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Michaël Amy

Li Hongwei: Tradition and Change

Michaël Amy

Professor of Art History, Rochester Institute of Technology

Modern art is perceived to a large degree as conceptual art. For many contemporary artists, idea is more important than artworks and making art is more or less a game of installation, word-play, or performance. On the other side, going against the trend of de-materialization, the discussion and experimentation of materiality in art has increasingly become the focus of a number of artists and critics. 

Working at the intersection of tradition and innovation as he juxtaposes Eastern and Western aesthetics, Li Hongwei expands the parameters of sculpture by introducing the vessels he makes, as a superlatively gifted master of an ancient form of glazed pottery, into the realm of abstraction. By combining baked clay with stainless steel in his sculptures, Li Hongwei joins fragility to solidity. The former medium transformed civilizations around the world before the beginning of history, while the latter medium has ties to industry, construction, and modernism.

When glazes containing crystals are applied by Li Hongwei onto his vases before firing, and then the temperature in the oven is suddenly droppedby opening the hatch, effloresces appear on the surface of the pots, adding immense visual richness to these. In three bodies of Hongwei’swork, the vessels are carefully sawn into, at one or both ends of the pot with either a straight or wavy, curvilinear cut. The removed parts are then restored—as it were—with new, stainless-steel pieces fashioned by hand, sealing off the hollow body, which was originally open at the top. 

The act of removing and replacing could hardly be made more explicit, as not only is there an abrupt, collage-like transition between materials (one brittle, the other hard) and processes (modeling, glazing, and firing versus hammering, soldering, and polishing), but there is also a sudden shift from polychromy and pattern to silvery monochromy. The latter is broken as we, the viewers, approach the metal, see ourselves and our environment reflected in the shiny surface, and witness something even beyond the object’s skin that dissolves its integrity. 

Constantin Brancusi—one of the founding fathers of an entirely autonomous form of abstract sculpture (independent, that is, from the architecture to which it was traditionally attached), and an artist who exploited the tensions obtained by juxtaposing materials and processes—introduced shininess and mirroring effects in many of his works. Jeff Koons brought porcelain and luster back to Western sculpture, and Wim Delvoye embraced both the patterns of Delftware and the gleam of stainless-steel in several of his series of sculptures. Li Hongwei inscribes himself within this fascinating line of avant-garde practice, as he breaks new ground and—by doing so—expands the field of sculpture. 

Despite the efforts in the West of the likes of Pablo Picasso, Robert Arneson, Betty Woodman, Anthony Caro, and Peter Voulkos, and despite its deep impact upon generations of sculptors, clay—with its ties to craft and the so-called minor arts—remains marginalized within the world of modernist sculpture. Li Hongwei’s work offers a strong argument in favor of clay, ornament, color, and the morphology of vases, as both visually and conceptually enrichening forces with the realm of sculpture.  

An impression of liquidity, of melting, of a kind of regimented transformation is obtained in Upwelling of Gravity, as here—as elsewhere in Li Hongwei’s work—a sharp, hard-edged, curvilinear line separates the porcelain from the stainless steel. The sculptures in this series resemble stylized cones topped by one ball of ice cream, with the flavor running sheet-wise down the biscuit, instead of dripping in rivulets. The porcelain top is perfectly hemi-spherical, and what lies below it gradually and methodically thins down to a stainless-steel point situated right beneath the center of the hemisphere. Where the inverted cone suddenly turns into stainless-steel, space is reflected and warped, as are we, the nearby onlookers. 

But while there is visual equivalence to a scoop of ice cream and its cone, which has associations with popular culture, the implications of Li Hongwei’s art are different. Li Hongwei, who works with slow deliberation, attaches the utmost importance to outstanding craftsmanship. Unlike some of his contemporaries, he does not aim for mass appeal and he does not delegate, preferring to make everything himself by hand. 

The works belonging to the Allegory of Balanceseries are surprising, playful, and exhilarating. Here, different bodies of porcelain covered with variously colored glazes are forced to “cohabit” (a term deliberately borrowed from the political landscape of 1980’s France). Both there and here, the resulting tensions, compromises, balancing acts, deceptions, pyrotechnics, and tricks can be highly entertaining. The combinations of abstract biomorphic forms in this series have more than a little in common with certain works produced by Surrealist artists (card-carrying members of the group, or not) including Joan Miró, Yves Tanguy, and Isamu Noguchi. Unlike Miró however, Li Hongwei does not use chance procedures to arrive at his compositions. Instead, he embraces the rigorous self-discipline of the Chinese calligrapher, or potter, who repeats the same actions over and over again and in so doing arrives at a meditative state. 

Allegory of Balance # 1evokes the type of unexpected formations that water, wind, and particles are able to carve out of rock or wood. Here, as elsewhere in this series, bodies are built up of distinct parts stacked one on top of the other. The verticality of these bodies evokes two standing figures, with a person seated in between them. The engineering behind this type of composition heightens our sense of wonder, as the supporting structure is hidden within the hollow forms.

An impression of floating occurs in the Xuanseries, which is inspired by a Chinese character (玄). In these works, a variation upon the Upwelling of Gravityseries, bulbous bodies turn into elongated points at the top, from which the forms are suspended in mid-air by means of a wire. Li Hongwei works on as many as five series of abstract sculptures concurrently, allowing images and ideas to migrate from one body of work to another in an act of cross-pollination. 

