The intricate landscape by Li Huayi resembles the monumental Northern Song painting in spirit, yet the method with which the artist experiments is fundamentally is a mix of new and old. Born in Shanghai, Li studied traditional Chinese paintings as a child with Wang Jimei, the son of artist Wang Zhen. At the age of sixteen, he became acquainted with Western art through the artist Zhang Chongren, who studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels. During the 1970s, Li worked as a propaganda artist; the experience inspired him to seek a new visual language in his artistic production. Since then, he has travelled to scenic, historic and cultural sites of China, from Mount Huang to Dunhuang, the sights of which have remained a lasting inspiration.
Whilst inspired by Northern Song landscape paintings Li continuously modernises his style, employing methods such as splashed ink and abstract expressionism. His works contrast meticulous (gongbi) and expressive (xieyi) brushwork within the same composition, embodying the elegance and subtlety of classical Chinese ink paintings with a splurge of light, space and energy unseen in the genre. This is partly impacted by his experience of living in the United States: in 1982 he left China for San Francisco to study at the San Francisco Academy of Art University where he received training in Western art, obtaining a degree in 1984. It was here that he began to see the connection between American abstract expressionism and the splashed ink technique. To create the architectonic formations of grotesque mountains and cliffs in his works, Li splashes ink onto paper, allowing it to flow freely to form the underlying composition – a process most notably associated with Zhang Daqian.
Using the literati tradition as a point of departure, Old Pine is a magnificent example of the Li Huayi’s work from the early 2000s. The landscape with intricate details is set against an expressive splashed-ink background, with arduously added photo-realistic details with the gongbi technique to depict the unyielding tree and jagged rocks rising from the abyss. The contorted pine tree takes centre stage: here, the conjoining, twisted and gnarled tree branches seem to grow from the edge of the precipice, like the melted clock in Salvador Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory, with impossible shapes that defy gravity.
It is for the deconstruction and reconstruction of the once familiar elements in the Northern Song landscape painting, and because the artist deftly fuses the real and the imaginary, that Li’s works manage to achieve such a strong visual impact. As Shen Kuiyi comments, we can perhaps ‘argue that his work is postmodern, in that it deconstructs the pre-existing structures of our world, and of the classical art to which it refers.’ Yet, the viewer is unsettled as the impossible imagery slips temporarily out of our grasp, as the works like Old Pine ‘exemplify a universal harmony whose absence from plain sight is an illusion’. With fantastical grey and black clouds obscuring the mountainscape in a dramatic light, the resulting image is at once monumental and intimate, radiating a quiet energy.