By Laura Shen
The evolution of Mao Lizi’s art reflects his life history. High realism in the earlier years, followed by critics on space at the middle age, and at the senior stage, he finally gave up the hound for reality, as he gradually recognized the ambiguous boundary between truth and lie, reality and illusion, right and wrong. There is no necessity to stay astute for any situation, it would turn to be much happier to muddle along, to contemplate the moon reflected on water, or gaze the flowers through mist. He turns to embraces external interpretations and imaginations. Fact or bubble, they are ephemera among eternal being.
Mao Lizi is unique. He is different from his peers born in 1950, a generation suffered from Cultural Revolution, disposed by authority to impoverished countryside as “urban young intellectuals”, and dismissed from the disbanded state-run firms thanks to market reform, a deserted and ignored generation endured fierce change of the country. At the age of 65 while most peers spent their retired life, Mao Lizi leads an avant-garde lifestyle very much resembling the post-1990s young people. He is a humble intellectual in studio, wearing glasses and shirt, with grey hair. He is also a yuppie in city, favours Michelin food and champagne, loves social media, posts photos, shares posts, and wanders between diverse cities in Europe and China, a veritable Beijinger once steeped in the west. While his art is ethereal and elegant, he is pragmatic on how to enjoy the present, gregarious in art circle gam, and keen to urban change, environment and state’s livelihood.
A Within-Regime Artist’s Realism Breakthrough
Before 39, Mao lizi held a stable, secure and respectable routine in China in that period, the “Iron Bowl” life within the regime. He migrated to Beijing with family in 1953 from Shaanxi, and laboured in rural areas at age of 17 as all his peers did. He was assigned to paint the set for revolution-themed drama on stage. “That is the inception of my realism art”, he mocked. Those works are hardly regarded as art today, but they complied with the art standard in the age then, when revolutionary romance and leaders’ icons were prevalent. He joined the army in 1972 and got promoted to a promising rank after 15-year service, but he knew that he was not interested in power, and especially, he had something different to say from the official language. Star Society has provided the platform for his presentation. He joined Star Society in 1979 when it was quite risky to participate such an association as a within-the- regime artist. Until 1988, he finally left the military and became an independent artist.
The Door series was created during this period. They imitated the creaky doors of traditional residence houses in Hutong of Beijing, while slogans of “Five Goodness Family” or “Smoke And Fire Is Prohibited” reverted the dwellings constrained within the planned unit, the regime strictly controlled population and family. His nostalgic and critical doors prompted market popularity, and he soon found it plodding to repeat painting doors, it was not sufficient to establish his art language. His desire for change was occasionally accompanied with China’s radical turn.
Door, Wall and Floor: Space Transformation
His first travel outside China mainland happened in 1989 in Hong Kong for attending the 10th anniversary exhibition of Star Society. In the same year, at the climax of students protest in Beijing, he held his first solo exhibition in United States. “Beijing was very hectic then, I was thinking of going back and see how it was going”, the artist recalled. On May 27, 1989, Mao Lizi returned Beijing. In 1990, he was offered visas from 5 countries’ embassies including U.S, U.K and Italy, treated as professional talent. He eventually chose France as the visiting professor for École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-arts de Paris (ENSBA) under French government scholarship. Due to language barrier, he spent more time on producing artworks than teaching. He obtained a precious time to get devoted into painting and continued his realism practice. Fresco was a simulation of the classic Dunhuang grotto murals, the decorous lady icons were covered by Mao Zedong’s profile image, pell-mell slogans and graffiti. The civilization monuments were damaged by political head-washing movement, Mao’s solemn face and the mural ladies’ tender eyes formed a binary and ironic co-existence, which represented the artist’s reflection on state and history.
He is often inspired by space divider, whatever door, wall or floor, to construct his surrealism pseudomorph, expressing critics on culture, politics, tradition and time. Following the Beijing courtyard doors, he started to depict walls in Paris. He wrote the worldly popular French sentence Je t’aime on the city walls. The widely admired French romance appeared on the cold walls in the form of random graffiti, and this is Mao Lizi’s particular antilogy. The Key in 1991 is another practice. He imagined the white zebra crossings as piano keys so that the normal traffic was full of music in his eyes, whereas the reality was rather order and limit from a new country than freedom.
Brown and Blue
He is not a Diaspora artist though he sojourned in France for a decade. His works do not contain the trace of homeland and cultural background, nor influenced by the western art concept. He maintains his unique style, a genuine Chinese artist with strong Chinese characteristics. “Even today, my French is poor,” he joked. Since returned back to China in 2000, Mao Lizi worked in architecture industry for several years. His interest for space can be traced back to his previous series of Door, Wall and Burrow. He shelved art creating until he realized his creativity was restrained owning to the business interest and client needs in the design industry, so re-started his artist career in 2008. This time, his art has been tremendously transformed from realism to abstractionism.
Flower Or Not resembled orchids, landscapes, clouds and human bodies. The lively, flowing brushwork that seemed to be highly arbitrary contains deep symbolism and stimulated endless imagination. His art is no longer simulation of reality, but dreamlike phantom coalescing abstract concept and design aesthetics. Thanks to his experience in design industry, his art looks visually elegant that deserves decorating the interior. Blue and brown are the most frequent colours. Brown is derived from Chinese traditional ink and wash painting, embodied by Zen, Buddhism and life philosophy, while blue stems from the artist’s previous sojourn in France, inspired by the sea in Cote d’Azur or people’s enthusiasm for blue doors. The two colours are the combination of his Chinese cultural root and overseas experience. His poetic paintings invited audience to envisage, this aura could be found in Landscape Reconstruction in 2014, which brings a new look by changing the state of water, enriching colour gradation and language of blue. Blue symbolized twilight scenery, blooming flower, fish in water, or the shadow of shark in deep sea as interpreted in On Sharks and Humanity exhibited in National Museum of China, suggesting environmental protection and love for nature.
The stochastic abstract art is the fruit of meticulous planning. His career zenith comes at an age of retirement, contributed by dozens of years between West and Orient, state system and liberal market, solemn art circle and profitable design industry. It’s hard to explain the reason behind the worldly popularity of Chinese contemporary art, but he is aware of the increasing taste of Chinese audience. “There was a buyer of my work, a young lady maybe the post-1990s generation. She persists to buy her favourite art in spite of high price and cumbersome travel. I am very amazed to know my abstract art is loved by such young collector.” He is perceptive to market and institution cooperation. “Artist needs a good gallery and agent”, he said. He knows well that a man who can only paint is not qualified to be artist. He is clear-sighted about the world change, and aware of what challenges an artist in an age of Internet, business, market. He knows how to respond.
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