In Nick Bantock’s saga of the star-crossed lovers Griffin and Sabine, the protagonists are only revealed through their letters to one another. As if involved in a protracted negotiation arising from a personal ad, they advance and retreat, betray and commit to each other. The books chronicling the saga contain letters that fold out from the pages or emerge from actual envelopes to reveal lyrical calligraphy and demonstrative drawings, which gradually bring the unseen lovers into focus.
Although Li-lan’s work precedes any association of it with the romance of Griffin and Sabine, it is of this romance that I think – as well as the escapism of my own brief foray into stamp collecting – when I look at Li-lan’s work. Oh, I know I’m supposed to be focused on the formal rigor of her compositions or the pungency of purpose which characterizes her precise rendering. But there is something about the locales, plants and birds depicted on the stamps that she so carefully recreates. They seem to literally open up a space into which the viewer can enter.
Li-lan’s manipulation of postal marks, stamps, addresses, etc. establishes a calligraphic play against the minimal and subtle colored backgrounds of cards or stationery. This play is even more obvious when the painting features languages that we may only be able to comprehend by their linear character. By exploiting the random markings of the process f postal routing, Li-lan manipulates planar spatial orientations: stamps seem to dissipate because of the variations of manual pressure when applied. The dissonant patterns of air mail markings and bar codes seem to be forced into a shotgun wedding, consummated by the kiss of the red circular stamp (Security: Front and Back, 1992); the integral space of the scenes on pictorial stamps is annihilated by overlapping stamps; the character of the stamps seems to complement the depiction on the stamps (Aerogramme, 1990) and trace the synchronized swirls of the postal marking behind Li-lan’s cogent organization and deft rendering are the legacies of photo realism and the serial imagery of the 1960s and 1970s. In her hands, this results in images whose carefully calculated organization and appropriate sparseness belie the underlying passion which predicates their creation.
Lowery Stokes Sims is the retired Curator Emerita at the Museum of Arts and Design, where between 2007 and 2015, she served as the Charles Bronfman International Curator and then the William and Mildred Lasdon Chief Curator.