Ying Li: Blossoms in a Sudden Strangeness

Page 1

Ying Li

Blossoms in a

Sudden Strangeness

Ying Li Blossoms

in a Sudden Strangeness by Andrea Packard In early March, 2020, Haverford College, like educational institutions throughout the country, closed its campus to visitors and moved classes online in order to mitigate the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the months that followed, Ying Li, a professor of fine arts at Haverford, responded to the crisis with astonishing and prolific creativity. Comprising 47 paintings created in just five months, Blossoms in a Sudden Strangeness reflects a profound aesthetic discipline honed over more than 50 years. Li began each painting through closely observing subjects she discovered in or near her apartment on Haverford’s campus, such as the view from her porch or cherry trees in bloom. Responding to beauty and ephemerality in nature, she abstracts and reworks each composition until her expressive gestures and densely layered surfaces convey the complexity of her observations over time. Reveling in possibility, not perfectionism, she adds, spreads, and scrapes away paint, creating relief-like topographies. Amid the “sudden strangeness” of the pandemic, Li was fortunate to safely remain on campus, taking inspiration from flora and fauna that have fascinated her for more than 25 years. Li’s creative resilience is rooted in her past experiences with cultural upheaval and personal hardship. To understand her tireless

work ethic and vibrant curiosity, it is helpful to consider her upbringing, training, and artistic evolution. Born in 1951 in Beijing, China, Li came of age during the so-called “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” (1965–77). In 1967, her father, a scholar of Russian literature, was arrested and accused of counter-revolutionary activity. At the age of sixteen, Ying was separated from her parents and sister and forced to labor and be “re-educated” for five and a half years on rural farmland in Anhui Province. Like many others, she suffered from food scarcity. Occasionally, she was required to create propaganda posters and murals and to paint in the socialist realist style. Undeterred, she used some of the supplies issued by the state for propaganda to practice painting in Western styles and to explore her own aesthetic. As the noted art critic, Faye Hirsch, has written, “It is no exaggeration . . . nor overly dramatic, to say that painting has been, for Li, a matter of survival. In China, painting was something that could be entirely hers in a milieu that demanded the relinquishing of the most personal matters to what was deemed to be the social good.” 1 In 1974, Li suffered a knee injury and was sent back to the city of Hefei, where she applied to Anhui Teachers University to study art. Although gender bias and lingering stigma related to her father’s arrest prevented her from gaining admission, she persisted. Standing at the entrance to the university, she painted there each day until a sympathetic teacher risked his own career to advocate on her behalf. When finally admitted, she explored varied approaches to painting, from traditional Chinese calligraphy to impressionist techniques. After completing her degree in 1977, she joined the faculty and taught there for six years.

Red Tulip #3 2020, oil on linen, 20 x 16 in.

In 1983, after hiking up a mountain to paint the view, Li met Michael Gasster, an American scholar and professor of Chinese History at Rutgers University. They soon fell in love and started a new life together in New York City, 1

Faye Hirsch, “The Interiorized Landscapes of Ying Li” in Ying Li, an exhibition catalogue published by the List Gallery, Swarthmore College, 2010.

Peonies for Charles 2020, oil on linen, 36 x 48 in.

where they married two years later. Suddenly, Li was free from the conformity required by the communist state, but also disconnected from her native language and culture. In New York, she encountered an art world that was liberating in its variety, but also rife with contention, stylistic formulas, and biases. Li enrolled at Parsons School of Design in 1984, earning her M.F.A. in 1987. At Parsons, Li studied with Leland Bell, a passionate teacher and contrarian, who advocated painting from observation and introduced his students to French modernists, such as Alberto Giacometti, Jean HĂŠlion, and AndrĂŠ Derain, who were little known at the time. While many American artists in the 1980s were embracing postmodernism, identity politics,

and styles that emphasized appropriation and irony, Bell extolled ambitious landscapes and figure groups by Gustave Courbet, the paragon of 19th-century Realism, and intimate paintings by Jean-Baptiste-SimĂŠon Chardin, the 18th-century master of still life and genre scenes. Bell encouraged students to study such art empirically in museums and revise their own works unstintingly. Li also sought mentoring from strong women, and she became especially close with Lois Dodd and Pat Passlof, both accomplished painters who were also widely admired as teachers. Several important discoveries helped Li work within traditional genres without painting generically. In December 1983, just a few months after moving to New York, she was


