Jen the Benevolent Who Loves Others - Shih Li-Jen and the Rhino | Yin Suangxi

I did not know Shih Li-Jen until 2009. A friend of my invited me to visit an exhibition in Found Museum situated in No.1 Art Base in Beijing. It was the first time we met each other. Since then, we become friends. He is warm and friendly and offered me for a seat with a cup of tea. Over our conversation of art history and contemporary art, I feel like we have known each other for a long time. His eyes are so bright while talking about art and you can feel he is a gentleman indeed. Looking around the environment of Found Museum, this place is as good as Mr. Shih that the reasonable and the design for space are spacious and abundant as well as his knowledge and experience for modern art. Without him, the museum can't be constructed to suit for all kinds of exhibition of contemporary art as now.

What surprised me the most is his collection of artworks. They are all quite classic masterpiece in art history. Such as the sculpture created by the famous French Neorealist sculptor, Fernandez Arman, it allows to be open and close freely with extraordinarily varied spatial structure. He also owns a collection of the French master artist, Charles Matton. Therefore, I realized that he is not only enthusiastic about art but also understand it. While having a conversation with him about art and life, it is like chatting with an old friend who can read you from heart. I can feel how traditional Chinese culture affects one's mind and personality from his charm.

Shih was born in Changhua, Taiwan in 1955 and from his confucianized name call tell that he is taking literatural expectations on his shoulder from the seniors. He established Modern Art Gallery in Taiwan and as a senior art curator and agent, he has held and contributed to a lot of important international exhibitions in mainland China and Taiwan including the first solo exhibition of the New Realism master, Fernandez Arman; "The exhibition of international sculpture master" of Salvador Dali, Arman and others; with 220 artworks the "Most Popular European & Chinese Artists" of A. Renoir, P. Picasso, S. Dali, F. Arman, Zao Wou-Ki, Yuyu Yang, Liu Kuo-Sung, and others; "Sculpture Exhibition - The Gates of Hell vs. Love" with 32 masterpiece artworks including " The Thinker", "Monument to Balzac", and "The Kiss"; exhibited in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen etc., the traveling show "Impression from France" was a highlight of the Chinese-French Culture Year in 2003. The Modern Art Gallery features Chinese artist includes Zao Wou-Ki, Chu The-Chun, Yuyu Yang, Liu Kuo-Sung, Cang Xin, Miao Xiao Chun, Zhang Guolong, Xu ZhongMin, Qu Qianmei and Leigh Li-Yun Wen etc. Also features international master artists A. Renoir, A. Rodin, Dali, Arman, César and A. Warhol etc. In the year of 2004 and 2006, Mr. Shih Li-Jen was awarded with the Golden Honor of the first Council Sponsors Award (Wenxin Awards) by the Council for Cultural Affairs as recognition of Shih's thirty years of work to bring in contemporary art into China

As noted above, Shih is a renowned art curator and agent, and surprisingly he is also a sculptor, who creates sculptures with a classical forming method to form an ancient animal - rhino.

Sculpting is one of art with very long history, and the history of sculptures has left us a large number of original and classical living sculptures from "Venus of Willendorf" of European Neolithic Period, "Zun in the shape of rhino" of Yinxu in China, tremendous Terracotta Warriors and Horses of Qin Emperor, to ancient Greek and Roman sculptures of ideal male and female figures. Nowadays, sculpture with representational image has fallen out of the main steam of sculpture art. The sculptures depicting human body and character has dropped out from the leading status and only few sculptors still do animal sculptures. To my knowledge, in the twenty century, Zhou Qng-Ding, a former professor of the China Academy of Art and Wang He-Nei, a former professor of the China Central Academy of Fine Arts are reputable for animal sculptures as their love for animal caring and observation with amazing techniques of sculpting make their works classic.

Throughout the recent history of sculptures in China, Shih Li-Jen is a special case.  Not only because Shih had never taken any formal sculpture class, only shaping his artist personality with his experience of organizing master artists’ exhibition; it is also because he does not only choose animal as his subject, he had chosen one special kind- rhino.  It makes me wonder what kind of feature of this animal strongly seduces him and makes him fascinated.

Perhaps it is because rhino is an ancient animal.  For it used to wandering in the ancient book of “The Classic of Mountains and Seas”, or showing up on bronze ware of Pre-Qin and stone craving of Han Dynasty.  In this fast-paced world maybe what is so attractive about Shih’s rhino is rhino’s slow and steady feeling. The rhino is standing as solid as a rock, just like Huang- Zhong Da -Lu in the ancient Chinese music which reminds us certain nostalgia with intrinsically profound unsophistication while there are too much fast temple pop music driving us hysteria in such a lightweight pop art and the internet era.  Comparing rhino to other large mammals on land with similar size, while elephant is too flabby, and hippo is too chubby, rhino is just weighted with muscles and well-built.  Perhaps it is the main factor that stimulates Shih’s inspiration.  Besides, rhino’s muscular structure is a lot like a combination of armored warrior and mechanical vehicle that mix the valor ancient warrior and a sense of future into a gentle Chinese style.  This is probably one of the reason Shih especially loves rhinos.

