Li Tianbing @ Stephen Friedman Gallery

Stephen Friedman Gallery presents the first UK solo show of Chinese born artist Li Tianbing, comprising of eight large scale paintings.

After moving to Paris, where he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts, Li Tianbing developed his personal style by choosing a certain narrative involving his own childhood memories filtered with the Chinese socio-economic context. With clear references to the strict rules of a socialist country, these autobiographical works introduce to Western audiences a different verisimilitude through the eyes of a young Chinese boy. China’s one-child legislation, property restriction regulations, and other austere rules are profoundly narrated in his paintings. The invention of imaginary brothers and friends enhanced with an underlying character of playfulness and freedom reflect an unrestricted environment appearing as the antipode to a brutal social reality.

The employment of both greys and vivid colours commingled with a skillful hyper-realism in portraiture as well as abstraction (when superimposing numerous layers), are all dexterously worked with the intervention of the stain motif generating an ideal photographic collection; a photo album in a parallel universe of a reclaimed childhood.

Li Tianbing talked to REVma -/+ about his exhibition:

REVma -/+: Your exhibited work demonstrates a great skill in balancing numerous painting techniques such as portraiture, abstraction, hyper-realism. Is this an expression of a personal style or is it closely related to your chosen subject matter?
Li.T.: I think today’s artists use different media and expression according to the subject. Style is no longer the barrier to creation, it’s just an external label. My recent children’s series is made by painting, and due to the handmade and personal features when I paint, each stroke becomes a sediment of time. The final work is the result of an accumulation of individual strokes and for this reason painting seems he most appropriate medium for my ideas.

I use a photo-realist style in the hope of imbuing the painting with a type of ‘mirror feature’ which could reflect social change in China and my personal experience with it. I return to China regularly and more and more find it to be a society of overlaps – different times, cultures and ideologies overlap in parallel ways. In the villages for example you will find the old China of about 30 years ago, but in the big city you will feel the modern side and the future of the country. This mix of time and space, memory, the virtual and reality can be confusing at times. This is why I use a technique of superimposing several layers of images. The overlapping layers will inevitably abstract parts of the final image, and these parts will have to be read and understood differently from the rest of the painting. I rarely think about the issue of style within my creative process. The way I paint is just a very natural process which is unconsciously linked to my personality.

REVma -/+: Your narrative involves significant aspects of your childhood that also reflect the socio-economic setting in China. Why did you choose this particular subject and what did you attempt to achieve?
Li T.: Politics is one of my main interests outside of art. The profession of the artist makes me an independent entity, an outsider of any political and social system, and I can talk freely about my feelings or explore my own heart. Man is also a social animal. I often try to understand the social context I live in, especially as a man of Chinese origins. China has changed drastically since the 1970’s and every day I spend a lot of time reading news about the country. All this stimulates my painting and one could read it as a track left behind by the times. My childhood was spent in China and I think that my most basic features of my world view are informed by this period. Looking back at my childhood becomes a way to analyse myself and my roots. I have kept only five black and white photographs from this period. China’s urbanisation has made the background of my childhood disappear into a distance. Since I now work in Europe that distance has even become something physical leaving a vague blank period within my personal history which I have a desire to fill. And I attempt to do so by creating different scenes and inventing my own history within my paintings. I also try to address the feelings of insignificance and helplessness of the individual within a wider social context, one in which imagination can often seem as the only way out.

REVma -/+: How do audiences in the Western world respond to your presented narrative and what is the parallel reaction in China?
Li.T: My paintings have not gone through the usual and official Chinese platforms. My first solo exhibition in China was in 2010, held at Contrasts Gallery in Shanghai. The works were well received at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, Hong Kong, in 2011, but that does not represent the real China. My work is different from the mainstream socialist style within which works often depict groups of happy Chinese children among flowers. I want to talk about a true self so the work is allowed to contain a little sadness. The Western reaction to my work is very diverse. Some people are more interested in the formal aspects of the painting while others are interested in my childhood experience, and others again are interested in the social context behind my work.