Li Songsong at Pace Gallery

Li Songsong, Couple (2011), oil on canvas, 11′ 9-3/4″ x 9′ 10-1/8″; courtesy Pace Gallery

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Contemporary art doesn’t come more soulless than the paintings of the Beijing-based artist Li Songsong, who is having his American debut at Pace Gallery.

OK, that might be a stretch. The competition is, after all, pretty stiff. Songsong isn’t any less professional—that is to say slick and superficial—than any number of artists whose names you could rattle off. But Songsong’s gargantuan, multi-panel paintings are fairly egregious in that they are unrelentingly pro forma. Whether Songsong is proud or oblivious to this fact is difficult to parse.

There’s not an iota of Songsong’s art that can’t be traced with a straight, steady line to another artist or genre. Here is an artist for whom appropriation isn’t a transgression or a prank, but an established tradition. He is, in other words, an academic, and when academicism reaches this pitch of handsomely overbearing blandness, you’ve got art that’s guaranteed not to put a crimp in your day.

Poaching upon the ubiquity of the photographed (or filmed) image, Songsong paints scenes drawn from contemporary events and personal snapshots, rendering them in stucco-like slurries of oil paint. The work’s political bent is patent, but made vague and palatable through a risk-free manipulation of material, format and image.

The paintings are impossible to imagine without Social Realism, China’s state-sanctioned style of painting, but its influence is no less oppressive than that of Gerhard Richter, say, or Sean Scully and Chuck Close. Songsong touches innumerable artistic bases without transforming any of them. This is Significant Art as pure style.

Songsong’s art is notable primarily as an example of how the world’s largest communist state has embraced avant-gardist art as an international marketing tool—a sociological fillip that cultural historians will have a heyday unraveling. Art historians will have an easier time of it, filing Songsong’s achievement as another blip amongst the novelties that power the marketplace, if not the life of art itself.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Originally published in the July 12, 2011 edition of City Arts.

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  • Sam  On July 20, 2011 at 3: 23 am

    I have never seen paint used the way Songsong does. I thought the somewhat contrived, illustrational subject matter was a great contrast for the radical use of paint and giant, shifting panels. The impact was remarkable. I wonder if we saw the same exhibition?

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