LI SHAN (Chinese, B. 1942)
Rouge Series: No. 2
signed and inscribed in Chinese; dated '1989.11.6'
(lower right); titled, signed, dated and inscribed
in Chinese; signed 'Li Shan' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
110 x 188 cm. (43 1/4 x 76 in.)
Painted in 1989
Jiangsu Meishu Chubanshe, Nanjing, China, ' Contemporary Art of China 89 - '92, 1994 (illustrated)

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Lot Essay

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; his paintings express his 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; he was permitted to only paint within the context of propaganda, folk art, and socialist realism. However, out of this restriction, Mao Zedong became the main subject for the artist.
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. The Political Pop group of artists included 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, adding his own individualistic creative vision, transported the symbolic figure into his iconic Rogue series paintings. As such, the series stood on its own for its distinct use of irony and taboo of sexuality in relation to politics.

This sense of irony and iconography continues with Lotus Woman (Lot 49). It is an explosion of coral, fuchsia and pink, all familiar colors of the Rouge series, contrasts with the background of black and green creating a visually striking painting. Surrounded by a flurry of lotus flower pedals, Li Shan has added a personal twist on his appropriation of Mona Lisa's face with exaggerated makeup, turning her into a clownish figure. On the adjoining side are stringy pedals bursting forth like confetti from a shadowy shape. This combination creates a rather farcical scenario filled with sexual innuendos.
The context of the Lotus Woman (Lot 49) is overtly sexual. Two organisms erupts with a plethora of pink pedals, appearing to be representing the genitals of both sexes, Mona Lisa as the feminine, while the spindly flower on the right represents the masculine. The two organisms are in full bloom, like the tails of peacocks, ready to copulate. Li Shan use of flowers as sexual motif is reminiscent of Georgia O'Keeffe imageries of highly sexual flowers, (fig. 1). 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.
The portrait is not pure iconoclasm, as the adoption of gentle features, the lotus pedals resembles hand gesture, of Buddhist imagery, to instill elements of religious iconicity. The rogue-cheeks of the Mona Lisa is 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. While the subversive and transformative nature of rouge makeup underpins the subtle play between power, sex and cosmetic enhancement in both visual imagery and political ideologies. More importantly Mona Lisa is a symbol of the highest form of western artistic achievement, but in Li's hands, her face is embellished with an overdose of rouge or make up, sexualizing her in the process and ultimately subverting her symbolic authority. This act of turning an icon into an object of ridicule is reminiscent of the Avant-Guard Dadaist artist eFFNaMarcel Duchamp's Hdefacement of a Mona Lisa postcard by giving her a mustache (fig. 2).
Toying with the idea of multi-layered ambiguities, Li's works are clever and coy reflections on the cultural circumstances of iconicity and power. Li subversively pushes his candid expressionism with his trademark red and pink flora motif, the result is a voluptuously sensual and humorous take on art history. With its energetically kitschy aesthetics, and erotic sensuality, Lotus Woman (Lot 49) is a stunning painting by the artist.

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