Li Hongtao 李洪涛

Hong_Tao_Li_Untitled_2008_30x25 htli_76248_1



below is a short essay written as part of my work on abstraction in Chinese art and poetry

also in Chinese:

Abstract Healing of Li Hongtao

Li Hongtao was born in Dalian, China in 1947. He was not trained as an artist, having instead studied engineering, a career interrupted by personal tragedy–the loss of his father at a young age–and the collective catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution. After a brief engagement with culinary studies, Li took up visual art, a realm in which he is entirely self-taught. Nonetheless, in recent years he has established himself in major art networks, with solo exhibitions in Carlos Hall at the Louvre and the United Nations both in 2013, and numerous galleries and art institutions around the world.

Li’s paintings occasionally depict landscapes and other figures of usually natural rather than man-made origin, but by and large his work is done in a non-representational or abstract style. Though China certainly has a robust painting tradition stretching back centuries, and even a modern painting tradition based upon exogenous European examples from the 19th through 20th-centuries, the origins for abstract painting such as that produced by Li Hongtao are not in painting at all but in writing. This is because on a basic level the foundations of the Chinese writing system were at heart abstract, or better put, manifestations of “that which is of itself thus,” a paraphrase of the Chinese word “ziran” 自然 meaning nature. Chinese abstract art is by its very nature in line influential art critic Clement Greenberg’s view:

The avant-garde poet or artist tries in effect to imitate God by creating something valid solely on its own terms, in the way nature itself is valid, in the way a landscape–not its picture–is aesthetically valid; something given, increate, independent of meanings, similars or originals. Content is to be dissolved so completely into form that the work of art or literature cannot be reduced in whole or in part to anything not itself. (Art and Culture, Boston: Beacon, 1961: 6).

The Chinese writing system is derived, near as one can determine, from natural forms (li 理, or wenli 文理), patterns in bamboo leaves, landscapes, bird tracks or any other naturally occurring phenomena — all that is “aesthetically valid,” in Greenberg’s words, in and of itself. The hieroglyphic or pictographic stage followed from there, and the full Chinese character-based writing system soon after. Nonetheless, the abstract origin of all Chinese writing is ever-present for the calligrapher or artist to exploit, returning the word to the mere image, an object of contemplation in and of itself. Such was the case, for instance, in the work of Zhang Xu 张旭, Tang dynasty calligrapher who famously drank himself to a state of total inebriation and then produced wild, illegible but unanimously celebrated calligraphy. As a backdrop to abstract expression in China, there exists a rich array of examples from literature and art, a tradition which is, ironically, no less modern than anything produced in the West in the past two or three centuries.

Beyond mere mentions of style, Li’s work is connected with traditional Chinese painting in uncommonly substantive ways. To begin with, he draws clearly from Chinese landscape traditions. Namely, his visual forms can be appreciated not simply for the two dimensional attributes of lines upon on the canvas, but instead for their three-dimensional penetration of the space through shading and intensity of color, again much the way calligraphy is at least as much about depth or degree of saturation of black and white as any given stroke or line. We don’t look at Li’s painting, we look into it. In so doing, though, we are engaged with the work in a fashion that is unlike regular artistic observation or appreciation. Li’s painting is a demonstration in traditional Chinese aesthetic terms not of a given “expression” of an artist, but indeed, of the artist himself, his person, even his moral or spiritual being, a form of the ancient Chinese adage that “writing is the delineation of the mind” 书心画也 (attributed to Yang Xiong 杨雄–53–18ce).

But Li’s work is alternatively known as “energy painting,” something which takes us deeper in to his work still, and where he transcends the East-West and perhaps even figurative-abstract divides altogether. With his particular ability to draw from the power of color, Li himself sees his work not only as something which pleases, or even challenges his viewers. His goals as an artist are even more ambitious that then. He takes the interaction with his paintings as a form of reclaiming essential balance, a kind of cosmic order which, rather than remote and spiritual, from the Chinese view of health and wellness is simply a function of the flow of energy through the universe. This flow pervades the five elements of the natural world just as it does the vital organs of the human body, a material realm enlivened by qi 气, a primordial power or energy which travels the meridians in the human body (along with all other living beings), flowing either freely or with obstruction depending on the degree of health in a given organism. The viewer’s interaction with Li’s painting activates and stimulates this flow, images that can be not only seen but actually felt in the viewer’s body.