Cherry Trees of the Duck Pond 2020, oil on linen, 30 x 40 in. Left:

Red Tulip #1 2020, oil on linen, 20 x 16 in.

profoundly inspired by Willem de Kooning’s 60-year retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Art. She also developed a strong affinity for the art of Alberto Giacometti and Chaim Soutine. Whereas many influential artists and critics viewed Abstract Expressionism and related styles as passé, and the New York art world often prized novelty above all else, Li did not view Expressionism as a finite style, but a set of guiding principles. Discovering her passion for live jazz performance also liberated Li, not only from the dictates of social realism, but from an imitative approach to Western modernism. In fall 1983, the day after she emigrated from China, she heard Abdullah Ibrahim, a South African jazz pianist, perform at Sweet Basil, one of the most prominent clubs in Greenwich Village. Feeling an immediate connection, Li and her husband began to regularly visit jazz venues such as Village Vanguard, Blue Note, Smoke, and Jazz Standard. She often listened to musicians such as Dexter Gordon, Horace Silver, Hank Jones, and Keith Jarrett. Li could be describing her own goals when she expresses special admiration for John Coltrane, saying, “he was so innovative, always searching. He had no fear, no hesitation. He put himself entirely in his music, making himself vulnerable.” 2 While speaking English was still a challenge, jazz provided a common language with other artists, and it was often a topic of discussion with Leland Bell, who was a jazz drummer before he became a painter. After her husband’s death in 2012, Li visited clubs by herself to draw and absorb the intense energy, call-and-response dynamism, and specificity of live performances. Although jazz venues closed in early 2020 to mitigate the transmission of Covid-19, Li lives with her partner, the noted jazz trombonist Conrad Herwig, and often listens to him play. Both artists have spent decades cultivating disciplined routines that allow them to remain authentic, engaged, and creatively responsive, even when under duress. 2

Email exchange with the artist, September 3, 2020.

Although Li immediately fell in love with jazz and Abstract Expressionism in the 1980s, integrating their principles into her own practice took many years. Back in the early 1990s, Li had mainly been painting semi-abstract still lifes, portraits, and interiors, initially exhibiting them at venues such as the Bowery Gallery, an artist cooperative, which was at the time located in Soho. Then, in 1994, she was awarded an artist residency at Chateau Rochefort-en-Terre, Brittany, France, and the experience was transformative. Setting up her portable easel before dramatic vistas, she knew she did not want her paintings to merely document or illustrate the landscape, but she was not sure how to represent the complexity of her specific observations, changing atmospheric conditions, or her own varied responses over time. Li struggled at first, but also felt excited as she began to integrate gestural and experimental strategies used by abstract expressionists with her earlier training in Chinese calligraphy. For masters of Chinese calligraphy, decades of preparation come to fruition in a succinct and fluid action. Synthesizing both spontaneity and disciplined practice, a single brushstroke can be simultaneously descriptive, emotionally expressive, conceptually complex, and spatially dynamic. While continuing her lifelong practice and study of calligraphy, Li has also found a touchstone in the six principles of Chinese painting articulated by Xie He (Hsieh Ho) in the 5th century. These principles include a concern for the communicative essence of one’s materials, the importance of copying models from both nature and the masters, and, most importantly, the expression of “spirit resonance,” or vitality. As an emerging artist in the 1990s, Li cultivated spirit resonance, not as an innate gift or visual effect, but as a quality that one continually strives for through tireless study, practice, and experimentation. She sought out new challenges by teaching for eight summers at the International School of Art in Montecastello di Vibio, Italy and completing more than 25 artist residencies throughout the world, including at the Aspen Institute in Colorado, Centro Incontri Umani Ascona in

An Empty Nest 2020, oil on linen, 30 x 26 in.

