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"For me, Ming Dynasty furniture is abstract art," Li Gang

Dark water stains on the vermilion walls of the Forbidden City and the black and ochre swirls in the grain of lacquered wood are rumored to have inspired the great historical calligraphers. Writing in China has a multi-layered structure of meaning; starting with a very literal transformation of sound into visual form, further modified over time into numerous "styles" - each with their own specific use, and then refined on an individual level to incorporate psychological and aesthetic influences. Chinese Calligraphy is abstract art.

Li Gang is one of the foremost artists currently working in abstract art in China. He would tell you that abstract art, meaning the western definitions of Action Painting, Cubism and Minimalism (to name a few), is far more native to the art psyche of this country. The pervasive realism here is a foreign import - the brainchild and trace of former Soviet domination in the region.

"Commercially we are a failure, we are struggling, all of us," says Li Gang matter-of-factly, speaking collectively for abstract artists in China. Up until recently, he has created his work, exhibited it, and promoted the work of other, similarly focused artists, in obscurity. Li Gang though, is an example of that classic scrappy artistic pragmatism. He has partaken in the development of real estate in Bei Gao, a Beijing suburb, helping to found and design an artists village well stocked with abstract painters, printers, photographers and sculptors. He has a foundry as well, to fabricate his own sculpture, but it also supports him and his artistic ventures. Completing the circle of the abstract art movement in Beijing is the Pickled Art Centre in Bei Gao, which Li Gang manages, and the Two Lines Gallery in the 798 Art District, at which he shares curation duties with two other artists.

Li Gang studied art in Melbourne, which accounts for much of his original interest in western art, and allowed him to escape a formal socialist realism art training in China. The abstract movement was dually cursed in China, as it was actively promoted by the US State Department on one side, as a vehicle of democracy and free-expression, and patently rejected by the Communist Party here as the hallmark of foreign capitalist imperialism. There are very few successful abstract painters in Chinese contemporary art. Li Gang singles out Wang Huai Qing (who no longer resides in China) as the greatest artist of the genre. Huai Qing's black and white canvasses feature deconstructed Ming chairs and tables, strongly referencing calligraphic imagery and recalling the work of Nevelson and Kline. Li Gang's painting is much softer and deals in gentle gradations of color, reminiscent of early Guston and Rothko.

Once back in China after his studies, Li Gang returned to his origins artistically as well. He approached calligraphy very organically, avoiding a traditional course of study. Perhaps this enabled him to make certain realizations about the nuance of the brush stroke. "Calligraphy is very close to the character of the Chinese people. Chinese people, particularly men, hide a lot. Things are never straightforward, there's always an element of hiding." This not only refers to personal secrecy or the strict censorship of communist China, but hearkens back to the imperial days, when the emperor exerted harsh control over intellectuals as well. What westerners have come to consider cliched subjects in Chinese poetry and calligraphy - odes to the moon or rhapsodies on light reflecting on water, for example, often had little to do with the intention of the calligrapher. It was in the quiet pain, stress, anger, and illicit eroticism contained within the mark of the brush, and how it vied with the white of the paper, that lay the true meaning.

Once the emotional code of calligraphy is deciphered, a feat that is basically impossible for westerners, the ubiquitous odd gestures and quirks that seem innocuous in Chinese classical architecture and design evolve into a clever language of subversion and protest.

Li Gang's pet grievance is with the fact that viewers of contemporary Chinese art have lost the ability to read a painting. The art establishment here, including the academies and government, are quite happy with that state of affairs. Abstract painting, sculpture and photography, while intensely emotional, offer little in the way of narrative and didactic potential. They just can't compete with the political message contained within a portrait of a benevolent leader, even if he is "ironically" flanked by two bikini-clad vixens.

But while demanding that audiences devote a sizeable chunk of their precious time to examining his work, Li Gang offers little direction. "Talking about abstract art is abstract!" he quips. And perhaps living up to his own pronouncements on the psychology of the Chinese people, he ends with "art is a lonely profession, and abstract art is more lonely. Sometimes we hope people won't understand - we ourselves work from the unconscious - I don't want people reading my mind."

Will Corwin

Li Gang is having a solo exhibition in April at the Red Gate Gallery in the 798 Art District in Beijing, and will be featured in the "P.O.P. Beijing/New York: Works on Paper" exhibition at the Pickled Art Centre in May.

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