East meets West in the first UK solo show of Chen Li (b.1971), who is being shown by Katrine Levin Galleries at the Coningsby Gallery in London this summer. Chen Li lives in China’s stunningly beautiful Yunnan Province, and is inspired by the region’s spectacular landscapes and Buddhist philosophy. He creates a unique visual language by melding the abstract and gestural qualities of Chinese ink painting with the colours and textures of Western abstract expressionism.
As the oldest son of one of Yunnan’s most established artists, Chen Yongle, from childhood onwards Chen Li studied Chinese ink painting, calligraphy, colour theory, philosophy and poetry. This was combined with learning about Western art theories and oil painting, particularly that of the abstract expressionism, which he viewed and continues to reconsider from the standpoint of his own perceptions and cultural background.
“Most of my father’s colleagues are painters or teachers. I was listening to their conversations about painting in the East and West. I looked at many different styles of paintings from my early years”.
Included in this exhibition will be a number of Chen Li’s landscapes, in which he celebrates the dynamic harmony of lines and colours in nature. He is influenced by the mountains and lakes of his native Yunnan but this is not his only source of inspiration. Once he has a concept in mind, he explores it from all angles through a multitude of sketches or by working out segments on smaller canvases before attempting a larger work.
There is also a spiritual quality to Li’s practice and he uses painting as an emotional outlet. His lyrical landscapes and moodscapes evoke palpable sensations. He says that in order to truly appreciate something, we must “feel it with our hearts, not just see it with our eyes”. Chen Li viscerally brings forth the harmony he strives to find from within. As well as being inspired and guided by Yunnan’s stunning landscape, he also assimilates its rich cultural history and beliefs into his practice and artistic philosophy.
“The characteristic forms of the mountains and landscapes of Yunnan drive me to paint. My compositions are inspired by the spirit of traditional Chinese culture and paintings, and the Buddhist philosophy”.
The ‘Human Buddha’ series, also included in the show, is an exploration of diverse visual representations of serene thought, as well as Chen Li’s own introspective examination of identity and the self. Evocative images such as ‘Serene Thought’ combine calligraphic, fluid brushstrokes with expressive gesture.
“Now I have the courage to see myself, I can surpass my own past. These Buddha figures represent my understanding. They remind me that I have to give up something to create new things. These paintings are also my footprints. Footprints of my travels to temples with Buddhist sculptures, murals and frescoes”.
As well as paintings, the exhibition will include woodblock prints. Using a rare technique known as Chinese woodblock reduction printing, Chen Li creates unique relief-prints with a mesmerising texture similar to an oil painting.
Deeply knowledgeable and accomplished in a variety of styles and techniques, Chen Li believes that one should learn all the rules and then have the courage to break them in order to create living images. Pursuing his own concepts and ideas are key to his work and personality. Chen Li is also adamant about not being categorised within any one style:
“I paint to finish my idea, my hope. That is all … I care more about what I want to say and whether I say it clearly. Or if there are other ways that I can say it better.” Likewise, his medium of expression, whether woodcut prints or oil on canvas, is driven by the concept he desires to convey: “Just like writing a love letter, content is the key, what pen you use is not important.”
This exhibition reveals the unique synthesis of East and West within Chen Li’s mesmerising art; while the works pay homage to Western art history, they remain deeply rooted in Chinese philosophy and culture.