Li Songsong: We Have Betrayed the Revolution, Pace Gallery, London – review

Li told me at the opening of this superb first UK solo show that his title refers not only to political/ideological betrayal but also to revolutions in art. Li, 40, is a history painter whose subject is modern life, depicted in rich, multifaceted, unstable pictures – compellingly distinctive yet cannibalising many schools: he calls to mind in equal measure Ai Weiwei, Luc Tuymans and Frank Auerbach, with a hinterland encompassing Manet, assemblage and Chinese landscape painting.

“Guests Are All Welcomed” portrays an elegant western businessman, genial and at ease in the government office he is visiting. The image implies western capitalism permeating state monopoly, but the figure represents Neil Heywood, whose 2011 murder exposed Communist party corruption. The narcissistic, uncertain youth posing in designer underpants in “It’s a Pity You Aren’t Interested in Anything Else” revives a prevalent Chinese Calvin Klein advertisement. “Small Reunions” portrays Mao Zedong’s son, whose recent promotion was seen as nepotism, in front of his father’s embalmed body. “Shangri-La”, depicting a girl in a beautiful mountainous landscape, commemorates a protesting Tibetan who set herself alight.

The starting point for every work is a celebrated photograph that Li deconstructs and dislocates in paint. Working with multiple rectangular canvases or aluminium sheets, on each one he depicts different elements of the source image, which loses detail and is overwhelmed by Li’s sensuous impasto brushwork. His palette of wonderfully subtle greys, greens and creams alludes to photographs; the tone is flat, cool and non-dramatic. When Li nails the panels together to overlap in rough superimposed layers, a figurative composition just coheres but is fragmented, discontinuous – initially, many works resemble gorgeous painterly abstractions.

Li records the ambivalences of China’s fast-changing life – but built into his disappearing images are bigger themes of time and memory. He shows how effects of past events are felt, then fade to become mere fragments of history – yet from the narrow cracks of his toppling constructions, time returns, through the power of paint.

Until November 9,

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