China in the Eyes of Li Kunwu & Douglas Gorsline, June 3 - November 5, 2017

Li Kunwu’s drawings and Douglas Gorsline’s paintings take you on a trip evoking two views of China linked by the artists’ interest in and taste for the countryside and daily life. Li Kunwu, surely China’s greatest contemporary artist today, has been rendering the landscapes and ordinary people of South China for 30 years while in the 1970s and 1980s Douglas Gorsline brought us a totally unknown view of a fantasized China. The paintings speak to each other, their gaze meets over the decades separating them. These deeply human gazes bring us almost documentary details and literally transport us.

Douglas Gorsline and Li Kunwu share the same pleasure of focusing on ordinary people and the countless situations of daily life. Li Kunwu’s drawings burst out with details that help understand today’s as well as yesterday’s China because the artist also draws from memory when the little lanes and wooden houses that he wants to represent no longer exist.

While several decades separate them, Li Kunwu and Douglas Gorsline often come together on neighboring subjects like the little trades, people at work, life of the countryside and daily life. Their styles also unite them. Profoundly human, Li Kunwu lingers over their faces and expressions finding in each one his or her specificity and uniqueness, always adding a little whiff of humor or playfulness slipped in here or there. With the same élan, Douglas Gorsline seizes the gestures and movements of life in his inimitable style of sequential simultaneity.

This sequential simultaneity brings us a multiple view of a scene in one take, just like the chronophotography that he so admired. And where Li wants to leave a trace for future generations, Douglas Gorsline provides a rare view on a forbidden China that few painters had the opportunity to discover. But above all, what is fascinating in seeing China in the eyes of these two artists is how they come together in history.

In 1973 while Douglas Gorsline is discovering the China that will be found in his paintings, Li gives us the comic strip of A Chinese Life of his own history and thus of what China was at the very moment the American painter landed in China. During the winter of 1972, Li volunteered as a soldier to guard the frontier between China and Vietnam with which China was having difficult relations. He stayed there for seven years. At the same time, his father was in a re-education camp and his sister was also later sent to the countryside. From A Chinese Life in which Li speaks of his life as a soldier :

“My company depended on an artillery regiment of the 63rd division of the IXth Military Region. Our regiment had been founded in 1943, in the middle of the war against the Japanese. Nourished since I was a child by the military exploits of the People’s Liberation Army, I was immensely proud to be part of it.”

Li actively participated in his company’s cultural revolution.
The Little Red Book, published in 1966, was a vital link. Mao regularly initiated mass movements for the people’s education. “At that time, President Mao addressed the nation every year in a speech that we then dissected tirelessly until the following year’s message. In 1973 he launched the movement : Rectify our work style by taking account of revisionist criticism. We must pursue the Cultural Revolution until it is accomplished. Then in 1974 it was : Criticize Lin Biao, Criticize Confucius. We had to understand Lin Biao’s thinking. This traitor went over to the enemy and was as dangerous an influence as Confucius had been some 2500 years earlier.”

Thus, beyond the artists as people and their artistic gaze, this exhibition offers a double view, the historical as well as the artistic.
Three years after Douglas Gorsline’s departure from China, Mao died.
All of China was in mourning. A new history was beginning.

Geneviève Clastres

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