Rhino was once one of the oldest creatures living on the land of China.  The "Ritual Vessel (zen or gui) shaped rhinoceros, one of the Seven Liangshen Bronze, unearthed in Shouzhang County, Shandong, and now was collected as one of the most reputable collection in Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, has been quoted in numerous studies of bronzes.  Because of how simple and playful it is, even after years of changes in standard of beauty and art, it is still considered as a fascinated masterpiece.

Going through so many museums spreading all over China, my overall impression of ancient Chinese sculpture is that our ancestors not only had good observation about wild animals as well as domesticated animals that reflected the sculptures realistic as living animals but also the ancient artists were always able to give the rein to their own imagination by performing distinctive shape and decoration of animals.  Last year, I bought an imitation rhino statue of Han Dynasty from Hunan Museum, the original piece of it was said to be a gift to former president of United State, President Clinton from the former Chinese regime leader Jiang Zemin. It was an ancient wine vessel for the use of loyalty.  The vessel is solid and lifelike in shape which represent a strong willing and steely strength, and the cloud patterned lines show the romantic style of Chu State’s culture.

Even though rhino can no longer be found in China, Shih still picked it as his the subject, and I am moved by this. Perhaps it is because for all trips I took to the zoo when I was little, rhino has always been my favorite animal to visit.  I could stare at a rhino as steady as the rhino is, it is like staring at an ancient and sincere object that its unswerving is speaking for the faith and strength of a life.

It is worth noting about the Chinese ancient animal sculptures that unlike stone sculpture, which are built for mausoleum bigger in size, most of bronze, gold, silver and other metal sculptures are made for indoor daily practical use of humans and considered as crafts.  Which means ancient Chinese sculpture are a combination of art and craft and a fusion of ideal and life.  However, Shih's rhino sculpture inherited western outdoor sculpture’s tradition that is dedicated to certain public space for art appreciation. Therefore, his rhino sculptures are related to western modern metal sculpture that originated after World War II.  It  is not only big in size but also highly incorporated with the characteristics of outdoor space and paying more attention on  overall linear composition and chiseled features.  Meanwhile, his rhino sculpture is nothing like the ancient one mainly focusing on representational image and decorated with patterned lines.  The sculptures he created were the result of his personal understanding of the object and bold creativity featuring with mixture of post-modernism.

What interested me is that Shih is making rhino based on the idea of family: Rhino Dad, the father with strong legs and mighty body who is capable of protecting and defending outside the family, and be a responsible leader; Rhino Mom, the mother on behalf of nurturing and the mother Earth with kindness and happiness; Rhino Boy in mechanical shape of sense of technology is symbolizing the prospects for the future, and the chic and lovely Rhino Girl presenting the sense of fashion.  At last, he is planning to make a Rhino House which has the main structure as Lamborghini sports car with a gorgeous streamlined design and classical style.

I had the honor to see the “Rhino Family” standing and looking back to each other with affection on the lawn of Jing’an Park in Shanghai last year.  The rhino sculptures that emerge in the modern metropolis are making us surprise as having a science fiction film and flying through the time and space, and the rhino family also moved us by the close and warm relationship.  The structure of the creation for family has revealed his deep understanding and affection for depicting Chinese culture into art.  In I Ching, the Book of Change, Qian-Yuan the creative power revolves, Kun-Yuan the receptive earth receives, Zhen-Lei the arousing thunder initiates, Dui-Ze the joyous lake blisses...  Shih has slid the Chinese oriental cosmology and dialectics into his blessed rhino family. 

The more interesting is that the rhino family do not be shaped each as the same method or be uniformed.  Shih used variety sculpting language to perform a diverse and compatible value of post-modernism.

Generally speaking, Shih’s rhino art is living in a growing and changing process with the style of western sculpture and Chinese tradition, as well as having experience from setting through indoor to outdoor, growing from palm size to giant sculptures, changing the classic bronze to modern titanium alloy.  For the two sculptures mounted in the Jin'an Park in Shanghai, "Run to Victory" and "Rhino Mon & Boy", they are quite realistic and the to focus on a happiness family in a relaxing environment.  Except that the "Run to Victory" rhino's horn is carving with thumb prints and the torch tail implies victory, both of them are rather a kind of realism in acting and classic in expression.  "Run to Victory" is mounted at the front door of the park in Nanjing West Road, which armed with heavy armor imitating a indomitable spirit to fight with the modern and to fight under the fierce competition between humans and environment showing passion of expressionism.  Since then, Shih's creation of rhino had split in two different directions.  One as the "Handmade Little Rhino",  playful and young, cute, shows the playfulness of the artist during the creation and the sculpting skill is tend to free, only to be sensed not depicting.  Another as the rhino covered with rivets, "Bullish" and stainless steel "King Kong Rhino" has successfully interpreted the image more sophisticated into contemporary style.

