LI SHAN (Chinese, B. 1942)
signed 'Li Shan' in Chinese and Pinyin; dated '1998' and inscribed in Chinese (on the reverse); inscribed '250 x 168 cm. 'No. 98 - 3' (on the stretcher)

oil on canvas
239.5 x 165.5 cm. (94 1/4 x 65 1/8 in.)
Painted in 1998
ShanghArt Gallery, Shanghai, China
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner

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Eric Chang
Eric Chang

Lot Essay

Throughout the 1990s, Chinese artists' were engaged in a relentless pursuit of new techniques and vocabularies to critically re-define the representation of their own existence. Sometimes referred to as "Political Pop," these artists such as Wang Guangyi, Yu Youhan and Li Shan illustrate a spectrum of nuanced plurality in this category with their individual reinterpretation of visual culture associated with the high Communist period of China. While some appropriated these recognized symbols and imagery to demonstrate the head-on clash between consumerism and Communism or to embrace Mao as a cultural icon, Li Shan's appropriation of the ubiquitous imagery of Mao Zedong stands on its own for its distinct use of irony and taboo of sexuality in relation to politics.

Regarded as one of the key figures in Shanghai's Political Pop movement, Li Shan's oil paintings have undergone many stylistic changes throughout his career, but have never lost their ability to express internal sensibilities as well as external conviction. As one of the first artists to appropriate Mao's own image, Li Shan was born in 1940 and grew up under the Chairman's leadership. Li's development as an artist during this period was heavily constrained, influenced by the socialist realism which further inhibited his creative range to explore. Permitted to only paint within the context of propaganda, folk art, and Mao portraits as a propagandistic icon, he became the main subject for Li to work in a space for artistic exploration which developed into his iconic Rogue series paintings.

Poetic and naively kitsch, the signature portraits of Mao in Li's Rogue series are painted with rogue-cheeks as a direct reference to traditional Chinese opera in which men traditionally assumed female roles, explicitly underlining cultural aspects of gender and sexuality highly condemned during Mao's reign. In Sub-Rouge (Lot 28), Li subversively pushes his candid expressionism with his trademark red and pink flora motif, in comparison to his earlier work from the series of a single pink Pop flower as exemplified in the Ullens Collection.

Li elaborated ornamentations of Mao in Sub-Rouge with a butterfly halo, and applied bold hues of azure and pink - a clamorous splurge of color juxtaposed to the monochrome skin of greenish grey, and the artist audaciously sexualizes Mao with a detailed refinement of his soft features, pouched lips, tender gaze and polished eyebrows that are painted with his inaudible brush strokes and undeniably educe feminine sensuality. The luscious pink lotus flowers and butterflies suggest the hidden erotic life of humanity and how sexual imageries were forbidden under Mao's rule while also suggesting an ambiguity that encompasses humor, self-mockery with an underlying cynicism. In addition, the symbolic decoration of the ornate petals represents Li's interests and nostalgia in Chinese popular culture; flower motifs are commonly found in Chinese prints and on vintage consumer goods. Li paints the backdrop resembling a Utopian cartoon version of Chinese propaganda paintings to accentuate a feeling of optimism and warmth. While sophisticated in terms of composition, detail and color, this work seeks to evoke a sense of childlike candor, using folk characters such as the stoic-looking cat, and explicit political imagery is markedly absent, suggesting a new direction in Chinese Political Pop, a flattened, decorative style that plays upon contemporary posters and Chinese prints, and reflects upon the persistence of communist ideology even in an era of consumerism.

The portrait of Mao in Sub-Rouge is both an homage and parody: on the one hand, it is a testament to Mao's continuing power as a cultural icon, and Li stated, "The reason I talk about Mao as cultural motif is because after liberation in 1949, his presence was felt in all aspects of life. Mao decided everything, from politics to culture. He was an extraordinary figure, full of beauty." The title suggests the red of the revolution as well as the sensuality inherent to the image, indexing of the levels of desire and projection that underpin a cult of personality. However, the unusual duplication of Mao's image comments on the omnipresent commercialized reproduction of the icon, but shows at the same time how easily replaceable his image is. Li's portrait though is not pure iconoclasm, instead he displays a witty, socio-political criticism in an artistic manner that evoke the traits of Political Pop and Cynical Realism. Sub-Rouge evokes the possibilities for nostalgia, romanticism, slight sexual imagery of the revolution, a tension within the idea of the yet unknown, and Li manages to juxtapose opposites in a way that leaves them un-reconciled, allowing viewers to reach their own conclusions, leaving any political reading of the painting open-ended and full of ambivalence.


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