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Li Wentao’s Cryptic Paintings of Contemplative Women

Chinese artist Li Wentao’s work is theatrical. It’s not just way the artist stages the lone character, a young, fragile woman, always barefoot, always in some state of undress. Clearly something’s on her mind. It’s the way we identify with her, just as we identify with, become invested in, a play’s protagonist. It’s easy to conflate the artist and subject. The woman looks out a window, off to the side, at the viewer. We can’t describe, much less identify, her expression. Pensive, wary, frightened? Or does she share some quiet secret, some personal conspiracy? In any event, she doesn’t wear her face-the-world face. We don’t know her story but we want to. We want to keep looking at the work, hoping for some resolution of whatever situation she’s in.

Chinese artist Li Wentao’s work is theatrical. It’s not just way the artist stages the lone character, a young, fragile woman, always barefoot, always in some state of undress. Clearly something’s on her mind. It’s the way we identify with her, just as we identify with, become invested in, a play’s protagonist. It’s easy to conflate the artist and subject. The woman looks out a window, off to the side, at the viewer. We can’t describe, much less identify, her expression. Pensive, wary, frightened? Or does she share some quiet secret, some personal conspiracy? In any event, she doesn’t wear her face-the-world face. We don’t know her story but we want to. We want to keep looking at the work, hoping for some resolution of whatever situation she’s in.

The colors say one thing, the lines say another. The blues and browns, whites and pinks are mute. Moody and contemplative. Like her. The lines are sinuous and languorous. If roused, she would no doubt smolder. Li creates space that gives us no hint about the woman’s life. The walls look like blurred maps. Windows as well as doors that open onto doors that open onto doors suggest some other space, some other world. What it is or what it represents, we have no clue. All we know is, sprightly as she may be, this young woman commands the space that surrounds her.

You can’t find much about the artist online. Li has a BFA from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, China and an MFA from the University of Massachusetts. The painter lives and works in Beijing. Perhaps the work beguiles us because we know nothing about the artist. At the same time, what little we see enchants us. It’s as if Li waits for us to ask a question, but we don’t know where to begin.

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