After the Efflorescence: An Interview with Li Jin

LI Jin, Olivia WANG, and Alan YEUNG

May, 2016


OW: What motivates this change in painting style?


LJ: I’m someone who learns by following my creative needs. The desire to express comes first. Finding the appropriate language is necessary but secondary.


In the creative process there are many unknowns, things that you’ve never experienced before and that reveal themselves to you suddenly. That’s the beauty of it. For a painter of my age, who has spent decades in the field of ink painting, failure no longer seems possible. Actually, being unable to fail is a terrible state to be in. Many technical breakthroughs happen in spite of your conscious intentions, when you improvise, when you stumble your way through unstable ground.


Many people have told me I can refine the kinds of imagery that I’ve developed. But refinement is not the point. When I was young, my enthusiasm for food and sex as painting subjects came naturally. At my current age, my physical condition and mood are different. If I continue to make paintings as before, viewers who are sensitive and know me well will realize immediately that they are not authentic.


The present moment has its own beauty and its own sense of life, which relates to my age and my receptiveness. This is why I must take this step forward. Only by following my heart do I feel I’m truly making art.


OW: What do you think your new direction will be?


LJ: I want to rediscover an innate carefreeness and insouciance (xiaosa). In my mind, the ideal painting is that which expresses (xie) rather than depicts. Expression is not about speed or gesture, but rather about revealing what is within oneself. Ink painting is very suitable for unmediated expression. The materials of brush, water, ink, and paper are extremely sensitive. Any contact between them leaves an indelible trace of all there is within you.


A work of art has an allure, the allure to invite a sympathetic viewer into your heart. An artist should have an aura, and an artwork an allure, in order to retain the attention of the viewer.


Going forward, I’ll focus my attention on traditional ink art. What’s special about ink is that it’s like singing: if you have a good voice, you don’t need good lyrics or accompaniment to sing appealingly. I want to develop the special characteristics of ink—the subtleties of tonality, the feelings of lifting and pressing the brush or letting it crash onto paper. If I can do these things well, I won’t need anything else.


AY: So subject matter is no longer very important.


LJ: Right, not that important. Radishes are fine, and flowers are fine, as long as they allow the expressivity of brush and ink and mobilize the richness of brushwork. What we generally think of as good brushwork today is actually repetitive and imitative. Some people have mastered the language that Qi Baishi spent a lifetime developing and think it’s great brushwork. This is a complete misunderstanding. If you do nothing but imitate someone else, you’ll never internalize brushwork on its own terms, and you’ll never create something new, something that responds to your time. Many people can paint imitatively, and their works may even look good at first glance. But the work of a painter with true ability and foundation is different. In the future, the aesthetic judgment of Chinese painting will slowly return to this point: you must develop your own language out of tradition in order to make a meaningful contribution to your time.


OW: The title of the show is Zizai (lit. “existing on one’s own”). You feel free and unencumbered now, don’t you?


LJ: I’ve always sought freedom in my art. Some lovers of seafood have asked me, “Can you paint some seafood?” It’s not that I don’t like painting seafood, but that I don’t like to be asked. If I want to paint it, nothing can stop me, but if someone demands it, I immediately become resistant and uncomfortable.


Now, as I am making this transition, many people around me are quite nervous, not sure where I’m going. This time I’ll invite many of my fans to see my new works. My point is to tell everybody: an artist who follows his or her collectors’ tastes completely and allows creation to become secondary becomes a market instrument. Even from a collector’s perspective, this is like dropping a rock on one’s own foot: your collection has no future. You must let the artist go forward.


OW: The new self-portraits are deeply felt. They seem to be about existence.


LJ: The new self-portraits are like monologs. They draw on what I’ve been harboring for years. Alan said at the beginning, “Li laoshi, there’s a Chan feeling in your paintings.” I was especially pleased to hear that. This gets to the heart of the matter. What is Chan? Retiring to the mountains, becoming vegetarian, giving up material life—all that is Chan, of course. But there’s another kind of Chan, and that is to immerse oneself thoroughly in sensory experience, to express authentically the pleasure and romance of the mundane world.


My paintings are like this. When you first look at them, you may be led to think that I’m drinking my days away and indulging in fleeting pleasures. But when you put all these experiences together and peek beyond them, you see nothing but solitude and sorrow. The more vibrantly life reveals itself to you, the more keenly and inescapably you feel the ennui in its wake.