Li Hongtao’s painting is the kind of aesthetic accord which demonstrates that fully individual, even iconic work can flow seemingly effortlessly from two sources at once– a rich and ancient aesthetic tradition in China, a more recent, assertive avant-garde practice in the West. However, while looking at Li’s work none of these origin stories really matter much. The painting speaks for itself, louder than words could ever manage.




launching Ekphrastic Assimilations 同画项目

Post-industrial Society has Arrived

I’m taking this moment, after a few months reprieve from work on this blog, to announce the launch of the Ekphrastic Assimilations project. This will involve an exhibition, held at the VALA arts center in Redmond, WA and in conjunction with Ryan James Fine Arts in Kirkland, WA from September 15 through early November, as well as an academic conference to be held jointly by Pacific Lutheran University and the Seattle Asian Art Museum.

Please visit the website to learn more about the project, or check back here, where I will now be posting EA-related updates and information.



798 Alive and Well


Can’t say how many times over the years I have encountered the idea, while traveling in China and more particularly Beijing and more particularly still the Northeast district (Chaoyang), that the 798 arts zone is “dead.” Its been dead since shortly after its birth in 2001, a pronouncement made famously by one of its progenitors (I’ll resist the word “father”), Huang Rui. Huang was early on disgusted with the commercial/propaganda vehicle that the area quickly became once the Chinese government changed its original plan-to demolish the entire factory (built, for those unaware, in the 1950s by Chinese -East-German joint venture). Whatever Beijing authorities had planned at the time, no doubt it was not what turned out to be the most lucrative thing imaginable– a free, independent, international/global center for the production, exhibition and appreciation of contemporary art, both Chinese and non-Chinese.

The word “independent” here, though, is what caused problems in the views of Huang and others. Once the Chinese government got involved, there was immediately a chilling effect on the scope and of course content of the art created and exhibited. Meantime, and in curious lock-step with the increased surveillance and hence control of the artistic “message,” the commercial value of space in the entire 798 area rose so rapidly that most artists were priced out. Thus, it mattered little whether 798 was doomed for economic or political reasons, it was still doomed.

Or at least, such is the narrative. I’m certainly not going to propose that either one of those interferences with the development of an arts district is not in effect in the case of 798, but I still find, year after year, that visiting the zone remains a rewarding even impressive experience, where art of significant quality is on display in a density and variety that few places in the world (I know that’s a big claim–would love to be challenged on this point) can rival.

Here, then, a few rather pathetic shots from my own  camera with a bit of commentary.


the first thing I like to observe at 798 is its edge. I love the ay the art and building come to an abrupt halt, here on the northwest corner. The installation of traffic mirrors to aid in safety a good example of something you won’t find often in Beijing, despite the fact that quote a few places could use them. The fringe of the above ground heating system, still wrapped in insulation, and the remains of whatever structural gate previously bordered the space when it was a factory district in the 1950s.






Here the makings of a typically elaborate exhibition, this one in the courtyard beside PACE Gallery, Beijing. Not a great deal to be discerned at this stage of installation, but typically arresting image of an airplane wing jetting up from underground.




798 Poeisis

This is one of the most interesting elements of 798 to me– the people who are constantly engaged in the incessant building, demolition and rebuilding that an arts district of this scale requires. I’ve often thought that if anyone really needed to obtain a thorough picture of what this place is they should contact whatever outfit sends workers in to actually make what we see visible. And then have a few sit-downs with the workers. One of these days I’ll find a way to do this.


798Workers1 798Workers2


the Inside:

Too much to report on this at once. Here just a few shots from a Fang Lijun exhibition, which included both oil paintings and woodblock prints, demonstrating that his work is still current and suggestive. going on while I was there. More impressive still was the Ai Weiwei installation I saw, but I’ll write about that separately.



Zhong Biao, new work


Zhong Biao has opened up some new vistas in his work, something which in itself is not surprising as he’s been developing and changing at least since I began following his work in 2005. This time, though, I think he’s moved in a notably new direction, call it a lateral rather than vertical innovation. Gone (at least for the moment) is the restless do-more-different style of change that drove the 2009 video installation of the Embrace! exhibition in Denver, or the 2013 ground-to-ceiling and all points in between Tailoring Clouds 裁云剪水 installation in Suzhou Art Museum. This time he has returned to oil painting, and with heightened attention, in his own words, “to the painting process itself.” This is manifest in a number of ways, including a heightened fragmentation of the image, giving his juxtapositions, both on the figural/content and abstract/figural axis, a new level of poignancy. His abstract components in particular find better ways to reside on the canvas, echoing pneuma that seem to both situate and alienate the figures they surround. The “transmigration” image is particularly deft, both building on a kind of pixelation theme which I’ve mentioned previously in this blog, but adding a watery glass-like texture at once supple and explosive. And as usual the Tibetan monastery at the center gestures towards some political content, just as it pushes that idea completely out of the image.


