Great Realism And Great Abstraction In One: On Li Yan’s Paintings

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Until today people still tend to distinguish between “figurative” and “abstract” painting based on whether it depicts anything. But what really is decisive in this question is the approach of the artist. Often it is much more difficult to create a figurative painting using abstract means, than to paint entirely without any subject.

Abstraction is especially difficult for Chinese painters since the whole art education in China is focused on figurative representation. That’s why many contemporary Chinese artists don’t even try to break away from it. Those who do try usually stop short at the level of “deconstructing” the figure – by using frantic brushstrokes to break apart surface continuity. But behind it the classical composition of the figure in terms of contour, volume and mass still remains discernible.

At first sight Li Yan is a thoroughly figurative painter and his subject matter remains quite constant: people in conflict situations – be they “terrorists”, prisoners, victims or combatants. And what may make him appear even more “realistic” is the fact that he indeed paints from real photos, photos culled from newspaper and television. However, the resulting paintings are not so much about the events themselves than about our perception of them through the media. This in turn is characterized by a paradoxical tension between zoomed-in focus and the actual sense of distance – although we are bombarded with these news stories and images each day, their characters remain in actual fact distant, alien and intangible to us. Li Yan expresses this tension by literally thrusting the figures into the immediate foreground, while at the same time obscuring their features to irrecognisability. The cluster of short, fleeting brushstrokes vividly evokes the sense of quivering shadowiness. (figure 1) You receive the feeling that these people have only just crystallized into sight and may at any time dissolve back into invisibility. (figure 2)

15 figure 1 15 figure 2

And it is in the integration of the whole canvas, of figure and space, that Li Yan reveals his thoroughly abstract thinking. In Li Yan’s paintings figures and their setting are not conceived as separate entities; instead they are weaved together into a complex network of geometric and color relations. Lines, shapes, color patches of human figures, objects and surroundings freely join, intersect, repeat or contrast with each other, resulting in distortions of “realistic correctness” but intensification of the drama. See the splash of short brushstrokes that spills over the camouflaged soldiers onto the bus (figure 3); or how inseparable the wounded patient and the operation bed have become through the interconnecting lines and planes (figure 4). All this proves to me that Li Yan conceives his paintings holistically, and applies his brushstrokes primarily as a means of animating and directing the vision. In addition, he paints with great economy, only so much as is necessary to express the essence of the drama, which photography can’t capture due to the superfluity of details. See the white body/corpse lying on the floor, whose shatteredness is rendered by the crisscross of merely a few strokes (figure 3). Or look at the cramped mass of Georgian refugees on top of the wagon, their jostling, frenetic confusion expressed purely by the swirling mosaic of short brush marks. (figure 4)

5 figure 3 1figure 4
1 figure 5 2 figure 6

It is possible to suspend figurative recognition for a moment and look at Li Yan’s paintings as a pure rhythmic flow of brushstrokes: accelerating and decelerating, twisting and turning, concentrating and diverging. Before identifying any “form”, you have already grasped the “spirit” of the story. For me this is great realism and great abstraction in one.

© Ling Zhu

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