Born in 1973, Beijing-based painter Li Songsong has emerged in the last several years as one of the leading artists and innovative painters of China's younger generation of artists.
The core artists of China's post-Mao avant-garde were primarily born and raised in the late 1950s and early 1960s under high communism, came of age during the Cultural Revolution, maturing as artists in the throes of the early years of reform, liberalization and modernization. But as L. P. Hartley famously wrote, "The past is a foreign country", and for artists of Li Songsong's generation, although the history of communism and the Cultural Revolution were known entities, they were objects of study, conceptually remote and not nearly as formative. The China they were raised in was instead one of a rapidly changing and increasingly mass media-saturated, consumerist society. The history of communism was one of symbols and representations, but not the stuff of experience.
Similarly, Li Songsong's approach to painting in many ways is less derived from traditional oil painting but instead from conceptual and new media theories of reproduction and representation. Where the previous generation of painters' great breakthrough was in prioritizing their own subjective views above other exigencies, Li Songsong attempts to suppress the subjective role of the painter and instead takes a fully deconstructive approach to image-making, history, and representation.
Li works from found images. Though he claims not to have any premeditated interests, his choices - ranging from Tian'anmen Square filled with mourners after Zhou Enlai's death to images of war atrocities - make it clear that he has a predilection for the historical and political. This interest though does not stem from a particular ideological position, but rather from an interest in images of collective memory, in the representation of history and ideology itself.
With In God We Trust (Lot 1030) from 2006, Li has selected a popular "beefcake" image of U.S. navy soldiers, widely circulated on the internet, hulking shirtless men in shorts and sunglasses posing casually before the American flag and their warship. Consistent with his usual technique, Li has taken this photograph and literally cut it into a staggered grid of 33 squares, three rows of six panels alternating with three rows of five. He then paints each panel based on each individual, decontextualized tile of the source image, altering his palette and color scheme throughout. Finally, all 33 pieces are re-assembled and the image brought back into being, replete with the shadow of the photographer in the foreground. Each panel then is an experiment in pure abstraction. The source image, cut into parts and unrecognizable by itself, allows Li to focus on simply painting, focusing on gesture, light, color, and modeling. In some cases, the paint is applied with such luxury that it becomes almost sculptural.
Now more than four meters tall and six meters wide, the viewer gives the image cohesion in his or her mind, but is acutely aware of the constructed image, almost mimicking an image blown up to reveal its pixels. The alternating color-scheme is in some places nearly black and white, in others naturalistic, and in others veering towards red or blue scales. As such, they resemble photographs that have been incorrectly reproduced with their color calibrations incorrectly set. The scale of the image elevates it to the status of history painting, images that naturalize and reinforce dominant narratives of history and nation. But by highlighting technique over subject, Li creates a tension between a recognition of the content and an appreciation for the construction of the image as a work of art.
Walter Benjamin's famous theory of mechanical reproduction proposed that art in an era of mass media could only be produced in the service of political ideology. Li Songsong's art practice significantly complicates this theory. His informal, mass media source image is reproduced on a grand scale - a vision that casually embodies American military power and prowess - but his fragmented technique denies the image the force, his complete de-linking of subject and technique denies the sailors any aesthetic agency. Indeed, contra Benjamin, Li's work is precisely anti-ideological; a candid photo is at once elevated to the status a national symbol and emasculated, becoming an object of critical observation, and finally rendered an artifact of history.