A UK retrospective for ‘unsung hero of Chinese art’ illuminates the multidisciplinary work of Guangxi-born artist, and documents an extraordinary life lived across continents
Until November 25, Richard Saltoun Gallery in London’s Fitzrovia presents Li Yuan-chia’s first UK retrospective for more than 15 years. One of China’s earliest pioneers of abstract and conceptual art, this exhibition offers a thorough overview of his complex practice.
Curated by Dr. Diana Yeh, Lecturer in Sociology, Culture and the Creative Industries at City, University of London, the works on display span the gamut of painting, photography, sculpture and video. Speaking at the gallery, Yeh explains that this multidisciplinary approach, whilst a joy to curate, might be the key to Li’s “lack of visibility” in the contemporary art establishment.
“Li Yuan-chia was not just a painter, he was a sculptor, a videographer … a poet, a craftsman, a calligrapher, a laborer, a philosopher … and yet little is known about this artist. In part, this is due to the difficulty of categorizing his extraordinarily eclectic art practice into specific movements or styles.”
-Dr. Diana Yeh, Lecturer in Sociology, Culture and the Creative Industries at City, University of London
A lack of recognition could also be put down to his regular “movement across nation-state boundaries,” continues Yeh. Born in 1929 to a farming family in rural Guangxi province, Li was given up for adoption aged 11. His adoptive father was killed in the Sino-Japanese War, and he was subsequently raised in a succession of orphanages in China. From these tumultuous beginnings, he forged a career as an artist in Taiwan, Italy, London and, for the latter part of his life, Cumbria in the North of England.
Each leg of this ’trans-local’ journey is referenced in the works on display, from the minimalist, monochromatic early canvasses representative of Li’s time in the rebellious Ton Fan Group in 1950s Taiwan; or his experimentations with media in Untitled, c. 1965, a graphical piece in wood, white paint, and gold leaf which tells of his time spent in Bologna, Italy, where, under the sponsorship of Italian furniture designer Dino Gavina, Li would play an active role in the formation of the Il Punto group, which seamlessly merged Eastern and Western art.
At the invitation of artist David Medalla, founder of London’s leading experimental art space Signals, Li moved to London in 1965, during a brief moment of international optimism and receptivity to diaspora artists. Several kinetic installations from this period feature in the exhibition, suspended colorful discs which invite the viewer to participate in, and complete, the artwork for themselves. As Li describes in 1968, “If you ask me where my art is going after today, my answer is ‘Toyart’, which means: my works seem like a toy — good for everyone, from children to old men and women”.
Diana Yeh speculates that it was a longing for space and nature that drove Li from London to rural Cumbria in the early 1970s, where the Northern English countryside has been said to be reminiscent of the southern Chinese landscape of his earliest memories. There, Li bought a small, rundown farmhouse at Banks on Hadrian’s Wall from local painter and friend Winifred Nicholson. After moving in and refurbishing the building single-handedly (as can be seen in the video work, Hard Labour, 1973), opening to the public in August 1972 as the Li Yuan-chia Museum & Art Gallery (LYC — Yeh is also a Trustee of the Foundation).
For the next decade, the LYC would become the site of more than 330 exhibitions by local and international artists and poets, including Andy Goldsworthy, David Nash and Michael Longley. Li would further his philosophy of ‘art for all’ with a communal arts room, running workshops on everything from textile weaving to puppet making; combining the traditions of his heritage with those deeply linked to the Cumbrian landscape: the LYC is remembered fondly by all who encountered it.
Sadly, the artist’s final years were plagued with difficulty. The closure of the LYC in 1983 was followed by lengthy legal battles, family troubles and ill-health, a period which Li documents in a series of brutally colored, emotionally charged photographs which reflect his feelings of desolation and anguish: delicate flowers appear about to be violently sliced or buried, whilst a faceless man looms, swathed in thick blankets.
Li Yuan-chia died of cancer in 1994, aged just 65. In 2001 the Camden Arts Centre in London gave him a solo exhibition, and in 2014 a major retrospective took place at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Taiwan. Public interest continues on an upswing, with reports of a growing market for his near contemporaries and a display at the recently opened Switch House at Tate Modern, London.
The works by Li Yuan-chia currently on display at Richard Saltoun tell a story which stretches from rural southern China, mid-century Bologna, and swinging 60s London, through to the miraculous creation and legacy of, as Yeh so accurately describes, “his own little Utopia under the Cumbrian skies.”