Li Songsong chooses contemporary and historical photographs that reflect on the society of his native China, before representing them in paint. But as the Beijing-born painter’s first London exhibition shows, rather than employing Photorealism, the artist roughly constructs these images with squares and rectangles of varying two-tone colours.
Left to right: Li Songsong, 'June', 2012. 210 cm × 300 cm (82-11/16” × 118-1/8”). Oil on canvas. Li Songsong, 'It’s a Pity You aren’t Interested in Anything Else', 2013. 300 cm × 210 cm (118-1/8” × 82-11/16”). Oil on canvas. Li Songsong, 'Forgetting', 2013. 190 cm × 230 cm (74-13/16” × 90-9/16”). Oil on aluminum panel.
The oil is applied in such thick impasto that a painting such as Zhong Nan Hai, which represents a birds-eye view of the eponymous imperial garden, seems almost sculptural in quality. In other works it appears that Li has layered sections of canvas on top of one another, the whole functioning as a frieze of fragments of the found image.
Left: Li Songsong, 'Lu Xun Was Dead', 2012. 120 cm × 120 cm(47-1/4” × 47-1/4”). Oil on canvas. Right: Li Sonsong, 'Zhong Nan Hai', 2011. 350 cm × 180 cm (137-13/16” × 70-7/8”). Oil on canvas. Courtesy Pace Gallery.
But beyond Li’s technical achievements, the meaning of the chosen images becomes prime in the viewer’s mind. A Calvin Klein advertisement, a man in front of a willow-fringed country house, women standing in swimsuits on a beach, a girl in front of a mountainous landscape: what do they represent about China’s culture and history? In an interview with his compatriot Ai Weiwei, the artist admits “painting is rather powerless” in the representation of objective reality.
Perhaps his expressionistic use of paint hints that our understanding of these images is necessarily subjective and complex, shifting in focus like the quadrilaterals across his canvases.
- Li Songsong
is at Pace Gallery London until 9 November 2013.
Sam Phillips is a London-based arts journalist and Editor of RA Magazine