Spotlight on Li Yuan-chia: The Father of Chinese Abstraction Is on View in London

Hosting a rare retrospective exhibition in the UK, the Richard Saltoun gallery invites London’s art viewers to explore Li Yuan-chia’s enlightening artistry. Being remembered for his contribution to abstraction, the exhibition offers an overview of Li’s past as an empty canvas for further interpretation and comprehension.

Li Yuan-chia (b.1929) was an innovative post-war artist whose creative practice was infused by ordinary daily sources as well as inspired by narratives from the cosmic sphere. Li was born and raised in Kwangsi, South China, and studied in Taiwan. Although he was concentrated on abstract art, Li also developed a strong interest in the western modernism that was pervaded into his art practices too. Moreover, the artist’s working progress was driven by his involvement in a wide range of other creative arts, such as calligraphy, photography, sculpture or even kinetic installations.

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Spotlight on Li Yuan-chia, Exhibition View at Richard Saltoun gallery in London, 2016

In the 1950s, the artist became one of the founding members of the pioneering Taiwanese abstract group Ton Fan (Eastern in English) in which Li and other artists, such as Wu Hao, Ho Kan or Chen Tao Ming, were keen on producing an elaborate identity of Chinese abstraction. Regardless of their commitment to Chinese abstract practices, the Ton Fan group demonstrated a crucial interest in Western modern art, too. In the early 1960s, Li decided to travel to Europe and particularly he visited Bologna, London and Cumbria in the north west of England. Li managed to build a strong art relationship with the UK, where he established a long-term career and founded the YLC Museum. He spent the rest of his life in Cumbria until his death in 1994.

This current exhibition interestingly showcases various artworks from paintings and photographs to sculptures and kinetic installations. The viewer is able to engage with this important artist gaining an important insight regarding the different forms and techniques Li used. It was a great surprise to see Li’s characteristic mark, the famous “cosmic point”. Having been influenced by the principals of Zen Buddhist and Taoism, Li developed a small distinctive calligraphic circle, usually seen as an adhesive mark on the surface of his paintings. According to the artist, the symbol of the circle – the cosmic point – incites a spiritual approach towards life as well as it employs a philosophical allusion regarding the beginning and the end of things. Furthermore, Li was attracted to colourful hues, such as red, white, black and gold. Favouring these colours, his minimal monochromatic paintings and participatory kinetic installations reflect the meaningful notions of nobility and purity and let these hidden qualities come through to the viewer’s eyes.

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This exhibition features representative paintings featuring the artist’s distinctive style. In addition, the gallery illustrates other artistic sides of the Chinese artist through a series of photographs, audiovisual installations as well.

By including such artworks, the Spotlight on Li Yaun-chia exhibition addresses remarkable histories and cultural innovations in ways that are deep-rooted as well as aesthetically compelling. As Li successfully strove to mix different aesthetic languages, from western modernism to Chinese abstract art, this show also manages to remix the artist’s values and codes at a more modern perspective. A viewer, who is not very aware of Li’s background, has the opportunity to approach many aspects of his artistry, since Li was not just a painter but a multi-faceted artist. Diana Yeh curated Li’s exhibition illustrating her devotion to the artist’s career as well as to the diaspora of other Chinese artists in the United Kingdom.

Considering Li’s work and its historical foundation, the sense of elegance that characterizes his compositions sets the stage for a significantly interesting debate. The show seeks a creative interaction with the audience rendering a unique opportunity to engage with Li’s artworks that crystallize an important period of the abstract art movement. Li’s visual techniques and interests operate as cultural signifiers which set him as one of China’s most renowned artists of the twentieth century and a major contributor to the rich history of abstraction.

Words & Images: Yannis Kostarias

This review was originally published at CoBo Social:

Spotlight on Li Yuan-chia: The Father of Chinese Abstraction Is on View in London

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