If Ying Li’s paint application suggests a furious restlessness, her work has been, for many years, no less unsettled in terms of geography. Over the years, the artist’s motifs have included landscapes in France, Spain, Ireland, Italy, and Switzerland, and – on this side of the Atlantic – Newfoundland, Maine, the Colorado Rockies, and upstate New York, as well as New York City.
What to do when a pandemic freezes travel world-wide?
Over the past 18 months, confined for stretches of time to the campus of Haverford College, where she is Professor of Fine Arts, Li devoted herself to what was immediately at hand. The results were an exhibition – her first ever devoted to a single location – that was on view at the College last fall. This powerful exhibition of over fifty works was sadly underattended, coming it did in the heart of the lockdown. Fortunately, gallery-goers can now see many of the best works at Gross McCleaf, in a handsome installation featuring 13 paintings and four mixed-media works on paper.
Those familiar with Li’s paintings will realize that the ferocity of her attack – with its luscious, slashing strokes and out-of-the-tube colors -- speaks less of sheer abandon than an urgent need to account for the visible world in so many square inches of canvas. Working without any preconceptions about composition or technique, the artist appears to rely on both inspired intuition and fortuitous accident – in her work, in fact, the two seem inseparable.
And for those new to Li’s work, I’d recommend not looking at the titles until you’ve truly absorbed the paintings. Standing before a particular canvas, you may sense vital sweeps of forms, at first unidentifiable, but settling into distinct energies: upward striving and overarching verticals in front of pale, open pauses; horizontally fragmented notes of similar, but slightly hushed color. We experience, shortly, and with startling physicality, the countenance of trees rising behind a pond – and sure enough, the label will announce “Duck Pond #2.”
In my favorite paintings, the flash fire of execution settles into a slow burn of unfolding detail – in “Cherry Trees of the Duck Pond,” for instance, in which a central, circulating clash of violet, black and red brushstrokes settles gradually towards the margins, as a simmer of lesser, barely dimmer notes. Nothing here is literalistic; it’s mostly impossible to connect this canopy of leaves with that trunk, or to locate one bush behind another. Yet one senses a complex, unfolding whole that embraces large and small, dense and vacant, lit and shadowed.
A brief, white horizonal stroke in “Pink as the Peonies” could be either railing or sidewalk, yet it anchors the whole scene and even the viewer’s vantage point, dividing the world beneath one’s gaze from the world above. Other memorable moments in the show include the fiery ball of foliage in the small canvas ”Red Oak #6,” which holds so compactly on its short trunk between punches of white, ultramarine and cerulean blue.
We know the artist did not have to travel far, this time, for her motifs, but the paintings she produced in lockdown seem as vibrant as ever. They make the close-at-hand seem exotically new, and vital.
Gross McCleaf Gallery
127 South 16th St, Philadelphia PA
215.665.8138 · www.grossmccleaf.com