Creating Auras: Li Wei’s Hand in an Age of Mechanization (by Bonny Yau) Back

Creating Auras: Li Wei’s Hand in an Age of Mechanization

Bonny Yau


Pigment, concept, tradition, and authenticity – what is the impact of the artist's hand in a society that pushes towards the digital, the bright, and speed? The recent works of painting on canvas by Chinese female artist Li Wei (born 1979) are layered texturally with washes and pigments, visually with perception-bending hues and dotted forms, and conceptually with both Chinese heritage and a sense of the here and now. Backed by a tedious process unique to the artist with a heavy presence of the artist's hand, Li Wei's recent works express not only the artist's own bearing, but a sense of authenticity,uniqueness, and depth of aura.


All artwork is inherently some form of representation, some copy of the original – whether it be a portrait, object, or thought. The works of Li Wei are in fact twice removed from the shadows of willow trees cast on red palace walls or the swaying masses of bamboo stalks she depicts in two of her recent series Palace Willow and Thousand-Layer Green. While her works are entirely painted by hand, they actually rely on that most mechanical of art genres, photography. In Chinese culture, such natural foliage was often the subject of traditional poetry and ink painting. Thusly, its contemporary presence maintains a connection to past representations of it. Taking photographs of thesetimeless scenes, Li Wei then digitally enlarges the image to the point of pixilation before conveying that processed image into layer upon layer of pigment on canvas. By filtering her artist’s perspective through the mechanical lens of our digitally-minded present, Li Wei's works move from transformation to evolution, creating a stronger sense of authenticity that ties back to tradition, heritage, and society independent of and in conjunction with the original.


The recent works of Li Wei are representations of her unique artistic process and the particularity of her abilities. In a world of mass reproduction and mechanization, Li Wei's works mimic the effect of the digitally processed image with its dotted deconstruction of natural imagery, but has an affectation of the unique, contemporary, and novel that does not undermine the original. By focusing on the works' tedious, manual nature of creation, one is reminded of the significance of the artist's hand with a sense of perspective and time. The patient application of pigment in numerous layers reveals variations in hue from corals to clay, limes to emerald. Perceived as bold swaths of gradient and shifting color from afar, up close there are defined separations, dots of ranging hues layered over and over each other. With their simple, familiar imagery, the works’ effect is anything but.


The imagery of Li Wei's work is deconstructed not in the sense of disjointed fragmentation, but as a dissolution of original boundaries into new perspectives and optical renderings. With a dynamic, organic quality, her works offer differences in reading depending on distance, moving from recognizable forms to areas of color to individual dots of pigment. As your relation to the canvas alters and your focus is heightened, your internal systems of sight and comprehension transform and retransformthe work. Deconstructed and re-synthesized into new representations, indeed, Li Wei's particular aesthetic relies on an inherently contemporary concept of visual perception. With digital screens that rely on pixels having become integral aspects of present-day daily life, Li Wei's paintings utilize this manner of seeing to seamlessly join distinct elements into cohesive wholes while acknowledging their individual boundaries. In conjunction with imagery that is arguably in the sphere of the tradition, Li Wei's works in fact become bridges between traditional and contemporary modes of perception. Considering contemporary perception's relation to established histories brings one around to the question of the aura and its ability to be produced and perceived, which stands at the foundation of Li Wei's works.


Underscoring the visual effect of Li Wei's paintings, the main aspect that gives them their time-honed character is the particular technical process she follows for each work, a process she herself created that involves building images with multiple, sometimes more than twenty, layers of washes and pigment. Tedious, consuming, andborderline meditative, there is a sense of the past and present in her works, often using Chinese traditional pigments, but also acrylic paint, which is generally regarded as a modern, Western medium. From the long traditions of pigment and oil mediums to the quick-drying and often slapdash application of acrylic, Li Weiexplores a range of media in her artistic practice, associating particular material properties with particular expressions. Works from her Listening to the Snow series incorporate ink on silk, mediums traditional to Chinese paintings whose fine, fluid natures lend themselves to elegant and softer expressions. Conversely, Chinese pigment and canvas are naturally thicker with more grit,and with repeated layering, the perceivable texture is more similar to the style of traditional Chinese wall murals. “I absorb the experience from meticulous brushwork in Chinese paintings. … the image effect of repeated glazing is thicker, richer, and heavier. Simple as it is, this common knowledge also requires patience and planning (prejudgment).” Each of Li Wei’s paintingsrequires four base layers with ten or more layers of color. As each stage of the process adds its own particular texture, hue, or glaze, it too adds its particularity of time and space to the overall narrative. This – that presenceand passage of time, and connections to both internal and external histories – is the root of the created aura.


Based in Beijing, though originally from Harbin, China, Li Wei’s studio is full of work after work with multiple canvases leaning against walls, propped up on easels, laid out, or tucked away. In this environment, between the rural and urban districts of Beijing, surrounded by her plants and fish, there is a sense of fullness and order. A layer of red, another layer of red – softer this time. A dotted layer. Yet another layer. There is order and precision and a method and an undeniable depth of toil. There are fine paintbrushes and minute, purposeful, delicate strokes. In succession, stroke after stroke, again and again. Having worked with this technique of playing with pixilation and perspective over the past few years, her recent series Bird of the Beijing PalaceHomeward Bird, and Rustling Bamboo take on more complicatedcolor schemes and imagery, all of which remain common to traditional Chinese painting. Her current series also offer a greater sense of personal reflection to Li Wei. “The contents of my work are always of nature – mountains, rivers, plants, and so on. ... I think nature is so generous, I can always get something and be inspired by it ... it can be deep or not deep; it is related to everything, it is alive, I can feel the birth and age, disease and death, history and fickleness of human nature.”


By relating her works to both the grandness of nature and her predecessors of ink painting, Li Wei recreates a sense of aura in a ritualistic sense not only by her repetitive and meditative artistic production process, but also via contextualizing her contemporary works in a timeline of authentic expression and sphere of tradition. “I like a lot of things from Chinese tradition, not only the paintings. I think knowing them requires a process from the simplest to more complex, and there is a need to understand it little by little." Certainly there is distance between Li Wei’s more abstracted forms and those of traditional paintings, but regardless of the here and now of Li Wei’s works, there is deeper meaning and stability to the works, a quality of transformation that is not born in ephemeral desire or quickly changing fashion, but an earthiness that never quite reaches the dirt. There is a romanticization to her works that stems from the traditional Chinese literati paintings she is inspired by, a conception of perfection derived from organic nature, peace in its wild untamable, and an unrivaled atmosphere of quiet reflection. With a sense of our immediate contemporary and our distant heritage, and the Chinese bamboos and willows that connect the two, Li Wei’s paintings create a lingering, lasting impression of presence that no machine can reproduce.


With the multi-stepped production process and intricate methodology required for each work of painting, one might expect the artist Li Wei to be a procedure-driven stickler herself – a human machine of artistic production – but one look at the refinement and expression of the resulting works and you realize that this is not so. Thoughtful, powerful, and full of concern regarding artistic tradition, Chinese heritage, and contemporary perception, there are layers of not only physical/visual texture and pigment, but of nuanced emotions. Calm, harmony, and humanity underscore her works in a manner that runs counter to the arduous, uncompromising execution of her creations. Indeed, Li Wei’s recent paintings hinge on the existence of thatduality, that visually reveals its depth of impression so compelling in theme and being that it is almost amazing that they were created with such rigidity of process. As Li Wei herself describes her works, they are “simple yet complex,” formal, ordered, and deep. And it is this indescribable force of presence that speaks to heritage and the moment, the authentic and representational, that is the aura of true art and the power of the artist’s hand.