Li Dafang, Bai Ye Bai, 2007, Oil on canvas, 190 x 270 cm.
Li Dafang, Second Uncle, detail, 2007, Oil on canvas, dyptich, 300 x 300 cm (2 x 300 x 150 cm), Courtesy: Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing-Lucerne.
Li Dafang, Nightshift, 2007, Oil on canvas, 149 x 149 cm.
Galerie Urs Meile
no. 104, caochangdi cun,
cui gezhuang xiang
+ 0086 10 643 333 93
Li Dafang – Cui Ping Bei Li
October 27-December 22, 2007
By ULRIKE MUNTER
The large-format oil-on-canvas paintings by artist Li Dafang (born in Shenyang in 1971, now living in Beijing) tell stories that happen between the times, between the Here and Now of his own current reality and the images and word sequences lodged in his memory. While the solo show in the capital places the emphasis on his current work, a retrospective review published on the occasion of the exhibition allows for reconstructing the evolution of Li Dafang’s visual narrative strategies.
The very title that Li Dafang chose for the exhibition, Cui Ping Bei Li, blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality by swapping one of the four characters that usually designate the location of his studio. This barren area at the edge of the booming megacity, not to be found on any map, becomes a place of calmness for Li Dafang, so that the warehouses and worksheds, the piled-up building materials and the dust-covered vegetation are in apparent correspondence with the scenes of the paintings he creates there.
It is these structures of reference between title and work, and also to other formal means of visual narration, that Li Dafang has been experimenting with since the early 1990s. He likes to make use of the difference between painting and text that is specific to each medium: while in words, there can only be successive narration, the visual dimension allows the simultaneous presentation of several places, or points in time. An essential element of Li Dafang’s work is the size of his paintings because only in the formats he opts for—the scenario of devastation in The Rope Is My Home (2005), for instance, spans over an area of 200 x 900 cm — can the viewer enjoy that freely rambling gaze, that wandering of the eyes through the image landscape.
After 2005, the tightrope act between fictionality and reality becomes the determining esthetic premise. He now refrains from directly using script in his paintings. While before intense colors prevailed, they gave way to misty grays, blues and browns, reinforcing the impression of the illusory. The portrait-like, close-up perspective has changed to an observer status, maintaining discreet distance. The types of action shown in the paintings is different. Where Li Dafang used to prefer threatening or even overtly violent scenes from everyday life, he now displays mysterious arrangements in inhospitable spaces and landscapes where strange characters ply their strange trade. In the diptych of Second Uncle, what is the near naked young man doing on a deserted factory shop floor suffused with blue light?
Of the paintings made in 2007, almost every one is set in an industrial ambience marked by decay. Factory workshops with heavy machinery and equipment, piles of assorted materials and labyrinthine mazes of pipes and cables determine the backdrop against which Li Dafang has his protagonists acting. For the most part, they are eccentric loners, performing activities that are just as weird. A recurring motif is someone digging holes or burying things. Often the protagonists themselves climb from these very holes or disappear into them. What Li Dafang used to read as a child and young man becomes a medium of memory to him, as for instance in Bai Ye Bai (Bright Night, Bright) that is an unmistakable allusion to Dostoevsky’s novel White Nights. A particular play on words is staged in the title Ai Wei Te: while wei te is nothing but the phonetic transliteration of Werther — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther had stirred the emotions of Chinese intellectuals already in the 1920s — Li Dafang adds a doleful ai to the name and thus condenses in a single character the dilemma of both the protagonist and the readership identifying with him. And in Little Snow, he takes his audience back into their childhood days by mirroring, in the stage-prop demolition scenario of his painting, a Chinese prose classic: Outlaws of the Marsh, also known as Water Margin.
Li Dafang is an artist pushing the boundaries. His paintings work by blending various time levels and spaces. Reminiscent of Proust’s madeleine effect, in his most recent pieces he succeeds at either having slivers of contemporary reality become a trigger of (especially) literary memories or, vice versa, letting the (re)reading of texts be the catalyst for a journey to the places of the personal past.
— Translation: Werner Richter