Chen Li Bio
(b. 1971, Kunming, China)
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. Just like writing a love letter, content is the key; what pen you use is not important. (Chen Li)
Inspired by the spectacular landscapes and Buddhist philosophy of China's Yunnan Province, Chen Li creates a unique visual language by weaving the abstract and gestural qualities of Chinese ink painting with the colours and textures of Western oil painting.
Working in the media of oil paintings and reduction woodblock prints, Chen Li is a superbly versatile and original artist who defies being categorised in any one style. Deeply knowledgeable and accomplished in a variety of styles and techniques, Chen Li believes that one should learn all the rules and then have the courage to break them in order to create living images. Pursuing his own concepts and ideas are key to his work and personality.
Chen Li is the oldest son of one of Yunnan's most established artists (Chen Yongle, whose work is also featured on this site). Born in Kunming, the capital of China's frontier Yunnan Province, Chen Li grew up prior to his father’s artistic and financial success which came after the Cultural Revolution, in the more liberal 1990s. In his youth he fell into a pattern of frustration, holding a number of jobs but not able to find a place for himself outside the emotional outlet of painting. After sustaining serious injuries in an accident, he pulled himself back from the abyss by focusing completely on his art. Despite the frustration of his early years, his art celebrates life and the dynamic harmony of lines and colours in nature and in all things.
Choosing to live outside the artistic community, Chen Li is adamant about not being categorised within a style: "I paint to finish my idea, my hope. That is all ... I care more about what I want to say and whether I say it clearly. Or if there are other ways that I can say it better.” Likewise, his medium of expression, whether woodcut prints or oil on canvas, is driven by the concept he desires to convey: "Just like writing a love letter, content is the key, what pen you use is not important."
Chen Li explores a unique synthesis of Eastern and Western techniques while remaining deeply rooted in Chinese philosophy and culture. He writes:
[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's unique landscapes and moodscapes evoke almost palpable sensations. He says that in order to truly appreciate something, we must feel it with our hearts, not just see it with our eyes. He is influenced by the mountains and lakes of his native Yunnan but this is not his only source of inspiration. He doesn't force his ideas but allows them to come naturally. Once he has a concept in mind, he explores it from all angles through a multitude of sketches or by working out segments on smaller canvases before attempting a larger work.
Chen Li seeks to give the viewer the same deeply felt happiness that he seeks within himself. When asked how he achieves the lyricism and harmony of his paintings, he smiled: "I live in my own way ... simply, naturally. I have no boss and I have little contact with other painters. So my paintings are lyrical."
Click on the image below for a transcript of an interview at Chen Li's studio
Pages From A Diary
Click on the image below for excerpts that Chen Li shared from his private journal - thoughts that the he wrote down to guide, understand and evolve his practice.
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
The Woodblock Prints of Chen Li: Reflections in a Blue Lake", 2017, London
Chen Li: "Paintings from the Heart", 2016, London
Chen Li, Chen Li Works: Oil Painting, 2012, China
Chen Li, Chen Li Works: Woodcut Prints, 2012, China
Chen Li: Paintings from the Heart, Katrine Levin Galleries, 2017, London
Until very recently, Chen Li devoted all his focus to his art, consciously choosing to remain outside the artistic community and not to exhibit his works. However, in China it is obligatory for artists to submit their works for consideration in the annual National Exhibition, a selection by which is a high honour. Chen Li has exhibited at several National Exhibitions, including the prestigious National Exhibition in Memory of the 60th Anniversary of Mao Zedong's “Speech in Yan'an” (2002) and a number of Biennial Woodcut Exhibitions.
Solo Shows in London:
2018: Chen Li: The Poetry Within, 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