This is not a Chinese – Li-lan at Lin & Keng Gallery
Chia Chia Jason Wang
Artist Magazine (Taipei)
(Translation: Tung Hsiao Chou)
Appropriating and reinterpreting images of common stationery is the typical character of Li-lan’s paintings. But, this does not mean that Li-lan should be categorized as one of the Pop art artists. In fact, in terms of the artistic form, I feel Li-lan is more like a modernist – especially a Minimalist. Besides, from the perspectives of aesthetic and the managing of the images, Li-lan seems to come closer to the poets of imagism, such as William Carlos Williams. Li-lan leaves a lot of white color on the painting, applies contrast of colors and changes of lines ably, and uses various tones to depict the black postmarks. This not only delivers musical vibrations, especially from Jazz music, but also has the same result of Chinese literati paintings or Zen painting aesthetic, though the approaches are different.
That is, Li-lan’s creation is lyrical and poetic. In this exhibition, her subjects are related to postal stationery: illustrating envelopes, postcards, stamps, postmarks and so on. Among these images, they present an esthetic that has been arranged, filtrated and cleansed. These common images have been cleaned spotlessly and then made into specimen. They seem detached from the time and space in reality, and have been vacuumed, frozen, and eternal, thus, becoming a “treasure collections.” While re-interpreting these envelopes or postcards which have traveled through time and space (evident in the records of postmarks,) the artist selects the view point of “close-up” which catches the eyes of the audience. On one had, it seems that we are reading the corresponding records of the artist and her correspondents. On the other hand, we may be viewing the collection of the artist’s letters or stamps. Because of that, these paintings more or less reveal some degree of autobiographical quality.
China: 30 Yuan – 1993
Letters naturally mean contact between two parties; the letters may include messages that are very private and secretive. Since letters can represent a high degree of privacy, it seems that Li-lan has no intention to let the audience enter the most hidden zone of her heart. Therefore, we cannot comprehend the content of these letters, which have been selected and filtrated by her – after all, this artist is not anxious to expose herself. Not only that, when she is re-interpreting the envelopes and postmarks, she gets rid of, hides, or re-arranges the names and detailed addresses of recipient and sender intentionally and consciously. Therefore, the envelopes we see can be put together or fabricated by the artist. Especially in China: 30 Yuan, if we examine it carefully, we can find that the image and message in the envelope may be sheer fabrication by the artist through re-interpretation technique.
First let us examine the title of China: 30 Yuan: “30 Yuan” makes us wonder. If we check the value of the stamp on the envelope, we would know that the word, “yuan,” is different than the word, “cent.” Besides, the artist illustrates the word, “cent,” inaccurately (“cent” with one more horizontal stroke.) This shows that Li-lan is not familiar with the Chinese language and monetary value (we do not know whether it is designed by the artist on purpose.) This also tells that the artist did not re-interpret published stamps when she created the two “Chinese People” stamps (the word “country” is simplified,) rather, she might have created them herself. In addition, Li-lan uses different colors and tones for the stamps and postmarks: the colors and the tones for the postmarks are not the same on the envelopes and on the stamps. This indicates that this envelope might have been from the artist’s intentional fabrication; that is, the postmarks and stamps on the envelope are false. If the stamps are false, then the images of the “Chinese People” naturally are false (in addition, these two images do not have faces, only an area of thick black ink.) To those who consider Li-lan of Chinese descent and stereotypically make her Chinese or of Chinese cultural identity, especially to western artists, this is a strike back and taunting.
According to the message China: 30 Yuan implies, Li-lan might want to mock those who intentionally categorize her and her work; even more so to classify her as a minority western artist of Chinese descent. The context created in her paintings traps the audience or critic into a pitfall. This might be the strict attitude toward the exceedingly politicized contemporary western art critics. Her work re-interprets stamps from all over the world, including Taiwan, China, New York, Malaysia, Japan, Jordan, Mozambique, and Netherlands. This seems to indicate that the artist wants to use correspondence, through knowledge, thought, and affection, to understand and embody different cultures in the world. This kind of expression seems to imply that she does not want to be classified as a person of Chinese descent, which is within a simple, narrow ethnic totem.
Li-lan’s paintings seem simple, elaborated and soft, but the forms are strong and powerful. Through these envelopes, postmarks, and stamps she illustrated, we can feel her cool attitude toward things. That is, she always maintains a high degree of individuality and rationalized cultural conscience. She seems to be consciously maintaining a position that is very individual. Although she has Chinese blood and grew up in the American/European society, she escapes from the narrowness of ethnic thinking. Instead, she chooses for herself a more colorful cross-cultural experience. This point can be seen in her paintings very clearly.
But, we also should pay attention to the fact that Li-lan is not an anthropologist, nor is she a social movement activist. She doesn’t have the attitude of scholarly pseudoscience, nor has she the passion of a human rights worker. She might even, from a western perspective, embrace other cultures that she intends to contact or understand. The tolerance presented in her paintings is from an affectionate respect that has been cultivated from observation and introspection.
Finally, let’s go back to the beginning where we mentioned the method of “appropriation” and “re-interpretation.” It doesn’t matter whether Li-lan uses the technique of re-interpretation to appropriate the images of real examples; it’s no longer important. Even if the images that Li-lan presents are created through fiction or fabrication, it does not affect her sincerity in trying to reach out both her hands, walk out of the ethnic, regional, and Euro-centric frames. Whether it’s “appropriation” and “re-interpretation,’ or “fiction” and “fabrication,” it seems that we can feel from her artistic forms that people should not use this kind of label to attempt to narrow anybody’s potential to embody cultures. Because only when we can understand that a culture is multi-dimensional and of complexity, and when we can abandon the ethnic or cultural superiority of ourselves, we can really begin to understand and appreciate the beauty and aesthetic of other cultures.