kate beynon: from the dreams of li ji

Sutton Gallery, Melbourne
9 March - 12 April 2002

Surface Paradise: from the dreams of Li Ji Although graffito's form is radical, its message often serves the ruling class. This was the case with a now famous example depicting a map of Australia with 'full' written across it. Lt involved unlawful violation of property, and yet the most highly paid spin-doctor could not have promoted more effectively One Nation's anti-Asian policies, or Liberai/Labor's hostility towards 'illegal immigrants'. In her latest exhibition, From the Dreams of Li Ji, Kale Beynon appropriates this xenophobic image and reverses its message. Replacing the word 'full' with Asian-styled script, she superimposes the defiant image of warrior girl Li Ji, Beynon's cartoon heroine, and frames her with the Chinese and English words for 'welcome'. By scrambling the visual signs that meaning inhabits, Beynon acknowledges the inadequacy of representation and the utopian aspect of her enterprise.


Politically speaking, however, she does not mince words. In the context of Beynon's oeuvre, From the Dreams of Li Ji is a 'return to painting'. Continuing her story of Li Ji, a contemporary Australian Chinese girl who appears in different eras and lives, it comprises seven large canvases, two of which form a diptych, in brightly coloured acrylic paint and aerosol enamel. The series was displayed in the main room of the Sultan Gallery, while seven small canvases, with imagery relating to the first cycle, adorned an adjoining room. Featuring Li Ji, members of her family in various mythical incarnations and historical settings, plus an array of attributes and symbols, the series as a whole suggests the iconic splendour of European Renaissance dynastic portraiture. The iconography, however, which includes the Phoenix, a dragon, the Longevity Tree, and a tiger, is Classical Chinese. The flat, decorative style comes from emblems, Japanese manga, comic books, calligraphy and elaborate modes of graffiti.


There are some attempts at illusionism, such as spray-painted outlines in contrasting tonalities that appear to push the central images forward. But graffiti, the fuzziness of computer graphics and the flickering, virtual space produced in Beynon's penultimate project, an animated video of Li Ji travelling through a contemporary Australian city, inspired these effects. Beynon thus disavows a purely European or Chinese genealogy, disassociating her hybrid art, if not all art, from a single narrative of origin. The ironed-on effect of Beynon's pictures is enhanced by the way the pattern wraps around the edges of the canvas, as though the canvas itself were a shield used to defend the body of its owner from danger. Stalwart defence is the posture of some of the figures:

strong, frontal, centralised, determined. The talismanic aspect and supportive function of the smaller works reinforce this emphasis on surface decoration as a protective armour or carapace. This impregnability is unsettled, slightly, by The Door God's likeness to Beynon's partner, a man of African, Mexican, Native American ancestry, and the portrait of their baby son, Lucky Fish Charm. By informing the design, Beynon's personal references to family compound the suggestion of bodily presence and vulnerability and lend poignancy to her assertion of positive, hybrid identity.

Left: Kate Beynon, The Door God, 2002. 152 x 120.5cm. Courtesy Sutton Gallery, Melbourne. Right: Kate Beynon, Welcome, 2001. 145 x 175cm, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy Sutton Gallery, Melbourne.