It’s because I’m a pessimist that I try to hold on to those fleeting moments of joy. When I paint I’m seeking solace. Many of my liveliest paintings I created alone. When I’m truly indulging in worldly pleasures, I don’t paint. It’s when I pause and reflect that those experiences emerge on paper. This is a marvelous process, because only then do you notice all the things you’ve missed before—all that seductive beauty, all those corporeal desires and feelings of efflorescence.


For me, zizai means roaming in the field of painting with freedom and passion. When I was young I felt this: I’d wake up with a real urge to paint. Of course then my works would be good. But in recent years, I’ve gradually become a little numb and felt the need to force myself to continue painting. Then art becomes work, which is not good. I must put myself back in the state of play, where I reflect on myself and entertain myself, and commit this process to paper. That is zizai.


AY: Zizai refers to freedom and happiness, but the term is rooted in Buddhism, for example Xuanzang’s translation of Avalokitesvara. There’s an ambivalence between freedom and uncertainty that resonates with your current state.


LJ: Right. There’s a saying, “When your painting ripens it becomes raw [or alive]” [that is, mastery only leads to a new beginning]. When you start to show off technically, you’re in trouble, but being purposefully deskilled all the time is not right either. This is a delicate balance. I want a change now because I feel the need in my heart. I want to return to my enthusiasm for ink itself.


AY: Why did you go to Tibet?


LJ: I wanted badly to go to Tibet two reasons. The first was having read The Moon and Sixpence, W Somerset Maugham’s novel about Paul Gauguin, and Lust for Life, Irving Stone’s biography of Vincent van Gogh. These two artists had a tremendous influence on me. I sought a primitive state of being away from urban life. In China, Tibet was the closest approximation.


The second reason was that I’d never left the care of my family. Tibet was a particularly dangerous place, and my parents couldn’t watch over me there. This was a very significant transition. Although I was timid, I was willing to take the risk. So, with some nervousness, I went to Tibet.


In Tibet, my personal and social lives changed radically. I had to avoid some sensitive issues, and I didn’t speak Tibetan. It was like being in a foreign country. In that new environment, I felt liberated. My lines became a lot rougher, charged with a primitive energy.


Tibet felt very close to heaven, very close to nature, very close to animals. I felt this especially keenly in the grazing areas. There was no way to tell if the humans were grazing the sheep and cows, or if the animals were grazing the humans. All through the seasons they had nothing but each other, and they lived together very naturally. Their relationship seemed unlike that between humans and livestock.


Same with the relationship between humans and nature. In this boundless space, there weren’t many references. There were always the same mountains, and the same sun that rose on one side and set on the other. The seasons felt short and changeless. There’d be snow, and then the grass would change from green to yellow, and then the year would be over. There my horizons expanded, as did my mind and spirit.


AY: You’ve mentioned many times that witnessing a sky burial in Tibet made a profound impression on you. How did Li Jin the timid boy become someone who wanted to watch a sky burial?


LJ: Human psychology is contradictory. Sometimes the more you fear something, the more you want to confront it. I never wanted to see corpses, or even dead mice, and yet I kept coming across them during my childhood. During the Cultural Revolution, for example, when someone hung himself in the backyard, I’d go and see if his tongue would be sticking out.


Watching a sky burial in Tibet was a kind challenge to myself. It was not an easy thing to arrange. I had to do a lot of work for that one opportunity. On that day there were three bodies—old and young, male and female. There was a very young woman who had died from a car accident. Despite injuries to her head, I still found her body quite provocative.


The corpses were quickly chopped up. The flesh was laid out on blue cloths in baskets to make it easier for the vultures to eat. In texture, it was completely the same as beef and mutton in the market.


My first reaction was to touch my own muscles and bones. When I did so, I felt estranged from my body, like I was touching a chair or a tree. I suddenly felt that without spirit or soul, a human being is just like a tree branch to be broken or a bundle of chives to be cut up. I realized suddenly the limitedness of the body and began to think about how to expand the spirit. Actually, we often don’t even think about our own bodies. Only when we’re ill or in pain do we feel that we are one with them.


Many people couldn’t eat meat for many days after watching a sky burial. I was the opposite. On the same day, I invited the burial master to dinner, where I ordered some meat dishes. At dinner he hadn’t even changed his clothes, which were still stained with blood. I think I was in a bit of a shock. I suddenly felt very numb, that there was no difference between human and animal flesh: since we’re all in the same food chain, the difference doesn’t matter anymore.


