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Li Xin does not consider himself a painter. We can do nothing but agree with him, as strictly speaking, it is hard to categorize his works as oil painting or ink painting: these two branches of painting merge, overlap and relate so naturally in terms of artistic concern and artistic expression. The impression, feeling, landscape and vision he presents and conveys run invariably in conflict. The style may seem highly abstract and unsophisticated, but we can always find them well absorbed into a world that is rendered commonplace by the variety of changes rather than the representation. Everything is unfolded in a distant field, keeping us at bay with calculated neutrality. The space here is both a fleeting instant and extended time that stretches far into the distance. Now we may be able to tell something about the reasons why he is so keen on the following. He delights in watching the pages of a book turning one after another in a cycle, vibrating gently like cicada’s wings. He admires the sense of ritual inspired by ancient Chinese paintings, solemn and mysterious. Infinity and profundity emanating from an unfolded scroll sometimes find expressions in a grave and dynamic screen. He has a particular preference for polyptyches, as is masterfully proved by his large-size oil paintings. Each and every has a style of its own, but there seems to be a magnetic field that unifies them into ongoing orchestra music. The charm of his art, implicit and diverse, can be fully experienced if you visit his studio in Beijing. Brimming with a solemn sense of ritual, the studio is as tranquil as the painting scrolls. Brushes, paintbrushes, easels, tables, furniture, collection, colors, materials, even the tea set and musical necessities, everything there seems to follow a hidden order and tacitly admitted rules and converges in a silent and purely polyphony of communication, giving full expression to the artist’s interior monologue.
This is the essence of art that only captures and perpetuates what in Li Xin’s words the “worthless moments”, that is, simple, modest, elevated but tender eternity and irreplaceable existence. Li usually captures the moments, minor details or momentary glimpses that he experiences in everyday life to break the superficial drabness and engrave the profundity, estrangement or fragility on an alien world of bizarre images. He also recollects some unforgettable vivid or dramatic moments in his life, like his near-drowning in the Yellow River when he was thirteen. The severe trauma he went through opened his eyes to the world, highlighted his life, and gave him the sensibility to the subtle changes in the world. Since then his life seemed to be a supernatural tale that reminds its origin. Like a passionate song, secret and mild, distant and melodious, melancholic and joyful, as grandiose as an epic, and as soothing as a lullaby, it drifts at its own pace in the mild and fanciful light. Thanks to the narrow escape from death, he embraces life in comfort. The experience, like a dream, brought him so close to another world that anything in this world is now worthwhile.
Grey of all shades is the dominant color in Li’s works. Even though sometimes other colors do appear, they are mostly for his monochrome paintings, like indigo-blue, dark brown, sandy yellow, light colors, colors with minor tonal changes or cinnabar. He thinks gray is able to unify other colors. His preference for gray can be attributed to a lot of factors, which all point to his childhood, like the overcast sky in winter, the Loess Plateau, smoke and ash from cave dwellings on the cliffs overlooking the Yellow River, etc. His coloring also features unique Chinese flavor. Gray roofs and facade, as well as muted silver gray, echo sometimes the bright yellow rooftop of the Daoist temple, either brilliant or mild, and sometimes golden silk and satin. The unique tension built by the colors, implicitly or explicitly, adds to magic power of his art. Without exception his paintings choose yellow as base color, which, when used in profusion, bathes the canvas in golden light. A deep sheen penetrates the canvas and kindles the colored painting, but breaks, all of a sudden, the outline to create a delicate aura, enveloping the painting in breathtaking sculptural beauty and formative power.
Ink painting showcases another dimension of the artist’s visual experience. On one hand he admires masters of traditional Chinese painting, Mi Youren and Mu Xi, among others, and on the other, as a contemporary artist who knows clearly the complexity of contemporary aesthetics, he reinterprets the achromatic tradition of the Chinese landscape painting in a meticulous and explicit manner to develop his own technique and establish his own style in the best tradition of Chinese painting and calligraphy, which share the same origin. He is also very particular about Xuan paper, the vehicle of ink painting, particularly its tensility, texture, water-absorbing quality, frangibility, etc., which is very obvious in his ink painting. It is nonetheless not the most important factor. His affinity with traditional Chinese painting, almost supernatural, I think, is based on something else. The value and significance of the dynamic beauty exuded from the hands of a calligrapher or a ink painter lies in the union of the gesture and the ink, as well as the humidity and lustre, the perfect expressiveness of Xuan paper when absorbing ink. Like those great masters, he is able to obtain the effect that can be achieved only in the world of sound. Like the timbre of an instrument, it flickers between density and transparency, presence and absence, and hues and vibration.
However, if vibration is doomed to disappear and the subtle shades of gray are kept to retain the waves that carry it to an imperceptible context, then water becomes undoubtedly the most primeval, fundamental and nourishing element. Here his near-drowning episode is not to be overinterpreted, but it should not be overlooked either. The moment he, driven by an overwhelming urge, plunged into the river with his playmates, his course of life was charted. Water as an element aside, the artist makes the most out of this liquid, also a medium, in terms of technique and imagery, so in this case water becomes an instrument for art in its own right. The beauty of his ink painting comes naturally from his skillful, exquisite, and implicit techniques that give full expression to the intangible and indelible features like splashed ink dots, hollow strokes, and ink traces. These ink paintings are not about lines or traces, and least of all, symbols. Everything is spontaneous, peaceful and lingering. The roar of the Yellow River accompanied him throughout his childhood never leaves, implicit but concrete and tangible. Inspired by two phenomena from his observations of nature, he separates the boundless slumbering space in his painting in two ways. Both phenomena show fluidity, something the artist tries to capture in everything. In an imagined world that is distant and beautiful, layers of waves ripple into the distance as a drop of water falls onto the surface of some liquid. These images work with the exquisite combination of colors to burst from the imperceptible clashes and bloom in space like floating bubbles or weightless spheres. In his more recent installations, the floating bubbles or weightless spheres break free to occupy the neighboring space on the wall. The ovoid and irregular outline is the trace of ink on the plain and white Xuan paper ─manifesto of its breakup with the geometry-based pictorial tradition for centuries.
In his oil paintings or ink paintings, Li Xin does not hesitate to give up his attempt to create a sense of space beyond the pictorial vehicle, whose sole mission, he believes, is to become a locus for “absorption”. There is no perspective or three-dimensional implication but only purely visual expression, so that light or dark, stream, mist, clouds, telluric cracklings, ascending vertigo, distant ridges and peaks can crisscross, overlap, and respond into a secret choir in harmony. Without traditional spacial rank or the concern over depth or width, these paintings pursue brand new ductility, resilience, and extensibility. In his wild imagination, he is able to take his dream in control. To bring the invisible to surface, he indulges himself in studying the almost imperceptible rustles when a painting brush moves on Xuan paper or canvas, the connection between light ink strokes, as well as the sweet interaction between water, ink, Xuan paper and canvas.