"Who We Are and What We Become": Abstract Artist Li Gang on Regeneration

"Who We Are and What We Become": Abstract Artist Li Gang on Regeneration
Li Gang's "Beads" installed at Galerie Urs Meile in Beijing
(Courtesy of Galerie Urs Meile/Li Gang)

BEIJING — Discussing his piece “Beads” (2012), one of several works that will be on view at the exhibition “Lateral Edge” at Galerie Urs Meile in Beijing (March 2 through April 29), artist Li Gang says: “It’s about the paths and points of change in our lives that determine where we go and what we become.”

Which is something that the 26-year-old painter/photographer/sculptor knows well about. In 2008, Li arrived in Beijing with just 6,000RMB ($960) in his pocket; by the end of the week, he was living in a dingy underground room with just 40RMB ($6.50) to spare. Just in time, he met noted Chinese performance artist He Yunchang (also known as A Chang). “He told me I needed a job, and asked me to work in his studio,” Li explains. Working for the photographer in Caochangdi, Li rented a closet-sized space round the corner in which to create his own work. But, “nobody wanted to show my art,” Li says. “Even the galleries with bad shows in 798 [Beijing art district], they didn’t want me.” After having saved enough money, he left the job to study at the Central Academy of Fine Art.


But then, a year later, gallery owner Urs Meile paid a visit to He Yunchang and spotted one of Li’s works hanging in the photographer’s personal collection. He asked to meet with the artist; and just a few days later, Li was preparing for his first-ever solo exhibition at Meile’s Lucerne branch.

Preparing now for his second solo exhibition, the floor inside the Caochangdi exhibition space is scattered with cork-colored wooden spheres, some as small as a string of pearls amongst a few larger, beach-ball sized globes. “Beads” took just under a year to complete, and began with the artist’s return to his hometown of Dali in Yunnan Province.?After searching for a specimen of tree that had died naturally, Li ran across a Tiangtang Shu (“Tree of Paradise”) and took it apart, carefully carving the nodes where each branch connected into spheres.

There is something elemental about the wooden spheres, which were left untreated for their natural tactility and lightness, and are cracked and pierced with natural holes. The tiny pinpoints represent moments of transformation, bursts of energy and change that occurred at certain points in time. 

Many of the other pieces on display also make use of links and associations. Li’s own favorite piece in the exhibition, “Ridge” (2012), is an installation made of two stones connected by epoxy, painted using creams and grays. While the initial effect of the piece is something akin to an open circle of bones hung on the wall, Li’s own intention, he says, “was more about the process of connecting two things.”

The artist adds, “Originally I was also thinking of doing it with apples, or with fake human skulls. When I’d made one, and a friend commented it looked like a bone, so I asked ten more people to come over and have a look, and they all agreed. But it wasn’t part of my intention.” The rough edges of the stones and subtly contrasting mottled grays, browns, creams, and soft reds, relate to Li’s ongoing fascination with textural detail. “Using something similar to a black and white palette is about exploring the subtle relationship between colors and shades — it’s not about only the colors in themselves,” he explains.?

Other paintings meant to call attention to texture and perception include blown-up sections of works by other artists, what Li terms a “new slant”: “Big Moustache” (2012) is a close-up on a section of a mustache from a Rembrandt painting. “Green Vase” enlarges a section of the handle in a smaller painting of a jug to encompass an entire 71-by-63 inch canvas. On both, oil paint is applied directly to canvases weaved from thick rope, rather than cotton or linen. In contrast to his installation work, however, these fall a bit flat; once you’ve figured out the trick and can envision the wider picture, they seem less mature.

In fact, though Li originally trained as a painter, he believes that breaking free of working purely on canvas is what led him to begin creating more sophisticated work. “The most important thing,” Li says, “is the chain of thoughts your work can instill in others.” By making his own creative connections explicit to others in his work, he hopes that he’ll be continually pushed to create innovative, thoughtful art.

“I don’t want what I tackle to become narrower as I develop as an artist,” he says. “Each time I make a work of art, I want something that can make people look at their relationship with the world around them in a fresh, new way.”