What can the poster offer the world? Zhongkai Li challenges the confines of the four familiar corners

The New York-based designer’s new exhibition proves that anything is possible when it comes to the exploration of the poster.

14 October 2020
Reading Time
4 minute read

When considering a physical object, what can we understand from it when we strip it down to its bare essentials? This is what Zhongkai Li’s design practice focuses on: “distilling objects down to their prototypes.” What the New York-based creative means by this, he tells us, comes down to an element which can be as small as a line, an edge, a surface, sound, action or collective behaviour. Examining these subjects through multidisciplinary media which can take the form of writing, drawing, printmaking, photography, video or web-based projects, Zhongkai’s latest project results in an exhibition. A poster exhibition to tickle those crafty layout sensibilities and philosophical thoughts to be precise.

Before we delve into this show, however, let’s find out more about Zhongkai and who he is. Born in Changsha, a city in south China, he studied interior design at Central Academy of Fine Arts for one year before switching his major to communication design. There, he came across the themes that would go onto influence his practice for the foreseeable future. In a class called The Edge of Objects, Zhongkai and his classmates were tasked with drawing the outline of found objects. With this brief, he became fascinated by the making process which kick-started the decision to take a year out of school to travel and “see what I really want.”

What followed was the creation of a magazine called Where You Leave, It Falls, stints at a graphic design studio and a master’s degree at Yale School of Art. With time, he came to see the medium of graphic design as not just an output but a means of exploring all kinds of possibilities: the imaginative and the academic, not to mention the commercial contexts. “To describe the creation process of many contemporary works,” he explains, “I started using the word ‘prototypalism’ which I defined as the concept of basing works on prototypes.” It’s a theory that’s developed into a video essay with time, as well as his most recent exhibition, Finding Patterns in Time and Place: The Poster Design of Zhongkai Li.

GalleryZhongkai Li: Impermanent space: surfaces (Risograph) series (Copyright © Zhongkai Li, 2020)

Curated by the famed American art book store and publishers Draw Down, run by Christoper Sleboda and Kathleen Sleboda, the exhibition opened just before the pandemic hit New York and sadly had to close its doors. Showcasing a selection of posters from the past three years while interrogating several aspects of his design practice at the same time, the colourful works on display tell stories through dense patterns, extracted archival footage, found photographs, the body and simple line drawings. Though the designs are made years apart in some cases, by viewing the posters altogether, the audience can discern Zhongkai’s stylistic train of thought.

Graphic experimentation unravels before our eyes with every poster and, citing references across centuries, continents and methods of study. He talks us through two posters in particular, the first titled Jeff Koons Coming To Town. Zhongkai says of the work: “It incorporates my visual research and representation of the vast cosmological philosophy behind Persian and Chinese gardens.” Additionally, it visually explores a non-singular perspective of the printed poster frame. “Although the poster is stubbornly flat, the internal space is not,” he says on the matter.

He uses the frame of the poster to remember a Persian garden while carnivals take place within this border. Bizarre digital graffiti, pop culture and collage collide to form the lower composition whereas the upper enacts repeat patterns. Mountains, colours, plants and other nourishing symbols appear in this upper half, all signifiers of the earth and an “upward tension and desire to get closer to heaven. As Zhongkai puts it, “this is a poster but it also the paradise I am seeking.”

GalleryZhongkai Li: Finding Patterns in Time and Place: The Poster Design of Zhongkai Li, curated by Draw Down (Copyright © Zhongkai Li, 2020)

The designer also mentions a second design, the poster for Yale School of Art’s 2018 photography MFA lecture series, Jack Ferver. He appreciates this design for its site-specificity, in turn, showing a series of different layers of space. “Through the human gaze, the site becomes a temporary heterotopia,” explains Zhongkai. The poster was stuck behind a glass window and at first, a hand appears to be outstretched to the reader. But on closer inspection, it’s just a flat printed poster.

The moment the viewer realises it’s just a print, they instantly recognise “the second space – the world outside reflected into the poster.” Playing with the distinction between reality and deception through poster design, Zhongkai makes his point on the power of the poster: “When you step out of the boundaries of this heterotopia and gaze at yourself through the frBlueprint: Gazing, 2019
Print on matte paper
20x30 in, 76.2 x 50.8 cmont of the glass door, you know what a poster can offer the world.”

GalleryZhongkai Li: Finding Patterns in Time and Place: The Poster Design of Zhongkai Li, curated by Draw Down (Copyright © Zhongkai Li, 2020)


Yale School of Art, 2018 Photography MFA Lecture Series: Jack Ferver, 2018, Print on glossy paper, 60x90cm, 23 5/8 inx35 7/16 in


Blueprint: Gazing, 2019, Print on matte paper


La Belle At The Movies, 2017, Print on glossy paper, 60x90cm, 23 5/8 inx35 7/16 in


Impermanent space: lines (Risograph)series, 2020, Riso print on white 80lb French paper, 11x17 in, 28x43 cm, Edition: 50

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Zhongkai Li: Finding Patterns in Time and Place: The Poster Design of Zhongkai Li, curated by Draw Down (Copyright © Zhongkai Li, 2020)

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About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni became a staff writer in March 2019 having previously joined the team as an editorial assistant in August 2018. She graduated from The Glasgow School of Art with a degree in Communication Design in 2017 and her previous roles include Glasgow Women’s Library designer in residence and The Glasgow School of Art’s Graduate Illustrator.


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