Switzerland, and the Valparaiso Foundation in Spain. Such experiences have reinforced her ability to adapt to change, identify qualities unique to each setting, and paint for long periods while working in relative isolation. Although Li regularly seeks inspiration in exotic or picturesque locales, she is also fascinated by quotidian objects and domestic scenes. In February 2020, just before the pandemic became acute, Li was on academic leave in New York, completing a series of urban landscapes. In March, when it became clear that people would need to avoid travel and close physical contact, Li and Herwig moved to Haverford’s campus, where she promptly started painting views from her wooden porch. One day, she found an empty nest and placed it on the porch railing to study its structure and associative resonance. The resulting painting An Empty Nest, provides an apt metaphor for the sudden dearth of students and visitors on a normally bustling campus—and for broader experiences of dislocation and transition. Blossoms in a Sudden Strangeness includes a selection of 20 paintings on paper that emphasize a more direct and intimate approach than her larger paintings on canvas. Sketching her subjects with loose, wiry lines and deploying a subdued palette, often with thin veils of translucent paint, Li conveys a sense of humility and vulnerability. Affixing her signature stamp and the date in the lower right hand corner of each work, she encourages us to consider these paintings as a diaristic response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Three paintings wryly portray Kleenex boxes, prosaic objects that suddenly attained new importance as many people began to hoard health-care and cleaning products. Most of the works on paper allow Li to revisit places that she has often painted in the past, such as Haverford’s duck pond and organic farm. Other images reflect the way wildlife seemed more abundant as the local population and car traffic diminished. In her playfully titled painting, Haverfox, Li places a fox in the center of the composition, and it seems to stare directly at the viewer, as if frozen in surprise.

Haverfox 2020, mixed media on paper, 11 x 15 in.

The Main Gate 2020, mixed media on paper, 15 x 11 in.

Another image shows a fox trotting away—a reminder of how our perceptions of nature are often fleeting and incomplete. Blossoms in a Sudden Strangeness also features 27 paintings on canvas that are ambitious in scale and scope. Li animates such compositions with an adventurous palette—a broad spectrum of hues, including acidic greens and intense reds, sweet pastels, “out of the tube” color, and multi-colored mixtures that alternately reveal or conceal underlying layers.

Kleenex #1 2020, mixed media on paper, 15 x 11 in.

One of many intriguing works, March of the Daffodils, captivates our attention with bold vertical gestures: two-inch-wide swaths that mix, smear, and flatten an underlying terrain created with myriad, varied, and colorful strokes. Suggesting calligraphic marks or letters in an unknown language, these bold elements bracket the right side of the composition, where concentrations of yellow— presumably the daffodils—provide a brief moment of focus amid surrounding dynamism and complexity. When viewed from a distance, such paintings appear airy and effortless—as vibrant and refreshing as daffodils in springtime. As we draw closer, we become more aware of diverse underlying concerns. In varying ways, each canvas demonstrates the elasticity of painting media, the mutability of perception, and above all, the artist’s vibrant and unifying spirit. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic and interrelated environmental and political crises, Yi continues to paint with both existential urgency and verve. Celebrating the restorative power of beauty, she models qualities we need now, more than ever, not the least of which are empathy, intellectual curiosity, and resilience.

Kleenex #6 2020, mixed media on paper, 15 x 11 in.

March of the Daffodils 2020, oil on linen, 36 x 36 in.

Night Tulips 2020, oil on canvas, 43 x 50 in.

Back Yard 2020, oil on linen, 48 x 36 in.

Kiss of Daffodils 2020, oil on linen, 20½ x 11 in.

Bouquet as a Peacock 2020, oil on linen, 48 x 36 in.


Haverford Farm #1 2020, mixed media on paper, 15 x 11 in. Below:

Duck Pond #2 2020, oil on linen, 30 x 40 in.

Jennifer’s Bench 2020, oil on linen, 20 x 24 in.

