Chen Li Bio
(b. 1971, Kunming, China)
“Just like writing a love letter, content is the key; what pen you use is not important”
Chen Li is a prize-winning artist who lives and works in Kunming. Born into an artistic family in 1971, he grew up surrounded by the avant-garde artists of the post-Cultural Revolution, equally inspired by the works of Bruegel and de Kooning as of Guan Xiu and Zhao Wu-ji.
His work is in the British Museum and in significant private collections in the United Kingdom, Italy and the United States.
Amazingly, despite winning many prizes at the mandatory national art exhibitions in China, Chen Li felt he was not ready to exhibit internationally until he was 46. Since his first solo show with us in London in 2017, he has been attracting significant attention from public and private collectors alike.
“Chinese art and Western art have different views about reality. But when I paint, I ignore both man-made and natural rules to create living artistic images.”
Chen Li defines his practice as a constant transformation, a living art. The freedom of Chen Li’s thoughts is echoed in the freedom of his strokes and the originality of his compositions. His flying strokes render wind, clouds, the universe – transporting the viewer into the experience.
After a turbulent youth and a near-fatal accident, he goes deep inside himself to find the peace, lightness and joy that permeate his works. "I paint to fully express my ideas, my hopes. I paint what I feel in my heart... For this I have to face my past, and have the courage to see both successes and failures."
Inspired by the spectacular landscapes and Buddhist philosophy of Yunnan, he weaves East and West into a unique visual language full of harmony, spontaneity, and a brilliant interplay of colours and textures. Chen Li's father, Chen Yongle (whose works you can also see here), is one of the most significant living artists in Yunnan, famous for his elegantly decorative depictions of the many ethnic minorities of the region. Although father and son differ greatly in style and subject matter, Chen Li is inspired by his father as to the harmony of line and colour.
"I paint to finish my idea, my hope”
Chen Li developed his style in conscious isolation from the influences of academia. Defying categorisation, he says "I paint to finish my idea, my hope. What I care most about is whether I'm saying what I want clearly, and if there are ways to say it better.” Pursuing his own concepts and ideas are a key aspect of Chen Li's work and personality.
Chen Li works with both oil on canvas and woodblock prints. His lyrical oil paintings meld the philosophies and techniques of Eastern and Western art to create a mesmerising new visual language. The composition of his joyful woodblock prints is equally unique. Moreover, the woodblock prints are made using a rare reduction woodblock technique developed in Yunnan. The “reduction” technique involves printing all of the colours from a single woodblock. Each step along the way destroys the previous one until the woodblock itself is destroyed. This method has been dubbed the "suicide technique" as there is no going back if you make a mistake. Only a single, small edition can be printed this way and the process can never be repeated. The method uses thick oil-based colours, creating relief-prints with a mesmerising texture. You can read more about this technique HERE.
Chen Li is an artist of extraordinary scope and originality who is attracting serious interest from public and private sectors. Breathing new life into an existing medium, he reaches out from within the cultural context of his native Kunming, the capital of China’s frontier southwest Yunnan Province, in a way that speaks to universal experiences. His works have been placed in significant private collections in the United Kingdom, Italy and the United States, and have been shortlisted by the Royal Academy of Art.
[I am] inspired by searching for new possibilities of expression in the context of my culture and ideology... From childhood, I studied Chinese ink painting, calligraphy, colour theory, philosophy and poetry, as well as Western theories and oil painting. Now, I am re-examining [these concepts] … from the standpoint of my own emotions, perceptions and cultural background… I continue to examine and explore the field in which I exist in search for new possibilities.
Chen Li lives, feels, and breathes the poetry of life. He seeks to give the viewer the same deeply felt happiness that he seeks within himself.
You can read a Interview with Chen Li, taken in 2015 by Katrine Levin, HERE.
PAGES FROM A DIARY
Click on the image below to read excerpts that Chen Li shared from his private journal.
EARLY SKETCHES AND ACADEMIC STUDIES
Chen Li had many teachers from his early years: "Most of my father’s colleagues are painters or teachers. I was listening to their conversations about painting in the East and West. I looked at many different styles of paintings from my early years."
VISIT TO THE STUDIO
Chen Li's works are in private collections in the United Kingdom, United States, Italy, and China.
CATALOGUES IN ENGLISH
"Chen Li: Spirit of Landscape", 2018, solo show catalogue, London
"The Woodblock Prints of Chen Li: Reflections in a Blue Lake", 2018, solo show catalogue, London
"Chen Li: Paintings from the Heart", 2017, solo show catalogue, London
Chen Li developed his art in conscious isolation from influences by academia. His works won many prizes at the mandatory National Art Exhibitions in China, including the prestigious National Exhibition in Memory of the 60th Anniversary of Mao Zedong's “Speech in Yan'an” (2002), but he felt he was not ready to exhibit internationally until he was 46. After only one year on the international stage, he is gaining attention from private and public sectors, including the British Museum who has accepted his artwork for display in the permanent collection.
Solo Shows in London:
2018: "Chen Li: Spirit of Landscape", solo show, 17 - 23 June, London
2018: "The Woodblock Prints of Chen Li: Reflections in a Blue Lake", solo show, 19-24 February 2018, London
2017: "Chen Li: Paintings from the Heart", solo show, 18 June - 1 July 2017, London