Chinese artist Li Feng works in his studios in Shanghai and Los Angeles, where he is inspired by the everyday: people, language and the poetic ironies of life. A painter and poet best known for his striking works on canvas, he works in acrylic, oil, coloured powder and mixed media techniques, often implementing collage in his painterly practice.
A: In Issue 115 of Aesthetica, we featured The Adventure Journey. Who are the subjects – are they real people, a composite of various people or are they purely from your imagination?
LF: Human society is another jungle. For individuals, they are a mixed image of the known and the unknown, as well as the interwoven inner self. Sometimes wandering among them, the identity of each other will unconsciously be weakened or blurred, becoming indistinct. Only when one is alone, the concepts of “self” and “other” will emerge and gradually become clear.
A: You are inspired by the everyday: people, language and the poetic ironies of life. What has led you to this?
LF: Indeed, there was a time when I felt emotionally down, silently painting, and due to years of writing, I began to organise the rather scattered poetry manuscripts I had accumulated over the years. In my daily life, I discovered early on my sharp sense of words. They combine and record the spiritual history of my life.
A: The subjects seem complex, reflecting emotions and experiences that play a role in forming who we are. How do you find dealing with people in real life?
LF: Most of the time, perhaps due to personal character reasons, I live in an extremely self-centred inner world, becoming more of an observer of life than a participant. Maybe others don’t see it that way.
A: Can you elaborate on what you view as the poetic ironies of life?
LF: It’s undeniable that in some of my poetry, I do pointedly satirise events that happen again and again in reality, events that occur so frequently in daily life that people become accustomed to them as if there were nothing wrong. I analyse the psychology behind someone’s words or actions — based upon the factual evidence as well as their age, identity, and profession. For instance, in the creation of Winter Is Cold and Summer Is Hot such content and scenes occur almost daily in the communities where people live.
As I leave my house for the nearby studio, traveling from one building to another, these people I often see but do not know watch me pass by, and I can overhear snippets of their conversations with each other — a constant repetition of boredom filled with various complaints.
Such satirical poems are not numerous; they are only a minority in my body of poetic work. Garbage also belongs to this type of work that critiques realism. Poetic satire is a kind of warm care for life itself and represents my personal attitude towards life.
A: How do works such as The Adventure Journey differ from Temptation and Jar, for example?
LF: The Adventure Journey is a narrative work, based on my experiences attending an international art festival in Songyang, Zhejiang, China a few years ago. During that time, I began to ponder the pros and cons of short-termism and anthropocentrism, as well as the concept of harmonious coexistence with nature advocated by ecocentrism.
The dark background of the painting brings to light the animals, plants and multidimensional descriptions about humans interspersed throughout, trying to transform the serene and pastoral mood into one of estrangement and mystery. I enjoy this kind of appealing and persistent internal unease that leads to stimulation.
Temptation selects trees, snakes, rocks and marginalised figures in its composition and construction. Some of these are vague and not distinctly directional. I attempt to use this broad intersection to guide and articulate the multiple experiences that life has given me. For example, the active and passive, the natural perils that occur, the biological equality and their independent existence.
Jar is a work that parallels the past and the present, focusing entirely on depicting and expressing the comprehensive sensation of shape and quality given to me by drum set music, including the flowing properties of music. I can always imagine how wonderful the reverberations and flowing notes are when they are being played.
A: How does the use acrylic, oil, coloured powder and mixed media techniques inform your work?
LF: The use of various painting media and materials is usually chosen by artists based on the needs of their creation. This includes parts they are skilled at and familiar with, as well as experiments with new materials and media. The final effects presented will differ, as everything must align with the artist’s conceptual expression. Only when the physical application of media and materials is highly unified with the conceptual direction can it be considered relatively perfect. This is a familiar and comfortable working method for artists, as the operation of materials as tools is closely related to the artist’s body.
A: In what ways do you find painting as an ideal medium in which to express your ideas?
LF: In most of my creative practice, I usually start by considering the use of water-soluble materials like acrylic to lay down all or part of the base colour, then I outline all the shapes with charcoal sticks or pencils. This process may involve repeated modifications. Oil paints or other media materials are then applied on this basis, including the use of collage, which brings different sensations.
Of course, this process always results in some unexpected things on the canvas, which might be unwanted by the artist or, to some extent, a surprising delight that triggers further contemplation. As for the use and experimentation with other unfamiliar media, this process is filled with the thrilling experience of taking risks, and with it comes the responsibility for everything.