Cherry Blossom 2020, oil on canvas, 48 x 48 in.

Shower of the Roses 2020, oil on linen, 36 x 48 in.

Ying Li, the Phlyssa Koshland Professor in Fine Arts, has taught at Haverford since 1997. Born in Beijing, China, Ying Li studied painting at Anhui Teachers University (1974–77) where she taught from 1977–83. She immigrated to the United States in 1983 and received an MFA from Parsons School of Design, NY in 1987. Ying’s work has been featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions, including internationally at Centro Incontri Umani Ascona (Swizterland), ISA Gallery (Italy), Enterprise Gallery (Ireland) and Museum of Rochefort-en-Terre (France); and in New York City at Lohin Geduld Gallery, Elizabeth Harris Gallery, Tibor de Nagy Gallery, Lori Bookstein Fine Art, The National Academy Museum and The American Academy of Arts and Letters; as well as at Gross McCleaf Gallery (Philadelphia), Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (Philadelphia), Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford College (Haverford, PA), James Michener Museum (Doylestown, PA) and Hood Museum at Dartmouth College (New Hampshire). Her awards include: The Edwin Palmer Memorial Prize for Painting and Henry Ward Ranger Fund Purchase Award, both from The National Academy Museum; Donald Jay Gordon Visiting Artist and Lecturer, Swarthmore College; Artist-in-Residence, Dartmouth College; McMillan Stewart Visiting Critic, Maryland Institute College of Art; Ruth Mayo Distinguished Visiting Artist, The University of Tulsa; and Visiting Artist, American Academy in Rome. She is the recipient of various Residential Fellowships in Switzerland, Spain, Ireland, Canada and France. Her work has been covered in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Art Forum, Art in America, The New York Sun, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Post and Hyperallergic.com.

Haverford College 370 Lancaster Avenue Haverford, PA 19041 haverford.edu/exhibits This publication accompanies the exhibition Ying Li: Blossoms in a Sudden Strangeness, curated by Andrea Packard and presented at the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery, Haverford College, Haverford, PA, September 22—November 13, 2020. Blossoms in a Sudden Strangeness is made possible with support from The John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities. exhibits.haverford.edu/blossoms Designer: John Goodrich, www.nimble-eye.com Editors: Andrea Packard, Ken Koltun-Fromm, and James Weissinger Printed in Philadelphia by Fireball Copyright 2020 © by Andrea Packard, Ying Li, Patrick Montero, and The John B. Hurford ‘60 Center for the Arts and Humanities, Haverford College. No portion of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by electronic, mechanical, or other means without the prior written permission of the publisher. John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities/ Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery Koshland Director: Ken Koltun-Fromm Associate Director: James Weissinger Associate Director, Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery, VCAM, and Campus Exhibitions: Matthew Seamus Callinan Program Manager, Noemí Fernández Financial and Administrative Assistant: Kerry Nelson CFG Co-Managers: Amolina Bhat and Sofia Esner CFG Assistants: Matt Donahue, Fiona Flynn, Athena Intanate, Becca Matson, and Maggie Parham Photos of Ying Li working by Patrick Montero Blossoms exhibition preparation by Lucia Thomé

Andrea Packard is a mixed media artist and curator who focuses on the way art can develop environmental awareness, challenge cultural biases, and foster community. She has directed the List Gallery, Swarthmore College since 1995, and curated more than 150 exhibitions for Swarthmore and varied galleries throughout the United States. Her work is held in diverse collections, such as the Woodmere Art Museum, Philadelphia, and she has been awarded fellowships or residencies by varied institutions including The Center for Emerging Visual Artists, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, American University, Hudson River Museum, Albert and Anni Albers Foundation, Vermont Studio Center, and Saint Mary’s College, Maryland. Her work can be viewed at AndreaPackard.net. Front cover:

Night Tulips (detail) 2020, oil on canvas, 43 x 50 in.

Back cover:

Back Porch #1 (detail) 2020, oil on linen, 20 x 16 in.