Abandoned factories and sad machinery; fantasy, reality and ambiguity
Li Dafang is as cognisant of and dedicated to the medium of oil painting as he is to the scenery of northern China. Li was born and grew up in Liaoning, one of the three major provinces in the northeast of China, where the high altitude and long, harsh winters have created a rough, grey landscape. Liaoning was established as a major centre of heavy industry in the 1950s to produce the country’s first steel, machine tools, locomotives and planes following the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The switch to a market economy in the late 1970s, however, drove most of the area’s large-scale, state-owned manufacturers to bankruptcy. As a result, many factories and workshops were abandoned and became dilapidated, stacked with sad, silent machinery: a sight well-known to the artist, who was born in 1971, and a visual motif to which he would continue to return in later years.
The son of a writer, Li had ample access to books at home, which led him to develop a fixation with the illustrations they frequently contained and to study painting in his teens with private tutors. However, he studied fine art at a regular state university, where the focus was on improving all-round ability, rather than providing any systematic academic training in oil painting. Today Li considers this background as liberating for his practice, since he doesn’t feel as bound by the formalities of painting as those who come from the more traditional schools of the art academies, which tend to prioritize technique over content and concept.
Obsessive, sensitive and fastidious depictions of details – unkempt and overgrown grass, cluttered wires, mosaics on the façades of buildings – are a distinctive feature of Li’s enormous canvases. Since 2004, however, his work has taken a significant step forward. In his earlier paintings, from the late 1990s, he juxtaposed narrative scenes with texts, written prominently across the centre of the canvas or on one half of it, which bore no apparent relation to the painted images. The often dramatic and intense scenarios he depicted – for example, two self-portraits of the artist engaged in an intense dialogue, depicted on a paper bag, in turn carried by a man dressed in black (Paper Bag, 2001) – are probably excerpts from real life yet remain indecipherable to the viewer. The deliberate gap Li placed between these almost cryptic paintings and reality seemed to be too wide to bridge. Fortunately, in his current works, the artist has confidently and successfully made the stride himself. The changes are remarkable and their results are breathtaking.
Li’s vast canvases offer panoramas of the most filthy, ruined, forgotten wastelands and non-places; those commonly found on the outskirts and in the hidden corners of the city: demolition and construction sites, rubbish dumps, woods, abandoned factories and deserted housing blocks. In Threaten (2007), a man sits on top of a towering, square concrete column; his shoulders drooped, he looks down on a beast – it looks a bit like a lion but not quite – prowling about an unkempt yard in front of an abandoned building. An Evil Man in Armour (2006) features a man with feathered wings squatting on a large pile of rubble between two buildings that are under construction; two blotches of black smoke ominously cloud the lower corners of the canvas. These calculated displacements conspire to underscore the ambiguity of what is real, although the setting itself appears to be bizarre enough on its own.
Even the most trivial elements are painted with such precision that the works appear to be genuinely photorealist; in fact, the scenery, objects and tiny human figures in his paintings are collages of impressions formed from personal experiences as much as from fabrication. Here realism is less a world-view than a conscious choice of form and the subject of his artistic exploration. Li has made a determined and strategic break from the traditions of Revolutionary Realism and Socialist Realism, which dominated mainstream Chinese painting for decades, and with which he grew up. While still appropriating a realist painting style – Li takes pains to incorporate all manner of visual motifs from the world around him, especially from his native northern China – the artist freely projects his own fantasies onto his lifelike portraits of reality.
The scenes depicted in his paintings are always overcast and bleak (with occasional traces of abrupt purple or red emphasizing disproportionately small objects or figures) as though obscured by a delicate layer of mist. This grey tone and ambience creates a distinctive aesthetic that doesn’t aspire to make the environments appear any less desolate or uninviting than they actually are. Indeed, it is precisely this drab quality that draws the painter to these undesirable sites (and anyone who has been to northern China can testify to their existence): painting such places – as much as Li’s monumental and surreal treatment is awe-inspiring – counteracts our popular fixation on the upbeat, the refined and the attractive in the pursuit of better living conditions; a perspective that, all too often, we wish to see reflected in art.
First published in Issue 115