Back Lake 后海

Back Lake 后海



In the Now 当下

In the Now 当下



Transmigration 轮回

Transmigration 轮回

Two more recent poems by Yan Li

56 cm x 78 cm

Patching Stars with Me 从我开始修补

Yan Li is in the Seattle area for the summer. He usually spends such time in New York, but is trying this side of the US mainland for a change of pace. Its slower than he used to, I believe, and this seems to have led to a more contemplative tone in some of his work, as is in evidence from these two poems, graciously translated by Denis Mair, below. I’ve added a few of Yan Li’s more subdued, though also contrasting images to fill out the picture:

严力  21:11

2 New Poems by Yan Li, Denis Mair






In a place so quiet
Not even a needle dares to drop
I throw around skeptical remarks
Yet in the end I get swallowed by the quiet

Ah, quietness as if at the origin!
If I could stand there once again
I would stop throwing things recklessly
And learn from the needle hidden in my conscience
But I still doubt whether I could be
Someone whom quietness would invite




All in a Day [1]

Within the days I have been given
Innate heaven and latter heaven are entangled
Each time I hold back a grin
I have to swallow a pill of regret
Each deletion of an impulsive act
Derives from rehearsals of self-improvement
The classics of literature have already written
About each second of this day
Each minute has a thirty-degree temperature difference
Just like summer and winter…
Each hour the minute hand chases down the hour hand
Each evening up and down get upturned again and again
This day the sun will be addressed in a few hundred ways
This day in the middle of the night
People will wake and fall asleep in equal numbers

[1] This poem is untranslatable because the word “day” and the word “heaven” are the same word in Chinese.


80cm x 100cm

Chinese Dream 中国梦

Yan Li, Recent Works

Zhuanzi With Bird

Yan Li’s poetry and art has been receiving a lot of attention of late in China. Among others, the online poetry portal New Poetry Canon 新诗经started in 2012 by Gao Shixian, ran a lengthy piece (#067 May 15) containing many new poems. The opening introduction to Yan’s work also includes his recent work on the Autumn Moon festival, running annually in Beijing. That introduction as follows:



Yan Li: (1954-) native of Ninghai, was born in Beijing and has had long residences in New York, Shanghai and other cities. He began composing poetry in 1973, and in 1979 also joined both the avant-garde Stars artist and Today writers and artists collectives. In 1984 in Shanghai People’s Park Hall he held his first one-man show, in fact the first one-man show of avant-garde art in contemporary China. In 1985 he moved from Beijing to study in New York, and in New York in 1987 founded One Line. In 2009 he began hosting the annual Mid-Autumn Festival China Millennium Monument in Beijing international poetry meeting. Yan Li has published over 20 collections of poetry, short stories, novels, essays and other arts-related works. His paintings have been collected by Shanghai Art Museum, Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, and private collectors. Works have been translated into many languages, currently we live in Shanghai, Beijing and New York.


Here, as well, the first poem, a short, 2-poem sequence, actually, with my translation:


















I’ve always felt close to

Those simple shapes

Like benches or shoe-horns

Only doors I don’t approach lightly

Mostly for the complexity of what lies behind them

I’ve heard that

When doormakers make doors

They often have to add a couple of knocks inside

What can that be for?

After a few decades

I discover they’re really useful

Because doors too need to knock now and again

on the doors to their own hearts











The door in the door

Is the bedroom door

The door outside the door

Is the front door

And the door that never needs closing

Has yet to be born

Yang Xiaobin, another poet’s photography


Poet, critic, scholar Yang Xiaobin, now on the faculty at Academia Sinica in Taiwan, has in recent years joined the group of contemporary Chinese poets working in photography (Bei Dao, Mo Mo, Li Li among others). Yang is certainly the one whose engagement is most fully explicated in his own theoretical manner on his 關鍵詞


is constructed in the manner of “keywords”, including “quotidian,” “badness,” “ready-made,” “subjectivity,” “other,” “garbage,” “trace [Derrida],” “automatism,” “abstract/figural,” and so forth. His photographic images, meanwhile, were originally material objects (flat surfaces such as walls, doorways, pavement) at such acutely close-up range as to render them visually unintelligible. Since then he has moved on to something different, more tactile, and readable. Long explication of his “post-photography-ism” is Palimpsest and Trace: Post-Photographism. Sample images from the exhibition site:




More, and I think better, works available on his blog:

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As for Yang’s poetry, it is often described as being difficult, or at least challenging. Here, for instance, in a translation produced by Karla Kelsey, John Gery and the poet himself, is the second of three short poems, this entitled “Bread”



You sliced the loaf of bread with a comb,

finding inside it hairs of the dead, a squamish voice,

and dry, warmed-over love.

the bread darkened and darkened, its crumbs

more and more seared and shriveled:

Before you could wash and dress, you face, too, was burnt:

its features, not easy to swallow,

burgeon with a hunger for beauty.










*translation appears in Another Kind of Nation: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Poetry edited by Zhang Er and Chen Dongdong (Talisman House, 2007), 290.