The forms in the Xuanseries seemingly melt, gradually and evenly, to become long sharp points at the bottom. There are a couple of exceptions to this rule, as in Xuan # 1(2018), which resembles a large drop of dew, or a tear a split second before falling and splashing onto the ground. But while tears denote the theme of sadness, this body of work is not sorrowful. Reminiscent of Christmas ornaments, there is a hint of danger in the Xuanseries, the points in the majority of the pieces facing down seemingly waiting to pin us like butterflies and put us on display. In Xuan #2(2018), danger also lurks within visual opulence.  

The sense of falling increases in the Illusionseries, each consisting of a tall vase sliced lengthwise in half and turned upside down to magnify the impression of dropping. Half of the vase is attached along its main axis to the center of a rectangular, mid-sized, vertical sheet of stainless steel. As the metal surface is highly polished, the projecting half of the vase is completed by its own reflection, which seems to appear behind it. In other words, the vase appears to be intact. The sense of falling through the silvery air of the polished steel leads us to imagine the end result, the sound of crashing pottery and shards spreading across the floor. But a vase twists and turns as it tumbles instead of falling perfectly straight. Li Hongwei’s gravity-defying performance piece belongs to a world of illusions.

Do the rounded vessels in the Illusionseries allude to our own bodies? After all, we too are containers—of all manner of things. Are the vases, profiled against a field of silver, metaphors for the fragility of life and the spin of the wheel of fortune? It is well known that it can all come tumbling down, quicker than the flick of a wrist. Li Hongwei’s centralized vessels—almost as deadpan in compositional terms as Jasper Johns Green Targetof 1955, or his gray Canvasof the following year—make us wonder whether we dare long for alternatives, we who have been taught the virtues of the golden section and all that jazz. What would a much vaster field of silver, with pots in asymmetrical configurations, look like? What about a single vase off to one side, to disrupt the careful equilibrium? Then, we suddenly realize that discrete asymmetries are present, introduced through chance processes at the level of the glazing, with in one example splendid, silent explosions of varying blues and a few dark grays appearing randomly against a burnt yellow-orange ground.  

These wall-bound works belong to the family of relief-sculpture, although they contain important pictorial components, as the flat stainless-steel mirrors us and the surrounding space in reverse—as in a painting on polished stainless-steel by Michelangelo Pistoletto. Additionally, the vase—magically completed by its reflection—has a colorful two-dimensional pattern wrapped around it. 

Li Hongwei has such exacting standards that he rejects approximately four out of every five vases he makes, whether they are intended as autonomous vessels (he produces such works as well) or as objects to be incorporated in his sculptures. Those pots that did not emerge from the oven just right are eventually smashed to pieces, then deployed in a novel type of sculpture consisting of an open structure, its skeleton exposed to view, which is composed of shards of varying shapes and sizes along with intact vases placed on their side or upside down. The resulting totality—a first response to the zany sculptural installations of Judy Pfaff and the crockery paintings of Julian Schnabel—approximates a raft, built by the survivor of a shipwreck or airplane crash, in his or her attempt to escape a desert island. We all need to escape, at the very least from time to time. Art is so very crucial to the quality of our lives, in large measure because it offers us with a means of escaping the dreariness, or ugliness, of everyday reality. 

Demolition, and what can arise from the ruin, are the theme of Rebirth in Breakage, a new series which comprises only a single large work to date—Li Hongwei’s largest, in fact. This sculpture has powerful, classicizing, horizontal and vertical accents, with all of the forms arranged in a tight relationship to the imaginary front plane of the composition. I suspect that Li Hongwei will soon break away from these vectors and go even further in exploring the third dimension—perhaps with floating sculpture, or in work that is anchored to the wall, floor, or ceiling. The Allegory of Balanceseries gives us an inkling of the amount of quirkiness this artist is willing to explore. Rebirth in Breakagereminds us that all creation emerges from destruction, symbolic or not. Perhaps the breakage displayed here—draped across, or pierced by stainless steel bars like ravaged body parts that cannot be pieced back together again—is a commentary on our present plight, when basic freedoms and rights are being trampled in ways that seem impossibly anachronistic? If so, what is being reborn?

In only a short number of years, Li Hongwei has developed an idioyncratic body of sculpture, unmistakeably his own. Its recurring feature is the extraordinary glazed pottery he makes, with its superb crystalline imagery. Moving with steady determination, and thinking in terms of series (as did, many artists including Claude Monet, Alberto Burri, Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, and Gerhard Richter), Li Hongwei expands the language of abstract sculpture.

Michaël Amy is a critic and art historian with a Ph.D. from New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.  He is a Professor of the History of Art in the College of Art and Design at the Rochester Institute of Technology, working in Renaissance, Baroque, modern and contemporary art. His articles, interviews with artists, and exhibition reviews have appeared in a wide variety of publications, including The New York Times, Burlington Magazine, Apollo, Art in America, Sculpture, tema celeste, Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies, the Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz,and CAA.Reviews.  Additionally, he has published over fifty essays for books, exhibition catalogues or brochures, on contemporary art. He is the author of One to One: Conversation avec Tony Oursler(Brussels, Facteur Humain, 2006), Michaël Borremans: Whistling a Happy Tune(Ghent, Ludion, 2008), and Hiroshi Senju(with Rachel Baum as co-author, Milan, Skira, 2009), and is a Contributing Editor for the magazine Sculpture.