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May 11, 2024

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Fanfan Li: Artist takes mind flight to new spaces

Fanfan Li has moved from one home to another since she was young, and now she lives in France, serving as a cultural ambassador who well absorbs both Chinese and Western arts.

She was born in 1958 in Shenyang, an industrial city in northeast China. Her parents were senior journalists working for the Xinhua news agency. Li moved to Shanghai in her late teens.

Energetically open-minded, she became interested in many things, ranging from ballet and music to architecture and painting. She relished everything she learned about and found her interests inspired each other.

In 1986, Li went to New York to study jewelry design at the SUNY Fashion Institute of Technology. Shortly after her graduation, the burgeoning designer joined Van Cleef & Arpels.

In 1989, she won the first prize of Van Cleef & Arpels for Best Young Designer by the Comité Colbert, an association established in 1954 to promote French luxury brands. Her later experience working at Bulgari and Cartier further cemented her as a top-echelon high jewelry designer.

Li did not rest on her laurels, nor did she want to continue to cater to the requirements of patrons, be they superstars or royals. Driven by a choice to settle in Paris, she started painting full time, with the aim to perform creatively as an artist. Most importantly, she was ready in every measure. Although a change of course for her, all her earlier interests and experience led her to this destination.

The realm of painting opened up a greater media for her creative work. Her initial efforts were invested in a genre called gongbi, which is a kind of classical Chinese ink painting devoted to details.

Her early artwork included bamboo and flowers, especially the lotus. The traditional symbols became fresh images through her treatment. The lotuses, petals and leaves, in “Reflexion” (2001), are painted like facets of gems that Li had deftly worked at.

“Lotus — Faceted Ruby” (2019) visualizes a vision playing with cut gems, angular and geometrical in form, bright and rich in color, with the foreground and background in harmony.

Li never abandoned her skills gained from high jewelry design, but how to integrate the privileged experience into her painting remained an issue she was constantly concerned about. Flowers and bamboo were the immediate symbols within reach, but still far away from her ultimate search for esthetic beauty.

She kept broadening her vision while delving deeper into her thinking. Her mind flight eventually saw her art transcend from the bounds of Mother Nature to create imagined universes on a grand scale. Landing in a vast, uncharted universe, the new series went to great lengths to explore what beauty could be, rather than what beauty is. The promised land was to be renewed with immense strength as far as her imagination could stretch.

The place created in her “Universe” series is different from the surreal world that Dali pioneered decades ago. No effort was made to distort objects as was practiced in surrealist painting. Surreal or rather dreamlike, Li’s paintings embrace the belief that beauty resides in order and order breeds calm.

A striking element present in her canvases is poles sculpted minimally yet towering skyward. Strongly Bauhaus-flavored, they appear essential, sleek and neat. A close look brings to view patches of rich jewel colors — for example, “Imagined Peace” (2017) and “Echo — Aquarius” (2022).

There was always room for the jewelry designer-turned artist to let her earlier glory dazzle on her canvas. Poised as otherworldly things resistant to seasoning and bending, the poles probably derive from the earlier bamboo. They appear as pillars for sheltering at surface value. Symbolically, they look like sacred totems wrapped up in simple dignified beauty. The point is connected auspiciously with another attention-grabber — origami. The well-known Japanese art form has been enlarged massively and breathed into life, so its blessings may also have multiplied considerably.

The choice of the poles, vertical and horizontal, can also be read as a spin-off from a neoplastic esthetic regarding geometrical shapes, considering Li’s appreciation of that movement.

Yet, she is always engaged in making variations and directing them in a painterly fashion. Instead of producing flattened patterns on canvas, a clear distinction is articulated between her figures and background. The tall poles, arrayed in an ordered pattern, play the role of figures against the vast background, where no flora or fauna is to be found. This act of sharp reduction still remains close to the spirit exerted by the Bauhaus school and neoplasticism as well. Due to frequent revisits to their traits, Li’s works define themselves as large-scale variations rather than revolution.

One of the “Universe” series called “Passage — Libra” (2022) can be used to illustrate the graceful maneuvering of geometrical shapes, especially the poles, a contribution innovated to expand the spectrum of neoplastic forms. With spacing pitched rhythmically between crimson and grayish poles, they fence a spacious passage in the center of the scene. At its very end stands a huge hourglass portrayed in a couple of triangles. Light floods in vibrantly, straight rays dancing with flowing geometrical shapes, varying in color and tone. It is hard to name them but they build up an atmospheric vibe filled with mystery. It inevitably evokes thoughts about human destiny when we see a small human being in the process of going through the passage, or rather the passage of life at the symbolic level. There is a sense of uncertainty looming over all, except for the elegant layout of the towering poles.

As can be seen, Li’s creativity lies in her capacity to deftly integrate her earlier experiences into her later work. She rarely started as a novice when embarking on a new career. From architecture to high jewelry design, from gongbi to oils, from flowers to the imagined universe, each and everything counts in the context of increasingly sophisticated experiment. This esthetic logic explains why her signature style arises with triumph.

Li’s paintings were exhibited in many French cities and foreign galleries. Some are held by collectors, private and public institutions, including Château de Villandry and Cercle de l’Union Interalliée, where her paintings are displayed next to Zao Wou-Ki’s.

Shen Li is an art critic and a retired professor at Fudan University’s School of Foreign Languages and Literature.



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