Li Jikai’s New Work Continues the “Post-’70s Ego Generation” Meditations on Identity
Li Jikai’s melancholic paintings often depict downtrodden characters suspended in dimensionless, gloomy spaces. Born in 1975 in Chengdu, China, Li is part of the Post-’70s Ego Generation—a subset of Chinese contemporary artists who explore existential themes through a blend of distinct materials, unique processes, and original imagery.
In Waste Picker (2014), ten variously sized figures—ambiguously gendered and resembling dolls—engage in disjointed activities. On the right, a figure with comically large feet sits crosslegged reading a book full of blank pages, while a tiny figurine emerges from a canoe boat behind him. In the center, a woman cooks over a glowing bonfire while a child to her side gets a haircut. To the left, a trio stands guard around an overstuffed sack, and one faces the viewer with outstretched arms and outward facing palms. Li ties these otherwise unrelated characters together with scraggly brushstrokes, similarly doleful expressions, and an overarching, ominous sky.
In Light a fire (2013), Li builds an environment around a solitary figure who wields a smoldering branch. The scene is mostly flat, with few contextual details. Under the subject’s feet, black and gray charcoal shards seethe with fiery red paint marks and behind him, abstract forms meld together. The figure’s yellow-tinted skin, droopy limbs, and vibrantly patterned surroundings recall Brazilian street-artist duo Os Gemeos. Indeed, Li’s painting style in general reflects a street-art sensibility.
Li typically uses a somber palette and passage of paint that drips and pools, reflecting the wistful, isolated nature of her subjects. Lonely planet (2009) proves one exception. In it, a precisely formed globe appears atop an uncomplicated, solidly painted background. The cheerfully colored orb is upside down, with two small characters posed on top. Rather than depict a moment of solitude, Li decided to present an instance of human interaction—perhaps even a moment of consolation.
Unlike his predecessors, who captured specific social and political histories, Li is interested in painting individual, subjective realities. His works exemplify a shift in contemporary art practices in China, wherein artists’ work transcend regional specificities and relate to broader, global themes.