Mao Lizi is an artist engaged in an on-going exploration. From his landscape paintings of the 70s, through his period of hyperrealist conceptual paintings while part of the Chinese avant-garde Stars group, and through his contemporary yet oriental Wall series, right up until his recent years of abstract work in the Ambiguous Flower series, and finally to his abstraction-meets-hyperrealism in the Scraper Knife series or Lotus series, Mao Lizi is in a process of constant reinvention. Nor is it ambition that has driven these changes, but his own artistic nature. Art begins as an interest, yet under outside influence, this essence is often abandoned. The end-purpose of art should not be an artistic truth strenuously pursued, but rather to use art as a perspective through which the truth of life may be approached. If death is the inevitable end of life, living can still be the truth of life, so if painting becomes an end in itself, this equates to death in life. The interest of the painterly pursuit is its truth, just as living life is the truth of life.
Such ideas may be found in the works of Kant, Wittgenstein and Heidegger, yet the whole of Chinese philosophical thought is also imbued with them. Around one thousand years ago, the highly influential poet Su Shi warned us against lending excessive importance to intellectualism: « Abandoning that which is more precious than book, preferring art to questions of life and death... are not our priorities inverted? » For Su Shi, life and death is in our essence, intellectual pursuit is non-essential; if we consider intellectual accomplishment as foremost, then the order is inverted. In his opinion, all famous scholars had fallen into this misconception, in a fever of neglecting the roots and addressing the leaf-tips. And yet perhaps, if we manage to avoid falling into this trap, not only is this essential problem resolved, but paradoxically we attain a true art, that which is the joy of art as the objective of art itself. In the painting of Mao Lizi, it is the joy of painting that creates the pieces. Constantly changing his artistic approach, it is the joy of art which is being sought after.
In those works that he so joyfully created, our attention may be drawn to the Scraper Knife series and the Lotus series. Both are works of hyperrealism–meets–abstraction. Although in contemporary art other artists have pursued similar explorations, yet it is more with his compatriot Qi Bai Shi, renowned throughout China for his working bringing together Gong Bi brush technique with realism, than Western contemporary artists that we sense an inspiration. If interpreting the work of Mao Lizi through a consideration of Qi Bai Shi, we may be reminded of the transformative periods in Qi Bai Shi’s work. Likewise, although Mao Lizi is not the first to work in hyperrealism or abstraction, his Scraper Knives and twigs could be considered an extension of Qi Bai Shi’s realistically depicted insects, or his Lotus works and mud walls a continuation of Qi Bai Shi’s plants. In both rupture and continuation, comparisons of the contemporary Mao Lizi’s work with the master of Gongbi are endless.
Interestingly, Mao Lizi is bringing up some new questions. Although Gongbi painting and hyperrealism are vastly different, both are within the medium of painting, and share the characteristic of bearing the aspect of being painted works, however precise the skill of Qi Bai Shi’s brushstroke: both are products of abstraction and not the result of photographic capture. Yet, due to the current trend of ready-mades and the universalisation of photography, Qi Bai Shi in current day would be integrated into the work as a ready-made, or a photocollage. Thus, may spectateurs up against Mao Lizi’s hyperrealism will suspect a collage of readymades. When they realise the photorealism technique that is used, they will feel as if they have been tricked. This is the true experience of a spectator of art. Painting is essentially a trickery, such was the opt-repeated doctrine of the masters of Ancient Greece. Only when the spectator feels this sense of having fallen to an illusion can he be captivated by the work in front of him.
However, the point of our focus is not the effect of optical illusion achieved by Mao Lizi’s photographic technique, since the experienced art viewer, accostomed to such works, will not be overly shocked by their lifelikeness. The true illusion is that of abstraction. In truth, the abstraction in Mao Lizi’s work is not abstraction, but a work of ready-mades. The earthen walls in his work are truly earthen walls. The dense, earthy colours are the true colours of mud. When we realise this, we will feel truly that we have fallen for the illusion, provoking a sudden jolt in us. Here we sense the oppositions of truth and illusion, void and plenitude, existence and non-existence, and how they intertwine, engaging in transformation and in tension with eath other, such is the true force of Mao Lizi’s works.
Original text by Peng Feng, Beijing University
Copyright: translated from Chinese by Claire Myhill of Maison Bleu Studio