Chen Li Feb 2018 exhibition - prints
From Yunnan to Fitzrovia: Rare Woodblock Prints from China's Frontier Yunnan Province
Chen Li lives and works in Kunming, the capital of China’s spectacular Yunnan Province. 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.
Last year, we introduced Chen Li’s lyrical paintings in his first London exhibition, “Paintings from the Heart”. This time, we shine the spotlight on Chen Li’s extraordinary woodblock prints, made using a rare reduction woodblock technique developed in Yunnan.
The “reduction” woodblock printing technique involves stamping all of the colours from a single woodblock. Since the image is built up by repeated cutting of the same block, each step along the way destroys the previous one until the woodblock itself is destroyed.
Only a single edition can be printed this way and the process can never be repeated. The technique uses thick oil-based colours, creating relief-prints with a mesmerising texture.
The artist must commit to a finite amount of prints - usually 20 for Chen Li - from the very first time the very first colour is applied to the woodblock. By the time the second colour is applied, the ability to re-print the first colour is lost. This lends a sense of urgency, commitment and entirety to each work, as there is simply no going back. It is no wonder that some artists have dubbed this the "suicide technique".
Vibrant and dynamic, Chen Li’s woodblock prints are a song of line and colour. Steeped in Eastern philosophy and simultaneously traditional, contemporary, and whimsical, the woodblocks are a vivid testament to his unique vision and abundant originality.
Chen Li defines his practice as a constant transformation, as a living art that while rooted in tradition embodies the evolution of woodcut printing and painting though constant innovation.
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, Chen Li goes deep inside himself to find peace, harmony and balance. It is this that gives his works such power. “I paint what I feel in my heart... For this I have to face my past, and to have the courage to see past successes and failures.”
Defying any one style, he says “Just like writing a love letter, content is key; what pen you use is not important. Chinese art and Western art have different views about reality. But … I ignore [these] rules to create living artistic images.”
Chen Li’s woodblock prints have won numerous national awards in China. His works, both on canvas and paper, have been placed in significant private collections in the United Kingdom, Italy and the United States, inspiring a loyal following.
Short video about our artists from Yunnan