Whisperings – Paintings (by Michel Baudson ) Back

Whisperings Paintings

Text by Michel Baudson



Willows beside the palace wall, fill the city with a tinge of spring. LU YOU (1125 – 1210)

My discovery at the beginning of this decade of Li Wei's work was unexpected, in fact the result of the lucky coincidence of a visit to some studios in the distant suburb north of Beijing. My Chinese friends, art collectors, teachers and curators of contemporary art, had taken me one late afternoon to an 'artists' village', to which many of them had moved after having finished their art education at various big academies around China.This village, seemingly a quiet street whose entrance turned its back to the countryside, consisted of a series of studios, built in a traditional semi-rural style, where they could work and produce their art, paying a rent much more affordable than those closer to the downtown. One of my guides led me to a studio occupied by a young artist at first quite intimidated by my impromptu arrival. Right from my initial glances, passing from one painting to the next, I was just as much surprised as impressed by the quality the work, be it finished or in progress, but especially by the very different process, both accomplished and intentional, of her pictorial method, a method that immediately convinced me. Having thus shown the artist herself as well as my Chinese friends my keen interest, I thereafter had the chance of visiting an exhibition of hers at a Beijing gallery where other paintings of trees and of fish too confirmed my initial certainty.

Li Wei's personality, the intensity to which her work bears witness, reveals a very personal artistic temperament, self-asserting and original.

When Alice Mogabgab suggested I conceive of an exhibition dedicated to the theme of the tree (*), it immediately seemed obvious to me to include Li Wei's paintings in the project, for them to enrich, with their timely Chinese sensitivity, the diversity of visions represented by the works from different European and Mediterranean cultures expanded on in the subject of the exhibition.

This second presentation in Beirut of Li Wei's most recent works, organised in connection with her solo exhibition, five years after her first exhibition dedicated to theme of the tree, enables us to see the evolution of her work as well as the stylistic precision of her research, substantiating and accentuating my initial thoughts regarding her artistic career.

The different method of her pictorial practice, to which I have alluded, consists of a categorical rupture with the founding principles of traditional Chinese painting/writing, i.e. the ancestral gesture of the ink-soaked brush 'writing' the image as it flows from the paint and thus preserving its allusive qualities liberated from any resignation towards resemblance. This rupture, developed on other types of support than paper, such as silk or canvas, allows Wei to experiment with new artistic methods inspired by, among other things, the digital image, as for example her post-pointillist pixelisation of the pictorial touch. By means of repetition and multiplication of identical dots and broken lines more or less accentuated, the artist gives each piece its individual form, while pointing out the constant perceptible tension of her composition.This rupture has turned out to be all the more impressive as it affirms its distinctiveness in order to highlight, in a decidedly contemporary style, the same allusive qualities and identical subtleness of the so-called “shan shui” quietude, in other words the most accomplished art of the cultural tradition of Chinese landscape painting.

Continuing this rupture in the development of her recent works, Li Wei proposes today an absolutely unprecedented reinterpretation of this pictorial tradition. Not seeking to merely quote it, she continues on the contrary her research into new creative processes and implementations, maintaining their quality as delicate and poetic openings of the gaze through three types of chromatically distinct categories: ink drawings, red paintings and green painting.

The first category, in keeping with her previous work, continues the landscape tradition, partly relating – as the title Listening to the Snow implies – to the representation of details, more or less close-up, of trees whose naked branches covered in snow stand out in silhouette against the greyish mist, the sad whiteness of the sky and the blurred ground, partly asserting the monochromatic aspect of their unclear tonality. But the outline and the spread of the ink, executed very gently and delicately, accentuate her previous research by means of a permanent dialogue between the spread of the shadow areas and the repeated light touches, scattered and each time differentiated, interconnecting the powerful greys. By playing with the inversion of the white silk and the black dilutions of ink to bring out the trunks, branches, twigs and the few leaves still left on the tree, the artist emphasises our perception of the silence of the landscape whose evanescence tones down all impression of depth and a possible horizon.

Alongside this series of ink on silk, two other series of monochrome paintings, one red – Birds of Beijing and The Palace Willow, painted with Chinese pigments on canvas – the other green – Rustling Bamboo or The Bird’s Cry, painted with Chinese pigments and acrylic on canvas – annihilate by contrast in their composition all aspects of perspective, transgressing, instead of simply toning down, the depth of field. Here the canvas grain serves as background on which the flattened images of birds, trees and foliage seem like shadows of memory.The red colour is the one on the walls of the Beijing Imperial Palace, the contingencies of the history of their symbolic power are here only disrupted by the white marks of their flaking, the fleeting passing of birds or the faint fluttering of the foliage.The green colour is the colour of the summer willow whose presence evoke, just as the birds perched on their branches in the red paintings, the tradition of Chinese shadow puppetry, in which the tale, history, can only be allusive.

Li Wei pursues irreversibly her work of rupturing with the processes of academicism while continuing to revisit and renew the spirit and the sensibility of the Chinese cultural tradition. In contrast with 'out of range' shots from photography and cinema, the projected shadows in her most recent paintings, the delicate tranquillity of their pictorial aim, present themselves as just so many freeze-frames of the appeal of their images, revealing for us an 'outside of time' charm.

Michel Baudson September 2016

Michel Baudson is honorary president of the Académie royale des Beaux-Arts – Ecole supérieure des Arts in Brussels; honorary president of the Association belge des critiques d’art; president of Jeunesse et Arts plastiques; member of the Commission consultative des arts plastiques de la Communauté française de Belgique; visiting professor at the Academy of Fine Art in Xi’An (Shaanxi, China); member of the AICA (International Association of Art Critics) and of the Icom (International Commission of Museums); he is the curator of international exhibitions and the author of numerous publications.