中文 / EN
Wayne Higby

Self-Portrait: The Art of Li Hongwei

Wayne Higby

Director and Chief Curator of Alfred Ceramic Art Museum

Alfred University

 “The self-portrait has become the defining visual genre of our confessional age … One of the wonders of self-portraits is their capacity to induce levels of uncertainty in the viewer. Is the artist looking at us with a view to portraying or judging us? Is the artist looking at a mirror, with the view to portraying or judging themselves? Is the artist creating a persona to serve specific ends? Or have they delved into the book of memory, myth, imagination to create a work personal in its meaning?”[i]


Li Hongweiis among the new generation of artists who have taken a deeply rooted, Chinese national identity and revolutionized it via individual perspectives. His achievement in ceramic art is especially significant. Li Hongwei’s acceptance into the renowned Masters of Fine Arts program in Ceramic Art at Alfred University marked a significant step in his development as an artist and a significant step in the arc of his life. For Li Hongwei, studying in America brought his personal life story into deep scrutiny. The cultural diversity between China and America offered a comparative analysis that focused the challenging question: Who am I?In an attempt to answer that question, the artist began a series of self-portraits in fired ceramic.

Li Hongwei’s exploration of the self-portrait finds a powerful rational in the material matters of his work. His concentration on the individual artist as subject is also rooted in the intellectual framework of modernist art theory and the idea of autonomy. The idea of autonomy is part of the modernist mythology regarding the social history of art. As European society’s structural systems began to change during the mid- to late-19thcentury, due to the important influence of the industrial revolution, an independence of individual thought and practice began to assert itself conceptually among the artist of early modernism. Artists in all media began to focus on their own experiences and emotions. The commonplace became a forum for investigation. No longer tied to the patronage of the church or court, artists found a new audience in the rise of a middle class. Although still dependent on the support of the consumer-collector, a sense of freedom from service to a specific patronage liberated art from political, mythical, and religious constraint.[ii]

This idea of autonomy has had far reaching impact. Throughout the full length of the 20thcentury in Europe and America the central phenomena has been the rise and strengthening of the individual artist as hero and visionary. Integral to the globalization of art in the 21stcentury is the fixed idea of individualism and art. The autobiography of the artist has become an important backdrop to critical discourse.

Although the artistic practice of self-portraiture is certainly not unique to the modern era, it has been one avenue of individualism that is of special interest. Gustave Courbet’s self-portrait, The Desperate Man,painted in 1845, is a magnificent example of an artist’s intimate, personal investigation of physiological pathways. Vincent van Gogh’s self-portraits are legendary examples of an artist’s search for the particular in the self-image. Egon Schiele, Edvard Munch, Pierre Bonnard, and Pablo Picasso are especially notable modernists who produced numerous self-portraits. More recently, self-portraits of Frida Kahlo, Andy Warhol, David Hockney, and Cindy Sherman have brought intensity to investigations of individual identity, of race, ethnicity, and gender.

America, as a nurturing home for the cult of individualism, has had a profound influence on art and artists globally. The influence of the United States has infiltrated much of what we view as the global mainstream of art making. It must be acknowledged, however, that artists from many cultures around the world have brought their considerable gifts and national perspectives to American contemporary art. American art has been greatly influenced by artists representing a vast array of nationalities living, working, exhibiting, and studying in America. The investigation of self has been reflected in a multiplicity of cultural dimensions as artists from around the world have found their way to the US for short or extended periods of time.

The celebration of the individual artist as a singular autonomous being working outside traditionally sanctioned artistic programs has not been part of Chinese art history. The practice of landscape painting and calligraphy has celebrated the individual energy or spirit of the artist, but it is nonetheless tied to the specificity of canonized principles imbedded in a discipline of tempering originality. Although self-portraiture is not unknown in the history of Chinese art, the subject of the artist himself or herself in self-portraiture has been by in large avoided—until recently. 

Li Hongwei’s investigation of the self-portrait in ceramic material as a manifestation of contemporary art and life is a bridge between East and West, as well as a bridge between tradition and the urgency of the present moment. His study in America certainly brought the self-portrait to the center of his practice, but his investigations in ceramic art reach back into the thousand-year-old history of Chinese ceramics. For China is, in fact, the taproot of ceramic art. Chinese ceramic art must be studied and appreciated both for its technical story and the brilliance of its aesthetic achievement.

The traditions of Chinese painting and calligraphy are also clearly evidenced in Li Hongwei’s work. He brings to the individualist’s program of the self-portrait a sensitivity to Chinese aesthetics exemplified, for example,by literati painting of the Song Dynasty, which was aligned with poetry in a focus on the emotional state of the artist. The subject of Chinese scholar painting was, in large part, the artist’s inner feelings.[iii]Li Hongwei refers in his work to a mindscape of ideas and feelings reveled not so much in a rendering of image, but in an engagement of process. His self-portrait image is deeply connected to the phenomology of the ceramic medium as a carrier of the content in the work. This approach rejects form-likeness in favor of sprit-resonance. The self is the subject, but similar to Chinese ink painting the subject is also the flow and dynamic interaction of the hand-body-material interface in the moment of creation. This aspect of body labor is continually in evidence in Li Hongwei’s work and gives profound meaning to the portrait of the self with which he is engaged.

