Li Yuduan

Beijing

at Gallery Beijing Space

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This show marked a new phase in the approximately 20-year career of Li Yuduan. A 1989 graduate of the sculpture studio at the Academy of Fine Arts, Guizhou University, in the relatively poor, subtropical province of that name in China’s mountainous Southwest, the artist produced an early body of rather gloomy representational paintings before establishing himself as a sculptor. Four years ago, he began specializing in small figurative ceramics in the polished, vividly painted style associated with the centuries-old Jingdezhen porcelain works.

Like many of today’s Chinese ceramists, Li opted for charm and wit, creating ornately decorated cattle, pig or human figurines asleep on thick clay pillows or recumbent on plates. His chubby nude couples entangled in their bedclothes have some of the eroticism but none of the anticolonialist angst of Liu Jianhua’s shapely maidens in high-slit quipaos, offered up on platters minus their heads and arms. Thus it was a surprise—and a heartening one—to see Li suddenly command two galleries with large, serious and richly disturbing sculptures.

Centered in the main space was an oversized, clear-resin human brain filled with red dice that also trailed halfway across the floor from the base of the work’s mirrored platform. Dramatically spotlit, Brain (2009) seemed to glow as bright as oxygenated blood nurturing color cues (traditional good fortune, Party dominance, Chinese nationalism) in the cerebral cortex. Meanwhile, the chance combinations of the dice, pouring out like random mental associations, evoked both the biological facts of DNA and the mythic cosmology behind the I Ching—contrasting, yet equally aleatory, accounts of human fate and change.

Along one wall, three ceramic skulls perched on roughly 4-foot-high pedestals served as memento mori, incongruously lush as Feng Zhenghie’s recent candy-colored ceramic death’s heads and crosses. Li’s pieces all have the jutting lower jaws of primitive humanoids. One skull, colored a pale green, features intricate reliefs of vegetation and fish (a second evolutionary reference), while the other two are painted—one primarily pink, the other yellow—with flower patterns reminiscent of Ah Xian’s porcelain busts.

The idea that all development eventuates in death was strongly reinforced in the other room, where one could view—either at ground level or from the gallery’s small overlook—a clear resin cast of the artist apparently fallen, Icarus-fashion, onto a mirror shattered by his body’s impact. The figure’s face in this nightmarish Dream (2009) appears frozen in mid-scream. Imagine a dangling Zhang Dali body cast cut from its rope, or an Antony Gormley figure toppled in a grimacing, narcissistic swoon. According to the show’s curator, Lily Li, the overall title, “Desire/Scar,” is less an evocation of Scar Art, the first art movement to acknowledge the physical and psychological costs of the Cultural Revolution, than a caution against overweening personal wants and the Lacanian mirror stage of identity formation. As the American novelist John Barth once put it: “Self-knowledge is always bad news.”

Photo: Li Yuduan: Dream, 2009, transparent resin, mirror, 11¾ by 84¾ by 31½ inches; at Gallery Beijing Space.