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Li Xin’s secret formula

Shu Yang

The strokes and smudges found in Li Xin’s first mature works, made with either ink or oils, are closer to modern European and American abstract painting than to Chinese tradition. Gradually, European classical painting became influenced by photography, which had been invented in the 19th century and started to free itself from the constraints of the image. The medium ceased to be bound by verisimilitude and became the purely artistic endeavor that would eventually give birth to abstract painting. Chinese tradition, despite the fact that it allows scholars a certain amount of freedom, a liberty of movement, and perhaps even a certain whimsical approach, never produced truly abstract work. It is only in the 80’s that purely abstract ink wash appeared in China, with the surge of a new wave in the art field. It was the time when young artists, trying to create a new and revolutionary trend, started to use western techniques. The art critic Xiaoshan was fiercely opposed to this movement and predicted: « Chinese painting is headed towards ruination. ». To this day, Chinese ink wash still lacks a distinct modern form.
Ink, the medium of choice of Chinese scholars, has a very long history. This tradition developed by scholars after the Yuan dynasty, is nearly unknown beyond Eastern Asia, and remained localized, developed within China, very far still from globalization and the impact it would have on contemporary art. After spending time in France and creating abstract pieces for a few years, Li Xin returned to ink. This decision, resulting from a lengthy personal artistic maturation, may also be seen as a cultural choice, a desire to create a new form of ink wash, unheard of in the Chinese tradition, and which aimed to reposition an ancestral tradition into the contemporary world. This choice belongs neither to recent Chinese artistic trends nor to a particular international context. It reflects more what I would call an « interlocal » vision Li Xin’s new work shows connections – connections of experiences gleaned in different places, his childhood spent by the Yellow River, his artistic training in Beijing, the years spent in France, the acquisition of various artistic techniques. They all constitute the genesis of his work. It is this cultural choice that links everything – a person and his roots, regional diversity, the creative process and the completed piece – and that becomes apparent to the public through the artist’s paintings.
Xin speaks of his creation as « paint rooted in water ». Thus he distances himself from traditional scholars who were mostly concerned with the handling of brush and ink. For his part, Li Xin uses very little ink, only leaving a few smudges that look like water stains. If one compares his work to the eminently physical one of Pollock’s, it should be noted that apart from the involvement of his whole body, the painter also tries to appropriate the water marks left so naturally and so pleasantly on Xuan paper – something he shares with Chinese traditional scholars However, whereas the latter tried to control the natural and haphazard formation of these smudges, Li Xin wants to limit the use of both elements in favor of the work done by water, which becomes the main creative actor, and in doing so, he creates a new form of expression. Despite the fact that this unique approach is somewhat removed from the traditional one, it may still be linked to it. « Images of the highest quality are invisible and the highest quality music is inaudible ». This path towards understanding, through introspection, is as much part of the Chinese classical tradition as it is the key to understanding Li Xin’s work.  In the same way, Li Xin’s work may be defined as the « image of water ».
In Europe, the first theories on abstract painting were based on music. Each of the elements it is composed of: rhythm, melody, mode, timbre, and the acoustic field reflect the work of the mind through time and space, and create a unique and irreplaceable human experience. Water may not be capable of being fixed, but the ink embodies it, forming images on the paper. Ink keeps the shape of the water, leaving its print on paper. Only the memory of it remains, because the water itself has disappeared. Li Xin juggles with water, with ink and paper, retracing his thoughts in the ink wash. He manages to transpose this mental process with an ease freed from techniques and liberated from conceptualization. Whether it wants to advance or to seek artistic truth, to progress and modernize itself, Chinese ink wash must not only accept a technical but also a cultural renewal. We hope that Li Xin’s painting may be the secret formula that will help give this form of artistic expression a place in a globalized world.