As a general rule I avoid absolutes because there simply are very few artists creating work that is truly and completely unlike the efforts of their peers. However the young Chinese artist Li Songsong has cultivated a style that is so utterly his own that I feel capable of writing the forbidden sentence: Nobody paints like Li Songsong. It’s not his subject matter that distinguishes him. Many painters work with imagery that is representational and largely historic. Nor is it his process; he works from photographs. It is the fact that he paints in a mind blowingly thick impasto and still manages to render legible figurative work. It’s a good thing this show is up all summer; I would recommend it to every painter in town.
The fact that Li’s first show in the United States is in Pace’s flagship space sets the bar pretty high. The only other Chinese artists Pace has in their stable (Zhang Xiaogang and Zhang Huan) are both part of the first generation of contemporary Chinese artists, are both already in the MoMA’s collection, and have already sold at auction for ungodly sums of money. Li, born in 1973, has no such accolades. By these standards he might yet be emerging, or at most approaching mid-career status.
Li’s paintings are big. The largest at Pace — Pig Years (2010) — is nearly seventeen feet wide. Li breaks down his images into squares and rectangles of various shapes and sizes, each of which has a color agenda all its own. His palette is mostly muted and subtle, though with such an expansive variety that his canvases can seem like faded quilts. Up close nothing is legible but deep gouges and gravity-defying gobs of paint, like some kind of quixotically crafted topography. It takes some distance before an image becomes apparent.
Li’s subject matter is heavy. A pile of dead pigs, an execution in a forest, a solar eclipse, a grenade, a public enemy, a fighter jet, a person attempting to escape a burning plane, a very nervous looking couple huddled over a bike. Whatever specific historical contexts these photographs might have held is unclear, though the feeling of brutality seems to permeate everything. Even his paint handling has an element of this attacking force. It may not look like German Expressionism, but it feels like it.
What allows Li’s paintings to function so well is the harmony between his content and form. The energy and sheer gravity of his style suits his essentially weighty subject matter, however it may also define a limit. The style may not be right for much else, and if not then it could become restrictive rather than enable the kind of versatility that sets great painters apart from the merely good. It would be a shame to see Li’s ambitious work reduced to a predictable signature style. That said, the most daring thing imaginable for this artist is yet to come.
Images: Li Songsong: Couple, 2010, oil on canvas; Escape, 2010. Oil on Canvas. Courtesy The Pace Gallery, New York.