Li-lan: Letters to the World by Jonathan Goodman

Security: Front and Back (diptych), 1992

Chinese American artist Li-lan is that great rarity in today’s art world – an independent. Stylistically and thematically, she keeps her head while working in New York City, noting but not internalizing the influence of movements such as Pop art and Minimalism.

Her composition-book paintings of the early 1980s indicate a preoccupation with simplicity – a touchstone for Minimalism – and her portrayal of common materials, such as sketchpads, notebooks, stamps, all manner of mail markings, parallels of Pop art’s appropriation of everyday objects as subject matter.

But Li-lan, an adept in implication and correspondence – both in the literal and metaphorical sense of that word – is after something larger than demonstration of stylistic affinities. Even when critics use the characterizing adjective “Eastern” to portray her use of negative space in representations of graph paper from Beijing and her composition books, one senses that the term is accurate as a description of her working method rather than a summary of her meaning. A careful viewer realizes that her technique is actually a means of expressing solitude.

Many of the immediately experienced visual aspects of Li-lan’s technique – the hard-edged quality that, close up, reveals itself as hand-painted; and the empty spaces that actually center the surrounding, often fragmented imagery – are deftly transformed into their polar opposite. The impersonal quality of her work becomes its obverse: an attempt to present a world that a viewer might like to investigate. In that sense, all the control we associate with her painting can be seen as an expression of care towards her audience.

Interestingly, the isolation Li-lan’s work infers has diminished as she has continued to work (for about 10 years now, her paintings have incorporated stamp imagery from many countries). Her art now brings in more of the world. Her subtlety as a painter indicates focus and involvement: even with the most mechanistic seeming of her images – her perforation holes and cancellation marks – it becomes clear, after study, that they result from careful attention to detail.

Thought about in larger terms, the artist’s use of letters and stamps becomes a metaphor for affection toward her craft and audience. Correspondence inevitably intimates a circle of friends, and the stamps Li-lan paints portray a world in which affection is extended, metaphorically, beyond the boundaries of her life, into the world of the viewer.

Thus the paintings are greetings to all sorts of people. Li-lan has lived an international life. She is the daughter of Yun Gee, a China-born modernist recognized historically as a participant of note in modernism: and the former wife of a the printmaker Masuo Ikeda, with whom she lived in Japan (where she achieved recognition in her own right as a painter), in Europe, and the United States. The breadth of her experience is reprised in paintings of places that are connected to her life.

Jonathan Goodman
is a poet and art writer who is based in New York. He has been writing about Asian art for twenty years. Among his publications are reviews and essays in ARTnewsArt in AmericaSculpture, and Yishu. He currently teaches at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.