Fang, Autoportrait No3, 219x92cm triptyque chacun 92x73cm Huile sur toile, 2008

©Li Fang, Autoportrait No3, 219x92cm (triptyque chacun 92x73cm) Huile sur toile, 2008

The Mask in Portrait

ST: The portraits series that you have recently executed focus more on the hidden mental activities of the persona.

LF: The portraits are more about my family and my acquaintances. I started this series in 2008. At that time, I felt an urge to draw people’s facial expression from a psychological perspective. In fact, the bodily gesture of the passers-by and the facial expression of the portraits are intertwined.

ST: Did you invent the masking effect on the treatment of the faces?

LF: No. I put a layer of soft starchy mask on the face, then take a picture. It’s a kind of mask that often used in beauty salons. It’s green when it’s wet and white when it’s dry.

ST: Where does the idea of using mask in your portraits come from?

LF: Because masks are our protective disguise. The mask in my work is neutral; there is no moral or value judgment in it. Unlike the Italian mask, mine are the masks that hidden inside everyone. I try to materialize these masks. The face is still the same face; the skin is still the same skin, however, the sentiments are no longer withheld. The hidden true face is finding its way out.
The first group of portraits in my work is the self-portraits. It started with the same masks. When I looked at the mirror after putting the beauty salon mask on my face, I saw a stranger. The feeling is very uncanny and horrible. I believe this is not a problem unique to me but a common situation for everyone. When we looked at our reflection on the mirror, something inevitable but undesirable emerged. To paint oneself is not the same as to paint the others. Because I don’t know what feeling I project. So, when painting self-portrait, it’s more about attitude, the immediate, direct attitude that one sees.

ST: What’s strange is that when we are aware of being photographed or painted, we would be more conscious of ourselves, more in control. But with the mask, which is rigid once dried, we are less concerned with ourselves, feeling covered and therefore, hidden. As what you said, the mask is neutral; we would be more relaxed when we are less occupied with ourselves.

LF: Sometimes we will see the true self that is unknown to ourselves. Such as in the triptych Metamorphose (2008), it’s a bit dramatic, like a romance, which reminds us of the Chinese classic romance Butterfly Love. The metamorphosis is not biological but psychological; it’s the chemical of love that change one’s personality. The self-portrait at the centre is a depiction of someone confronting the self, a kind of self-scrutiny. The expression is stringent, sad and contemplative, unpredictable.

ST: The expression reminds me of Kafka, and the last one looks like the face of a horse or other animal.

LF: Kafka is one of my favorite writers but I did not think of him while working on this painting. I always see animal’s expression on human face, just as sometimes animals would have human expressions as well.

ST: Masking is also a way of simplification; the result can be very primitive. This is what happens in the series of Jeanne. The distortion of the body and the face become very uncomfortable, even disturbing, to the spectators. At the same time, one is allured by the unsettling, intriguing treatment. The longer one observes the painting, the more perplexed one becomes.

LF: Simplification is a means to distill the internal and the eternal. Simplification is not to economize the executive or to simplify the emotions but to reach a reserved or even ambiguous status of emotion. This emotion is embedded with certain attitude and psychological determination which arouse the spectators’ curiosity to study the persona and to enter into his/her world. This process is completely voluntary. There is no imposition, no pressure. The painting can look calm, but the closer one gets to it, the stronger the feeling is stirred and the more intense the emotions become.
The series Jeanne focuses on the contradictory personality of the person. That’s why I distorted her image, her haircut, and the proportion. Each portrait in the series depicts her capricious mental activities. Just like what she said, that each portrait looks so different, but they are all truly about her. She found this resemblance frightening. Jeanne is a Parisian with Chinese blood. She grew up in a rather traditional Chinese family. I always see an image of a genuine Chinese from the last century in her. When I painted her, I unconsciously associated her with ancient Chinese courtesan statuette. Therefore, I emphasized her round face and slant shoulder in the treatment of her images. I also chose the light green as the background for her pink top.

Li Fang, Jeanne N°1-N°4, dimensions varies, huile sur toile, 2008

©Li Fang, Jeanne N°1-N°4, dimensions varies, huile sur toile, 2008

ST: While the portraits of adult have a cheerful and creamy hue, that of children portraits tend to be solemn and gloomy. Why?

LF: I chose the colour scheme and light treatment of classical paintings for the portraits of children. Focal point lighting exposes their facial expression entirely: self-admiration in front of a mirror, the greed in front of an ice-cream, a gimmick of mischief, infantile melancholy, etc.. The warm and gloomy hue gives a contrast to their liveliness and mischievousness and creates a mysterious atmosphere. Whereas, the emotion transmitted through the images is more vigorous, heavy and sophisticated. The attitude of the persona commands the atmosphere of the whole painting. Therefore, I prefer light and relaxing colours to give contrast. Color is always in service of the mood.

LiFang, Jules Louis, 130x89cm, huile sur toile, 2009

©LiFang, Jules Louis, 130x89cm, huile sur toile, 2009

From the Void to Landscape

ST: What about the evolution from emptiness to suggestive background to landscape?

LF: The early series of passers-by have figures suspended in empty background. This is to suggest certain universality. Then, the background features some iconic landmark to give a personality of the specific location, like to suspend the passer-by in that specific environment at that precise moment: a young couple passed by Pompidou Centre, two young boys at a Parisian crossroad, etc. As such, they assume an identity and become a real person that exists among the crowd. After that, the background completely depicted and localized. Although they are real spot somewhere in different cities, I purposely melt it into the air and sunlight with colour blocks, brushwork and lighting. I like the ambiguity, the blur and the uncertainty.

ST: Is the Lotus series the only landscape painting you have made so far?

LF: The Lotus series is a very special group in my paintings. It was in 2008, when I visited China again after 4 years of absence. My feeling is complete newness and strangeness everywhere I went to. These gigantic lotus are several meters tall. They are planted along the Qinhuai River in Nanjing, a city that is at the same time familiar and alien to me. On both sides of the river are these ultramodern luxurious villas. Amidst a scene of prosperity and exaggerated optimism is a highly artificial atmosphere, fake, hollow and vulgar. The lotus, which symbolizes integrity and dignity in Chinese culture, cannot be exempted. The background becomes the indispensable context for the lotus, which becomes a landscape.

Li Fang, Beijing 2008, 195x130cm, huile sur toile, 2008.

©Li Fang, Beijing 2008, 195x130cm, huile sur toile, 2008.

ST: What about the Beijing in 2008? This is the first time that I saw you painting something very Chinese. Why did you paint this one? Any emotions, reflections on the social, political or identity aspect?

LF: This is my impression of Beijing during my 2008 China trip. This kind of “very Chinese” scenery is everywhere in China. I am very sensitive to it. On this painting is a peasant taking a pause after hard-work. He is smoking quietly, modesty in front of a huge propaganda billboard. The proud and persistence of the imposing soldiers depicted in the propaganda is a strong contrast to this humble, unnoticeable peasant worker. Such a scene is banal but it stimulates us to question the social development in modern China.

ST: Thank you very much.


About the Artist
Li Fang was born in Jiangsu (China), lives and works in Paris since 2001. Graudated from Université Paris 1 – Panthéon Sorbonne (Diplôme d’Etudes Approfondies en Arts Plastiques) and Najing Institute of Art d'Art (MFA).
Her personal exhibitions include Regardez-Moi !!, curated by Selina Ting, 2009 Paris; Galerie Sinitude, Paris (2008), Kips Gallery, New York, USA (2008), Galerie Gastaud, Clermont-Ferrand, France (2007), Body in movement, Nuts gallery, Paris (2006).