Seattle Asian Art Museum, 654-3100
Through April 11.
A Feast, Li Jin's 59-foot scroll, contains a marvelous mess of expressionistic calligraphy crowded around soft, if not transparent, colored ink images of food in various stages of preparation. The whole effect of these foods, which range from Western items to ancient Chinese ones, is, of course, sensual. Here we have at last precisely what French semiotician Roland Barthes once described as the pleasure of the text: words and food, words and chicken bones, words and live birds, cooked birds, peas cooked with a chicken's head. Words with slices of fruit, words with bottles of hard American booze, linked German sausages, and a pig's head on a steaming plate.
Consumption is celebrated. And after we have finished the food there will be a night of sex--the expenditure of the energy that was transferred from the flesh of the fish, from the life of the chicks in the pumpkin, into our own heated bodies. Food and sex, consumption and expenditure, accumulation and depletion--there is no waste in Li Jin's abundant realm of the senses. Energy is not reserved but released, exchanged, exhausted by the bodies of the beautiful lovers.
The women in Eating Meat--a painting also on display--are dressed in fine and bright clothes with floral patterns. Their faces are made up: lips painted, eyebrows plucked, hair arranged in a combination of Western and Eastern fashions. The women (wives? sisters? friends?) stand around a whole cooked piglet on an ample plate surrounded by teacups. This is not ambrosia, food for the gods, but affordable meat for middle-class lovers.
Born in 1958 and currently a professor at Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts, Li Jin portrays the urban and the very ordinary. His images of food and humans are rather plain, if not vulgar. He presents us with the pleasures of the here and now: a pretty woman taking an order in a restaurant; an average man in a bathtub; an assortment of dishes on a small round table. The locus of Li's inspiration is not in heaven but in one's own house, or out on the street.
For reasons that are a mystery to me, the museum has paired the modern and immanent art of Li Jin with the transcendental and ancient calligraphy of Ming-dynasty poet, painter, and scholar Wen Zhengming. Born in 1470, Wen was not only a poet but also an expert in law, government regulations, and practical problems. Outside of their country of origin, there is no similarity between Wen and Li. Wen Zhengming's scroll Sunset on the Jin and Jiao Mountains, on display inside of a glass box, has its place in the clouds; it is lofty, expansive, and dramatic, with strokes that are perfect, not scribbly like the ones that clutter Li Jin's Feast. Wen's poetry is similarly lofty: "Remember the day that my boat floated down the Yangzi River/Peaceful waves undulated for a thousand li..../From where did the two islands emerge with soaring buildings?/Rising out of the waves with resplendent colors and decor./The reflection of sunset-bathed hills shadowed the whole river/While the high hanging mist-covered trees purpled the half sky./The boatman pointed to where the sun set./Dazzling lights shot from a mass of light vapor."
Though his poem is beautiful, Wen Zhengming's sense of beauty is less impressive to me than Li Jin's, not because one is located in the unfathomable past and the other in the recognizable present, but because rivers, hills, islands, and even sunsets are codes for eternal beauty, whereas food and human forms are codes for fleeting beauty. One, the eternal, flows without interruption or difference; the other, the transient, must be renewed, replaced, and in the process is constantly changing, always something else: a different duck, lover, or bottle of beer.
I will conclude with some wonderful titles from Li Jin's new paintings that are not at SAAM but part of the same series, called Diet: Eat and Drink Up Everything Edible and Moveable; Eat As Much As You Can; Nothing Belongs to You Until You Have Devoured It.