Li Hongwei’s large-scale sculpture, Weight of Meditation #6, is a manifestation of extensive body labor and self-reflective engagement. This piece consists of 35 handmade self-portrait heads of various sizes stacked in a series of 5 columns or towers. The layered meaning encoded in this work is reflective of Li Hongwei’s deep connection to his Chinese ethnicity and his sensitive introspective nature. The compositional arrangement of Weight of Meditation #6is reminiscent of Brancusi’s Column of the Infinite, which is part of his tri-part monument to the Rumanian heroes of the First World War. This reference is a reading of modernist art history as well as an insightful formal, sculptural device that allows the sculpture to imaginatively multiply in scale as it refers to an infinite human population in which the individual is but one singular entity, an entity that, nevertheless, has special meaning as a singular poetic, spiritual reflection of the whole. The faces of the individual heads are rendered with eyes closed as if in some introspective meditation. This condition engenders a quiet reflectiveness to the entire work which otherwise speaks of a systematic ordering of chaos. Li Hongwei’s structure of stacking seems to allude to the regimentation of society, which has the potential to empower and restrain the life of the individual. In a beautiful stylistic gesture, Li Hongwei connects his towers with the traditional architecture of the Chinese pagoda, which has its origins in Buddhism, but has become a universal, secular symbol associated with Chinese cultural history.

Li Hongwei’s manipulations of material speak of his individual body and touch as mentioned, but also focus on earth as material and place. Li Hongwei incorporates, via his use of clay, the metaphors associated with the Earth as the essential home of human kind and, in Western, Christian mythology, the origin of the very, physical body of man. Li Hongwei’s compositional arrangement of columns or towers is further arranged in a horizontal installation clearly suggesting landscape. We see in his sculpture the trinity that houses the fundamentals of human experience—figure, architecture, and landscape. In addition, we witness in Li Hongwei’s sculpture the metaphor of transformation as the wet earth or clay is transformed by fire into stone. This metamorphosis, in concert with the self-portrait, alludes to the internal and external struggle of the individual to resolve the questions of life and thereby gain enlightenment or transcendence. Trial by fire is a real aspect of ceramic art that suggests struggle, which leads to renewed purpose. The sculpture becomes a transmitter of the collective human consciousness regarding the immortality of the spirit. Li Hongwei’s autobiography achieves universal resonance.

Weight of Meditation #6is clearly a major sculpture. Power of Silence, although a far less dramatic piece, is nevertheless a very significant one. Its palpable state of quiet introspection is especially compelling. There is weight, mass, gravity clearly engaged; yet it is the tilt of the head with chin resting in the hand, eyes slightly closed, that captures an intangible moment of thought. The manipulations of material give to the work a sense of living energy. The work seems to breathe gently. Fissures in its ceramic surface, as well as the crazed network of its glaze, suggest trials and tensions creating an overall rendering that speaks of the forces of time and stress. Present moment and history are encapsulated physically and graphically. Power of Silencehas the fluidity and intimacy of a drawing suspended in volumetric space. One is reminded of the work of the late 19thcentury Italian sculptor Medardo Rosso, whose work in wax and plaster bridge the space between painting and sculpture. One can find hints of AugusteRodin here as well, in particular with regard to the figurative fragment as sculpture replete with the residue of the making. Li Hongwei’s connections to the classics of late-19thand early-20thcentury art are perhaps no surprise given his educational background. At the Central Academy of Fine Arts, he was exposed to a tradition of academic figure drawing and modeling largely imported from the West. However, unlike traditional figure modeling, a unique and fascinating aspect of Li Hongwei’s self-portrait is the fact that it is formed largely from the inside. In other words, the sculpture is hollow and expands into space around an interior volume. This gives the effect of the form asserting itself into space from somewhere inside the image. This offers up an uncanny quality of becoming or coming into being that challenges the sculpture’s factual condition of material opacity and weight. 

Li Hongwei is on the threshold of a major career as a ceramic sculptor. His masterful skills, as well as his attentiveness to the traditions of ceramics and figurative sculpture, combined with his sensitivity to the poetry of human vulnerability, situate his work both in the canon of historical masterworks and at the forefront of contemporary Chinese ceramic art. His work reveals a depth of seriousness and commitment to goals other than the trivial exercise of self-indulgence so ubiquitous in surveys of current ceramic work in China. Although the self-portrait could be considered to be a form of artistic narcissism, Li Hongwei manages to deliver a powerful and poignant reading of the self far beyond the superficial desire for attention.    

The early 21stcenturyis a dynamic, unruly time for art in China: wonderful for creativity, but almost impossible to sort out. Art that is taken seriously seems to require an element of cultural critique imbedded in it, most often a superficial, edgy punch line that seems geared to sympathies of Western-international consumption. Refreshingly, some work stands out simply based on knowledgeable, powerful assertions of material savvy, and artistic intuition that avoids cliché.

Li Hongwei’s work is a strong encapsulation of the concept of a new individualism. He offers us his self-portrait expanded or expanding against the backdrop of old China: the classics of traditional painting and calligraphy as well as the traditions of Western academic modernism. Ceramics plays the role of history and tradition, but also of body and landscape giving the individualism encapsulated a place—the place it has always had in the larger perspective of the human being and earth. The work is respectful, sensitively considered, deeply felt, and audaciously centered in the assured commitment of a personal vision impervious to commonplace trends.



Wayne Higby is the Director and Chief Curator of Alfred Ceramic Art Museum at Alfred University. He is a professor and the Robert C. Turner Chair of Ceramic Art at the New York State College of Ceramics, School of Art and Design, Alfred University.Higby is a published authority on ceramic art, acknowledged for his articulate lectures, essays and critical evaluations. Higby is a Member of Honor of the United States National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA), Honorary Board Member of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, and Vice President of the International Academy of Ceramics, Geneva, Switzerland.


[i]James Hall,The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History(London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 2014).


[ii]Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, and Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, The Social History of Art: Models and Concepts, Art Since 1900(New York, NY: Thames and Hudson, 2004).


[iii]James Cahill, Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).