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Contemporary Art: Lonely as a child

Sophie Elmhirst meets the Chinese artist Li Tianbing who reimagines his past.

In a north-west suburb of Paris, down a dead-end street beyond the périphérique, squats a converted garage. From the outside, it is nondescript, but when the artist Li Tianbing opens the door the space blooms into a vast studio, a single painting half-finished on the back wall. The painting, like many of Bing's (as he's known) shows in its half-formed state a ghost-like child's face emerging out of a landscape. The canvas is large and the child's face almost fills it, fixing the viewer with a melancholic stare.

Bing often paints children, usually boys. He came to Paris aged 22 in 1996, to study at the École des Beaux Arts, clutching five faded photographs of himself as a child - the only remaining images of his childhood, which have fuelled much of his work. The only modern artists he had heard of at the time were Jackson Pollock - held up as an example of how not to work by Chinese teachers - and Miró, whose exhibition he saw in Beijing.

On his first day in Paris he went to the Centre Pompidou and saw a Francis Bacon show. "I'm shocked! How can he paint this way? It's ugly." He was so thrilled that he spent the next few years painting, as he calls it, "Chinese Francis Bacon" - distorted, muscular self-portraits on a grand scale. Luckily, an influential teacher at Beaux Arts nudged Bing away from imitation. "I ask, what's my story? I want to find origin of myself because I will be easily lost here. I am surrounded by contemporary Occidental art . . . but I come from a different context."

That context was an upbringing in China of the 1970s. Bing is, by law, an only child and spent much of his time as a child alone, drawing - on the floor, on the walls, anywhere. "People tell my mother, you will not have difficulty finding him," he laughs. It was only when he left China that he realised the particularity of his experience and its loneliness. Many of his paintings are portraits of himself at the time but surrounded by imagined friends and toys - and, often, an invented brother. He works from his five photographs but also returns to China every year to capture new images, travelling to remote rural areas to find a China he recognises from childhood. The country, he says, has transformed from the one he remembers. When he returns to his town, he can no longer find his school: "all the background of my childhood is disappeared". But it is not only the physical environment that he sees has changed. The people, he believes, are lost - there is "a crisis of morality" in China. As the country dismantles barriers and rushes out into the world, something, inevitably, is lost - and Bing's work is an attempt to "concretise" that forgotten past.

Bing reflects his personal cultural shift from east to west in his technique too. For ten years, he learned the delicate process of Chinese ink painting. Now he works with oil paint, an entirely different technique - ink is absorbed into paper while oil sits upon the canvas. He was eager to retain an essence of the traditional method in his new work, so often paints in monochrome, using a subtle range of greys and whites, and only occasional washes of colour. Even when he does use colour, it is not "fresh" as he puts it, but has a faded quality. He'll often distort the surface of the painting, too, using oils and water, so that it resembles an old photograph that has been spoilt by age or light (he is so successful in these attempts that picture movers will often call him in horror and tell him a painting has been ruined on a journey). This photorealist playfulness means that Bing is often compared to Gerhard Richter - but his work is distinct in the way it "layers" reality, as he puts it, infusing images such as the landscape and the child's face, and in its merging of Chinese and western techniques. The result can almost seem kitsch seen on screen or page, but in its true form, on canvas, it is powerful and haunting, the eyes of the children searching you out from the wall.

Though he goes back every year, Bing is not sure he will return to live in China. The government - evident in its recent treatment of Ai Weiwei - has little respect for the country's artists. In any case, he says he can't paint there - as long as his hazy memories of a former China remain the main subject of his work, he likes to be remote from the harsh edges of reality. "When I come back here," he says, gesturing round his cavernous studio, "it's vague. This is the place for the imagination and the creation. And sometimes, with distance, things look beautiful."

An exhibition of Li Tianbing's new work will be at the Stephen Friedman Gallery from 15 March to 21 April

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Mission impossible