The sky burial master is an inherited job. If a father is one, the son has to be one. The particular burial master I met had studied at the Beijing University of Agriculture and spoke Chinese. He wanted to change his life through education, but ultimately he had return to Tibet as a burial master. There was a strict social hierarchy in Tibet. Although I had invited him to dinner, he had to bring his own bowl and plate and eat seated on the floor. Unable to change his lot in life, he was in pain and depressed, drinking all day long. I felt that he was sending people up to heaven while himself sinking to hell.


AY: How did this experience influence your outlook on life?


LJ: I used not to like eating meat very much, but in Tibet I slowly began to like it, and my personality also became more outgoing. Before Tibet, I’d feel sad about the distance between reality and ideals. When I experienced the ultimate end of a human being, I understood that life is nothing but a play and a process.


Tibet’s geography makes it a place of ample sunlight. Tibetan religion holds that nothing exists in the dark and that the light of the Buddha shines on both the good and the bad. This is very liberating. There were some dark and obscure aspects in my personality; I often looked at people obliquely and avoided meeting their direct gazes. After I went to Tibet, these dark aspects went away, and my personality developed in healthier directions.


AY: You visited Tibet three times. How did each visit influence your art differently?


LJ: My first visit was during 1984-1985, occasioned by the Ministry of Education’s Tibet aid initiative. The second visit was in 1990. By then I had already married and had a life of my own, but I missed the Tibetan way of life. At the time I felt that Tibetan and Chinese cultures were not at all the same and that Tibetans had an entirely religiosity than the Han Chinese. I was free to love the blue skies, the white clouds, and the Thang-ga paintings there, but they didn’t belong to me. I was a passer-by from somewhere else; my soul wasn’t rooted there. Once I came to this realization, a self-conscious sense of withdrawal arose.


Later, I went to Tibet once more. I told the people in Lhasa: “I won’t sell paintings here, and I won’t compete with you for your livelihood.” I also didn’t involve myself in the Lhasa art scene. When one is totally marginalized, one has no desire for fame and fortune. After that, I made a series of paintings of utopias. Although they were imperfect, my heart was truly tranquil. After arriving in Tibet, I began to focus more on quotidian life. I had a small garden where I planted some vegetables. This was what I painted everyday. Tibetan cultural elements gradually faded away from my paintings.


As I tried to free myself from my academic training and express my feelings, I used brush and ink in ways that went beyond or against tradition. This wasn’t intentional, but necessitated by expression. I still find these works meaningful and valid today. They aren’t hollow formal exercises, but are infused with the textures and details of my time in Tibet.


AY: The works you created after each of your stays in Tibet look somewhat different. Can you explain this?


LJ: I had two main sources of influence. In the wake of the Open Door Policy, everyone looked to the West; there was a thin book on modern art history that was like the Bible to us. My favorite artist was still Pablo Picasso, and I also liked Henry Moore’s sculptures. When it came to Chinese art, I liked stone carvings of the Han Dynasty. These influences are evident in my first Tibet-themed painting series. Secondly, I was by my own own ideas. In the Tibet series, animals have human elements, and humans have animal elements. I especially wanted to express the relationship between humans and animals.


My second visit to Tibet didn’t feel as exciting and stimulating as the first. At the same time, I began incorporating human desire, which is innate, into my art. Religion aims to eliminate desire as much as possible, but I wanted to combine desire and religious solemnness. For example, in one of the works there’s a figure resembling a door guardian, with a pair of hands and surrounded by many other figures. He’s not a lama or a religious figure in the real sense. If you look closely at his facial expression, you’ll find that he is essentially human, distinguished from regular people only in his attire.


AY: The works from your third sojourn in Tibet incorporate printed Buddhist icons and rubbings of "Mani rocks." What inspired these forms?


LJ: I always felt that Tibetan culture was extremely textured and dense. For example, the white walls in Tibet are absolutely different from our painted white walls; they have a patina resulting from years of wear by nature and humans. I incorporated rubbings for the aged textures on Mani rocks. The mottled patterns of the soot on pavilion-shaped censers look like jet-black ink, and ink rubbings suit them well. But what I truly love is water, its translucency, and the layering of light ink. The very dark and mottled rubbings form a strong contrast with my use of water. There’s a lucid energy that flows freely amidst the dessication; this energy is distinctly mine.


