I worked in Hull for many years. At lunchtime I would often leave my office and wander round the city. The Art Gallery was only a few hundred yards away and I would go in from time to time. Yet I have no memory at all of a 1998 exhibition of Li Yuan-chia’s work. And for many years I had on my bookshelf a copy of Hunter Davies’ “A Walk Along The Wall” which contains a section about visiting the artist’s home and museum in Brampton, Cumbria. I never got round to reading the book and eventually gave it away.
A while ago I made a note of Thoreau’s dictum: ‘Only that day dawns to which we are awake.’ It’s a particularly condensed epithet which suggests that in some sense we make our own world. So somehow, when I hopped on the number 85 bus the other day and made my way to the Whitworth Art Gallery to see an exhibition of Li Yuan-chi’s photographs, a little bit of world was about to dawn to which I had not been awake in 1998. That process is incomprehensible.
The exhibition is Unique Photographs and there are fourteen images all made in the last two years of the artist’s life. Each is a black and white photograph which has been coloured in varying densities by a technique which involved using hand-tinting inks as washes. Here is an example.
Each of the photographs is mounted on what is possibly white rag paper which is then mounted on black card which itself is itself mounted on black matte and then framed with what looked like wood with an ebony stain. Since the images themselves are not very big (A4-ish in various formats) this gives them a certain presence though I think it would have been a kindness to paint the white wall on which they are hung in a more muted colour in order better to enter the world which they create.
To take a monochrome photo and to colour it might seem a bit perverse. Isn’t the reduction of the world to black and white itself a creative statement? Yet we could say that photography intercepts reality whereas painting reconstructs it. So the addition of artistic method to photographic method here means that we have both: the reconstruction of an interception. Hand tinting usually follows the forms of an original photograph but in these images it is less tethered in that way - as if we were being invited to consider colour and form to be entirely independent. Look at the leaves below, for example. From close to, the yellow wash does not follow the bulb’s form very closely either.
I find the result is beautifully atmospheric. If black and white itself invites us into a different world then the addition of a wash introduces a dream-like quality in which all is recognisable but seems to be at a further remove. This effect is heightened because the subjects of the photographs are all commonplace objects: stones, flowers, tools, objets trouvés, and at times LYC himself. For me they are lovely objects of contemplation, each a reverie which hints at a reality that may be truer than the precision of digital colour.
Each image is untitled. The curatorial comments draw on Daoist philosophy and quote from the writings of Li Chuan-yua’s friend, the artist Winifred Nicholson. They also seem to draw quite deeply from the curator’s imagination, for example: “The stones of the path are an exploding galaxy, the log a silvery interstellar craft.” This is either an act of curatorial desperation or an inspired accompaniment to these very delphic images – I haven’t quite made my mind up.
In any event, Li Yuan-chia is a day to which I am now very gratefully awake.
Both images: Li Yuan-chia (1929-1994), Untitled, c1993. Hand-coloured black and white photographs. Courtesy the Li Yuan-chia Foundation. You can find out more about Li Yuan-chia on the LYC Foundation Website. The Whitworth Gallery’s exhibition of the artist’s work (in Manchester, UK) lasts until 15th December.