Speaking of the "King Kong Rhino", it should be noted that this sculpture has set Shih free from classic sculpting style into contemporary style with his own approach.  On December 20th of 2011, “King Kong Rhino” was mounted in Kelti’s headquarter in Sinyi District, Taipei, Taiwan and it is now the new landmark there.  It shows his modern rhino has successfully marched into city public space and the life of Taipei's citizens.  Prior to "King Kong Rhino", the rhino sculpture, "Run to Victory", was attracting attention in Shanghai Art Fair 2010 by many institutions and art collectors.  “King Kong Rhino” is no longer about reminiscence; it is about the faith living under the blue sky with confidence of future.  The chubby rhino was shaped sharply with heavy metal and geometric plates covering with luster of titanium alloys, which reminded a sense of future as those movies as "Star War", “Alien Planet”, “The Matrix”, “Cyborg Cop”.   ““King Kong Rhino” is a combination of the auspicious beast, Kylin and Rhino, marked with modern structure; showed the unique temperament and meaning of life, what a special choice of an artist”, said the president of Kelti International Co and a discerning art collector of this giant sculpture, Mr. Wugang Chen.

Lately, Shih made an interested work, "Harley Rhino", which allows be opening and closing.  How funny that the back of the rhino suddenly can be opened!   The futuristic rhino warrior becomes an open container and his sense of humor is well mounted.  The container can be placed any kinds of wine bottle as well as the three thousand years old "Ritual Vessel (zen or gui) shaped rhinoceros for being a wine vessel.

In the 80s, Yuyu Ying, the famous Taiwanese sculptor who first made stainless steel landscape sculpture believes that stainless steel is very close to the style of the new age of technology, and as purely clear as the ceramic of Song Dynasty.  It also has the characteristic of a mirror and reflecting the environment into dreamlike reflection.  Stainless steel is beyond surrealism with diverse changing and yet it is still a simple material.  The work is able to corporate with the environment rather than a distinguished presence and that is an ideal philosophy of the Chinese culture.  Since then many modern sculptures has adopted stainless steel as material to assemble abstract image.  After several decades, the hollow abstract sculptures are too popular to be hatred, while the "King Kong Rhino" returns to representational image which is not merely a classical realism and wins beholders' heart by his tasteful artwork.  I believe that it is a helpful exploration for contemporary sculpture for reconnecting with the public.  Sculpture is not only about space of art and material of art, it is also about the art of reaching the audience’s heart.  Only with beautiful outlook or special material will not succeed.  With his experience in the art field, Shih understands that art is about the connection with audience, the simple fact that it should be welcoming by the public.  His creation helps us to reconsider the "trick" in some contemporary art, or so-called "conceptual art" and bring us back to the fundamental of visual art, to "watch" and appreciate the artworks.

Shih's sculptures of rhino family were first made for personal preference, occasional enjoyment to become bonhomie sculpture standing in from of the public and win their heart both in Taiwan and China.  They are placed in many important public location, bringing the happiness of life to the beholders and also be collected by many institutions and private collectors.  His style is much more unique and vivid and seems to have endless potential.

Shih also started some landscape painting after he spent some times in Beijing.  The painting’s composition are simple yet they shown a sharp sense of observation.  The painting is characterized a quality of surrealism.  Such as the performance of countryside scenery of Beijing, it is painted concise and warm that reflects an exotic artist from his sharp observation into a new environment and cultural difference.

“Benevolent  loves other.”, said Confucius.  With his “Rhino Family” sculptures, Shih expresses his passion and love to nature and life, his feeling for family affection and a combination of determination and tenderness that leads him to explore and develop the view of the universe and his life spirit.  His painting and sculpture focus on depicting the feeling moved by the natural environment and animal family and the rhino family artworks especially speaking for the artist of is perspective of life and to the world.  Through the relationship between this animal family, it told us that Shih is tough with a soft heart, a sound gentleman.  His arts gave us an access to his heart to experience his beauty of personality, to the idea of concordance between human and animals, to the theory that human should learn unities from the animal society.  Like Feng Zikai’s painting, his art is full of naive playfulness, that make us smile while watching it and a positive energy toward life raised to inspire the life awed and to appreciate the earth.  Shih's rhino sculpture has started a new way in the contemporary art world, among the figure and concept installation, the rhino came from the classic and turn in to modern. It shows the world of Chinese endless power for creation.

Feb 2012, Beijing

Yin Shuangxi, Professor of Central Academy of Fine Art, and the former chief editor of “Chinese Sculpture Magazine”