AY: In the past twenty years, a clown-like figure has appeared repeatedly in your work. Where does he come from?


LJ: It’s a figure wearing a “tiger hat.” My favorite piece of clothing from childhood, which I only wore on special occasions, was a little quilted coat my grandmother made for me. She sewed two ears on the coat, which were very cute, and even embroidered my name on it so that I wouldn’t lose it. People laughed at me every time I went out in it. Whenever I thought of my childhood, I’d remember this little quilted coat. For a while I was especially nostalgic, as if I were reliving in the past.


I believe that art should not deify human beings and instead should have animalistic rawness. I’m someone who wants to return to origins. My intention in going to Tibet was to pursue a primal feeling of life.


There must be humor in my painting; it has to be fun. I don’t want to make something if it isn’t going to be fun. I like things that border on fairytales—a white bunny, digging for radishes, pulls out a red radish with green leaves and wants to eat it. My later paintings of food all have this feeling of harvest and abundance. There are even beautiful women around—so much liveliness and sensuality. I’m not a good thinker or reader, but I want to extract the little delights in life and nature, like picking fruits. In fact, many things in life are fruits, but we often overlook them.


For quite a long while, I lived a simple life in a hutong in Beijing and socialized little. Few of my paintings from that time have busy compositions. There’s usually just one person sitting by a table, resting in the shade, or sipping a cup of wine. Later, I started traveling abroad, saw more, and experienced more elaborate and extravagant social scenes, and so my paintings began to resemble feasts.


AY: That touches on the new works. How have twenty years of using bright and rich colors influenced your feelings about ink?


LJ: I’ve tried converting images of my colored works into black and white on my phone; there is richness in the monochrome versions as well. Both ink and colors are only suggestive. I’ve always thought that my experience with colors shows in my monochrome paintings too. My inkwork now has more texture. It is easier to understand how warm and cool tones work in oil paintings, but I can feel warmth and coolness even in ink. There is something beyond immediate recognition in ink painting, which makes it more precious. Its sensitivity and directness reflect your interiority; a person’s warmth or coolness is on the spiritual level.


If you want to create a wild work, you must first paint with restraint and store up the energy for an eventual outburst. If you want to be simple and minimalist, you must first have experienced complexity, and you must have experienced efflorescence. The former is the “fruit” of the latter. What I aim for is the “fruit.”


All the experience I have won’t go to waste. As long as I put my heart to it, the viewer will understand: Li Jin paints in this way because he once painted like that.


AY: Traditional splashed-ink painters usually wouldn’t draw outlines first. The relationship between line and wash is a unique feature of your paintings.


LJ: That’s right. I first draw lines and then use “surfaces” to break them. Whether in plain water or color, wash essentially functions as surface. I’m good at using water. People used to say that using water is something southerners do well and that few northerners at good at it. I am an exception. I have a special sensitivity towards wetness and moisture. There’s an art to using water. If you use too little you won’t break the outlines and create this kind of wash; if you use too much you flush the form away. There must be a union of sensuality and rationality. This is what I’m after even now.


AY: In the new series, there are no colors, and lines and surfaces are less distinct, both being painted with the same brush.


LJ: Right, it’s less procedural. Most of the time, when I start a brush stroke the form and the resonances I want are already in unison. Everything is contained in the variations of a single stroke. I’ve combined many effects I’ve created in a single stroke. Don’t underestimate this big brush. I can create surfaces with it, but I can also draw lines with it simply by lifting it up. I can perform different actions within a single movement, and I can vary between centered and slanted tips. Such is the sophistcation of Chinese painting.


AY: You painted some monochrome works on Mount Qingcheng. In the paintings of heads from the 1990s and your 2014 self-portrait, for example, there seem already emerging signs of your new direction.


LJ: There were signs very early on. The Mount Qingcheng paintings were meticulously painted and more traditional, though they already set a certain direction for me. Why are we comparing the new series with the early Tibet-themed works in this exhibition? You’ll find that I’ve returned to an earlier state, although surely my current works differ from the old ones in mastery. 


AY: You mentioned the special pleasures of painting at a large scale. How does it differ from painting small works?


