As one of China's best recognized young painters, Li Songsong has quickly built an international reputation through his sophisticated combination of sensuous painterly techniques and appropriated historical and political mass-media images. Like fellow painter Yin Zhaoyang, Li Songsong came of age in the post-Mao era of reform, of rapid modernization and globalization. Unlike older generations of artists, for whom China's Cultural Revolution and the tumultuous 20th Century were formative to their artistic identities, for Li's generation, this history was known mainly through mediated representations rather then through the stuff of personal experience.
Working from found images, Li takes an analytical approach to history, addressing the continuing resonance of the spectacle of China's 20th Century through his painterly investigation of its imagery. Li deliberately blurs the line between mark-making and figuration, subtly critiquing the artifice of political spectacle and power. Big Shot's Afternoon (Lot 1582) from 2002 spotlights an image from the first half of the century during China's Republican period. Seated center-right, leaning on a walking stick and with a plumed general's helmet is Duan Qirui, a powerful military commander and the Provisional Chief Executive of the Republic of China for seventeen months between November 1924 and April 1926, and considered during World War I to be among the most powerful men in China. Duan worked tirelessly as a military and political campaigner to build and consolidate his armies, to re-unify the divided nation, and to raise China's international status among Western allies. His efforts though were hardly popular or successful, and indeed his back-door negotiations and concessions to Japan under the Versailles Treaty led to China's first modern mass student demonstration and the May 4th Movement.
Duan is seated beside other military leaders and cabinet members in extravagant formal attire and before a somewhat bucolic backdrop of weeping willow trees. The title of the painting, "Big Shot's Afternoon", seems to reveal the artist's ironic view of history, suggesting the contrast between the height of Duan's career in the 1910s and the relative ineffectiveness of his brief reign. More generally, the painting suggests Li's view of the frivolity of military and political spectacle, and the apparent ultimate futility of such exploits. Considering how events would eventually unfold, it is difficult not to read the figures in the photograph as wildly out of touch. What was once a divisive image of political ambition is now rendered quaintly human; the figures' distinct poses and attitudes, the absurd pomposity of their uniforms, depicted in ghostly, sepia tones, and loosely abstracted strokes, appear as charmingly frail and human artifacts from a period that suddenly seems profoundly remote.