A: How does the implementation of collage help to express ideas around the everyday?
LF: In my work, this is a consideration that involves repeated comparisons and selections, and of course, I always find the best image that facilitates the expression of thought, which represents a special relationship related to the daily life of another creator and myself. Of course, considering the overall integration of the painting, the collage materials generally undergo necessary post-processing to make everything look just right and indescribably perfect.
A: How do you approach colour and perspective within your work?
LF: Intuition. The function of an artist’s intuition almost permeates the entire process of a work from beginning to end.
A: Your studios are in Shanghai and Los Angeles – how does each location relate to your identity, and more specifically your work?
LF: I use my studio in Los Angeles relatively less; it is a workspace in collaboration with ISLAND art media. Yes, I have a good working relationship and personal friendship with them. Everything is just getting started in my Shanghai studio. Frankly speaking, if one is a mature artist, they generally would not be too troubled by the differences in region and cultural diversity in their artistic creation. For me, the greatest issue instead comes from the aspect of language communication.
A: You are also the Artistic Director of Nowhere Gallery, Zhengzhou. When did you commence this role, and does it inspire your personal art practice?
LF: I served as the Artistic Director of the Nowhere Gallery in Zhengzhou in 2022, a position that lasted for one year until the end of 2023. Afterwards, the gallery will undergo an internal adjustment. The nature and role of an Artistic Director’s work are quite different from that of being an artist. I prefer the personal signature of an artist because, after all, completing a work that satisfies me brings a more lasting joy.
Of course, during my tenure as Artistic Director, I made many connections with artists and collectors, and all the exhibitions throughout the year helped me to temporarily step away from my own creation and gain more inspiration through interactions and communications with others. Right, it was indeed a pleasant time.
A: How do you balance your work as an Artistic Director with that of an artist?
LF: Exactly! This is the reality I have often pondered over the past year. It is necessary to arrange and coordinate everything, and there are conflicts in time allocation. But there is always a relatively perfect solution to everything, yes, just as you said, balance. Almost all matters are due to the planned collaboration of the team.
A: What challenges and opportunities is the gallery facing as we head into 2024?
LF: The gallery is still facing adjustments in its mechanism and personnel, and there is a need to manage the budget balance between daily activities and event expenditures. This also includes handling the many coordination tasks within event work.
I believe that everyone’s hard work over the past year has laid a good foundation for the gallery’s next steps in development. After the reform, we will certainly welcome even better opportunities, which are to be expected and are also my personal wish.
A: What projects and exhibitions do you have coming up for the remainder of 2023 and throughout 2024?
LF: Continue the creation of the two projects The Adventure Journey and Singular Material Actions. I always have some new ideas for these and hope to create some larger, more dynamic works. Different series of works can provide a window for the audience to see some of my parallel creative threads. They will develop naturally over time, which is helpful for me. I think 2023 is quickly passing, and current work and commitments require time, so for now, I have only arranged to participate in a group exhibition in Xishuangbanna.
I plan to participate in two projects at the Chinese national exhibition in 2024: a comprehensive materials painting exhibition and an experimental art exhibition. Approximately from April to June, two solo exhibitions will be held successively at the Limmi Ksnow Gallery in Shanghai and Nowhere Gallery in Zhengzhou. Other exhibition plans have not been finalised due to scheduling reasons. Life gives us a constant fact: things are always changing, including ourselves.
Winter is Cold and Summer is Hot
If it weren’t for the snow falling outside,
Rain, or the blowing
Of strong winds,
That somewhat elderly
Would surely be sitting steadily on one of those benches
Under the trees,
Watching a dog or
Passing by in front of his eyes,
Those people walking slowly or
In a hurry
Coming and going on that small path.
Most of them are women and children
From this community,
And men and women
They know each other
And live in the same way.
Sometimes, passing by there,
You can hear them
Discussing things happening elsewhere,
As well as the weather, pension,
And the price of rice.
This includes how winter is cold and
Summer is hot.
– From the poetry collection The Injured Apple.
Liu Ya says garbage
I don’t think so
We often see
It piled up together
Creating an aura within a few kilometers
Making those who pass by
That the trees, air, and rivers here
Were always polluted
But the problem is
It’s almost everywhere
With the wind passing by
It flies high
Under the sun
Its colors are vivid
Liu Ya, you can’t say that’s not
– NB: this poem was written in Chinese and translated by Yan Li.
All images courtesy of Li Feng.
The work of Li Feng appears in Issue 115 of Aesthetica. Click here to visit our online shop.