LJ: In a small painting everything happens within a square inch. From a physiological point of view, you feel able to contain someone if he’s smaller than you; he’s within your field of vision. Once a painting gets large, it contains you, and you’re limited to working on one portion of it at a time. Here the continuity of breath (qi) is especially crucial; your breath needs to be able to move freely through the entire field and come together as one at the end. Smaller paintings do not require your body to move alongside the breath resonance. The difference in drastic. Large and small paintings also have different requirements. Working at a large scale is very active and bodily; one needs to immerse oneself in the painting entirely.


AY: Speaking of the body, some of the new works depict bodily decline and decay. Some of the self-portraits, too, are hardly recognizable as such. There seems to be a kind of violence in these. How should we understand this?


LJ: This may have to do with my mood or state of mind at the time. Everyone has two sides, a wild side and a delicate, tender side. Ink painting manifests these two sides very directly expresses. Tonality, the speed of the brush, the relationship between wetness and dryness—all these manifest one’s emotions easily. Sometimes I sip tea with friends in elegant settings; other times, when I’m drunk, I do karaoke at the top of my lungs. Painting is the same.


AY: You made Rothko-esque abstractions in the past, but they haven’t survived. In this new series, there is a very narrow, very abstract misty landscape, but you drew little flowers all over it. If xieyi expressionism is not about figuration or content, why do you insist on painting figures instead of just making pure abstract art?


LJ: Most of the figures in my paintings are of myself. My own self is a most straightforward symbol and exactly what distinguishes me from others. And facial expressions have been very important to me. I like to paint heads and especially eyes, which are windows to the soul. One’s fleeting moods—calmness, panick, paranoia, confusion—are all in the eyes. I have to paint figures in order to render these nuances of humanity, which I don’t want to lose.


AY: The new series depicts mostly classical figures like arhats and recluses. However, the tiger hat, a woman, and a dog appear in the largest painting. What does their return imply?


LJ: The tiger hat is like my logo. Its appearance here is to remind the viewer that these aren’t characters from a martial arts fantasynovel, and they aren’t the Eight Immortals or the Seven Sages; these are people from our contemporary reality. I’ve been thinking, is a classical spirit compatible with a scene with contemporary people? Today we lack true antique flavor. Too many people paint figures in historical costumes, but they lack a feeling for the past. I think my arhats and ancient figures are believable not because I’ve read a lot of classical literature. It’s simply because I have an antique spirit in me. 


AY: Chan ink figure paintings haven’t been well preserved in China. Many of them can only be seen in Japan. Do you consider your new creative direction a contribution to the history of Chinese painting?


LJ: I don’t think it’s much of a contribution. “Continuation” is more like it. I simply don’t want us Chinese to lose touch with our antique spirit and feeling in today’s Westernized world. There’s no need to show anything off on purpose; just don’t be shy about showing what you have. True value and quality always have a place on the global stage. Artists today should find confidence in themselves and develop what’s properly their own.


That ink art isn’t strong enough today also has to do with self-centeredness. It’s wrong to think there should only be one master in an era. An era is only praiseworthy if it has nurtured ten masters. An ink artist should be especially respectful towards colleagues who are diligently devoted to their art.


AY: Some critics note you incorporate carnal desire into ink paintings. Actually historical painters also did this, as in these paintings by Bada Shanren of two copulating crabs or a fish “to be cooked.”


LJ: Exactly. They already did this. Many people fail to recognize the contemporary elements in tradition, but they always existed in traditional art, and in very sophisticated forms no less. For example, artists like Xu Wei and Liang Kai—we contemporary ink painters really should look back at them because they already established a valid system of representational abstraction, something between the figurative and the non-figurative. They wouldn’t go so far as to paint a crab that wasn’t recognizable as a crab, but neither would they paint a crab that suggested only a crab and nothing else.


Now a lot of people are doing abstract expressionism. You asked me just now why I don’t go a bit more abstract, a bit more expressive. I really can‘t do that because all the art I’ve made is closer to people like Xu Wei and Liang Kai. My breakthroughs are in scale, facture, and brushwork, but my principles and philosophy are the same as theirs.


These paintings are what I mean by passionate but artful: there’s an intuitive understanding of what needs to be depicted. Only the Chinese have this sensibility for the tenderness and subtlety of ink. I’m fortunate to have it in my bones. It doesn’t come from practice. It’s innate, and when I see it, it feels just right.


(English translation by Alan Yeung and Yitong Wang)