Represented by gallery 208, Li Chevalier is a Franco-Chinese artist living in Paris. During three interviews, Orianne Castel questions him about his practice.

Orianne Castel: For this last interview I would like us to focus on a specific work and in particular the one entitled Between heaven and earth (2021). Can you describe it to us and explain to us what your intentions were when you made it?

Li Knight: I produced this work during the period when I was preparing an exhibition for the Museum of Asian Arts in Nice, which bore the title “The landscapes of the soul”. My intention then was to offer a spiritual journey to the spectators, a journey where man, nature, beauty, spirituality enter into communion, hence the title “Between heaven and earth”.

This square canvas of one meter fifty by one meter fifty is a very common format in my practice. But, in this piece, there are two subtle innovations. One concerns the color, the second the composition. As for the color, I left the usual black and white to venture into a slightly bluish gray. It was probably a necessity to brighten my days during a particularly gloomy period. The overall tone of the canvas is clearer and at the same time it illuminates my mind. “Each man in his night goes towards his light” said Victor Hugo.

As far as composition is concerned, one of the characteristic features is the white margins that surround the four sides of the painted surface in the center. These margins were initially born from my desire to maintain a relationship with Chinese pictorial practice where painters produce their works on paper then smooth them on silk, leaving a border on each side. In the context of my own creation, these margins introduce an additional source of light and accentuate, by contrast, the appearance of a landscape in the center, the landscape of the soul. On this canvas, the painted surface comes out of the frame that is usually assigned to it. This change corresponds of course to a desire for artistic experimentation, but no doubt also to an inner need, a thirst to let go, to break the limits, because overflow, in its psychological sense, is analyzed as a reaction to to emotional overload.

OC: The composition is interesting because you painted this horizontal shape which overflows on one side of the white frame drawn by your margins, but this white frame itself is vertical. It already contradicts the square format of your support. There is a triple tension in this composition.

CL: Yes, in fact practically all the canvases of that year reflected a change in composition, either the disappearance of borders at the top and bottom, or the abandonment of the square within the square. Why not consider this as an exercise in revolt against this kind of very oriental modesty or prudence that sometimes becomes oppressive?

I am passionate about classical music from the romantic and post-romantic period. Many art critics have noticed this bias. I was named by some as the daughter of Victor Hugo and André Masson, advised by others, in particular the curator of the Cernuschi Museum Mael Bellec, to request an exhibition at the Maison Victor Hugo. I must admit that in the depths of my being I feel all the old-fashioned traits of a 19th century European romantic, everything except the essential, the courage to show myself in excess! This behavior of inhibition, anchored in depth in my oriental culture, generates many neuroses! Breaking the frames or changing their shape is perhaps an unconscious way to save my skin!

Li Chevalier, Between the sky and the sea, 2021.
Ink and pigment on canvas, 150 x 150 cm.

OC: Does color also play an expressive role? There is this bluish gray but there is also ocher in this work. The set has a sepia tone that refers to the imagery of old photos and evokes memories. Did you try to translate a feeling of nostalgia with this painting?

CL: Nostalgia is one of the essential traits of romanticism; this word contains a look and a regret on the world of the past; the ideas of transience, evanescence, fragility are obviously associated with it. I feel close to this sensibility which is revealed both in Western romanticism and in the Japanese aesthetic of Wabi-sabi. Remember that Anselm Kiefer often buries his newly produced canvases to give them that varnish that only weathering over time can generate. This way of doing things increases, in my opinion, considerably the evocative power of his works.

OC: You talk a lot about the influence of romanticism. What about abstract expressionism? How would you situate yourself in relation to painters like Newman or Rothko?

CL: I prefer not to flaunt my incompetence in judging Newman, Rothko and their followers. On the other hand, I am obviously fascinated by painters like Pollock, Tàpies, Barceló. And, among the great French painters of abstract expressionism, I particularly mention Thibaut de Reimpré, my first initiator for abstract art. My sensitivity towards his works is certainly linked to his gestural spontaneity, reminding me of the art of Chinese calligraphy.

OC: Speaking of Chinese influence, the space ofBetween heaven and earth is so vaporous that it does not seem to respond to physical rules. One has the impression that the top could be below and vice versa, that things could become their opposite, as in Chinese painting. What do you think ?

CL: Without going as far as total abstraction, I cultivate an ambiguous pictorial language and invite the public to contemplate the world beyond appearances. Chinese culture is, in my view, the antithesis of Cartesian thought. China is neither the home of science nor of speculative philosophy. Its quintessence is expressed by poetic languages, by its ambivalent nature. I had a completely abstract period but I didn’t stay there. I felt like I had too much to say and the pure play of shapes, colors, textures is not enough for me to convey my feelings. My research consists of navigating between the visible and the imaginary. My images float in the sphere of suggestion and I strive to ensure that the signs on my canvases do not become too invasive, intrusive and unambiguous.

OC: Especially since, if they are rare, certain signs are very charged. You use crosses, toriis which have a strong spiritual dimension.

CL: My immersion in Western culture coincides with my simultaneous encounter with two diametrically opposed worlds: philosophical rationalism and Christian spirituality. I also made two canvases titled respectively Philosopher And the theologian.

The spiritual and philosophical dimension of my works is self-evident. However, none of my symbols can be understood as a form of proselytism. The cross, erect, is the universal assembly of the vertical and the horizontal. It is the impulse of vertical transcendence (spirituality) but also this power of horizontal transmission (value communicable to all humanity). The cross can also be the crossroads, the meeting of space and time. Installed diagonally, it turns into an unknown mathematical formula.

The word spirituality reactivates in me the memories of my stays in Jerusalem, in the desert of the Middle East, and especially in Italy where my Italian language and drawing lessons sometimes took place in convents. This is where the wrath of Christianity struck me. This even prompted me to study for two years at the theological college in Strasbourg, to correspond with a Poor Clare nun in Jerusalem and to maintain a faithful friendship with the Dominican Fathers in Italy. However, my experience within a single, totalizing thought regime has considerably complicated my relationship with the idea of ​​belonging to a religious community. That being said, my fascination with the transcendent momentum of man was unaffected. In this regard, I like to cite the apparently paradoxical example of Pasolini. The filmmaker claims to be a non-believer but he is the author of the sublime cinematographic work on Christ: ” Il Vangelo secondo Matteo “. It was in the poetic Jesus that he saw the greatness of humanity.

OC: You talk about Christianity but your web Between heaven and earth is currently arranged on a structure that can evoke a kimono rack but also a stylized torii. What is your connection with Japan?

CL: I lived in Japan for two years and my experience there reinforced my idea that the visual impact of art does not necessarily go through the search for the bloody, the coarse, the insolent. Sobriety, simplicity and poetry are the hallmarks of Japanese art, as much in its architecture, landscape design art and floral art. The robe rack (kimono rack in Japan) is an ancient Chinese craft. However, the Japanese version is stripped of elaborate decorations. This structure, which often carries my paintings, can also be considered as a stylized torii, a portico erected in front of Shinto temples, which separates the profane from the divine. This same type of structure, more ornate, is the remnant of very ancient architecture, which is found in front of the Imperial Palaces or very important historical places in China.

OC: We are coming to the end of our three interviews, do you have any news at the moment?

CL: My gallery, gallery 208, presented my work at the Bad de Bordeaux in May and then at Asia Now in Paris in October. She is currently exhibiting some of my recent works in her Parisian premises. Otherwise, I am preparing two museum exhibitions, one in Taiwan and one in the United States, but that will be for 2024.

Previous interviews can be found HERE And THERE