Spanning tintype portrait photography, calligraphy dissolving into the walls on which it’s painted, and ephemeral balloon forms blown through zip-tie matrices, Max Li’s artworks don’t abide by a consistent artistic style. But while many artists working today cultivate multidisciplinary practices, the absence of an underpinning theme or subject is also notable in Li’s work. Self-expression, which typically manifests as a relatively consistent set of artistic interests, does not appear to be Li’s concern. Rather, a sense of curiosity that destabilizes such an expectation pervades Li’s work.

If such a destabilizing curiosity ascribes his practice a function, it is one outside of instrumental rationality. Li’s work is interested as opposed to disinterested, but interested in metabolizing the yield of his curiosities and experiments in discursive, non-teleological ways. This discursivity produces an abstract and provisional framework of artistic meaning. At the time of writing, this framework includes concepts like “eye-tickling,” the “Peripheral Zone” of consciousness and “taming the self” through art. Li folds each new experiment into this framework, adding an increasing degree of articulation in the process.

His ︎Site series, in which he arranges the contents of his studio into temples of ordinary objects over successive iterations, illustrates this processual aspect. The same set of objects confront the viewer anew with each iteration, uncanny through the memory of the previous ones. More recently these arrangements have turned into installations of large, modular boxes wrapped in black plastic. Dominant yet provisional, they transform their surroundings into spaces of ambiguous psychological metaphor.

Other works are rooted in participatory art, such as a series of performances where Li simulated basic English language classes like those he experienced in his native China. Together, Li and his cohort of English-proficient graduate students try to relearn what they already know. In his ongoing ︎Solo Walks from 2018, he asks strangers to photograph him as he assumes some aspect of their clothing, occupation, or posture. Here, Li and the participant trade perspectives, if only for a moment.

As the sustained and cumulative nature of these projects suggest, we would best understand each of Li’s experiments when we see them from within the entire body of works and writing. With the totality in mind, we see that he makes through thinking and thinks through making, but that both ultimately serve to push the walls of subjectivity outward from within. In doing so, Li invites the viewer or participant to destabilize their self-certainty as well. A conversation is like a collectively-made sculpture, he says, where each person’s contribution gradually builds something observable in the round from the different perspectives that give it shape.
©MaxLi 2024