Sojourn, the current exhibition of Ying Li’s paintings at the Gross McCleaf Gallery, includes 20 works that evoke pictorial spaces: vistas on a Swiss lake; autumn mountains near Telluride, Colorado; docked boats on the Maine coast. But come closer and you enter the ridged, luminous labyrinths of her pigments projected over the surface in chunky reliefs.
Gone are the mountains, boats, big cities. The eye now travels across a dense massif of commingling oils, jumbo-wide brushstrokes, thick palette-knife smears, deep ruts, and frozen crests of paint jutting out like geological strata. Her work’s aggressive textures have a strong tactile appeal. Each canvas is a living ecosystem of paint, a palpable correlate of the artist’s subjective responses deftly deposited onto the flat surface.
Artist in exile
It takes courage to be Ying Li. As a teenager during the Cultural Revolution, the artist was exiled to a far-flung collective farm for being the daughter of a “class enemy.” Her father, a professor of Russian literature, was sentenced to a decade in labor camps. Trained in the dicta of social realism in China after the tumult of the Cultural Revolution, Li escaped legibility for abstraction by degrees. (She left China for New York City in 1983.) Her latest body work is her most radical departure from figuration.
Take Twin Tides, a study of the sea rising from the canvas in broad incandescent strokes of blue, yellow, white, and burgundy. These sinewy pigment architectonics resist easy access to the image within, and the representation has been backfilled by paint. Li might have first sketched the scene true to nature — a semblance still lurks in the deepest layers of the work. But later, in the studio, new accruals of paint propelled the seascape well beyond recognition.
Are we looking at tidal waves or congealed smears signifying their own vitality? Is the viewer in front of the vista or looking down at it? The composition invites multiple interpretations and accommodates contradictions. We are looking at the sea, a memory of the sea, or a gestural performance that not only portrays the water but also acts it out.
Abstracting life itself
Because Li’s paintings aspire to three dimensions, gravity is often their collaborator. The long strands of paint squeezed directly from the tube in three Vertical City compositions have gently run and stretched while still wet before hardening on the surface’s maddening maze — the “skin” of the painting, as Li calls it.
Of the smaller works, one of my favorites was Cranberry, the Red Canoe. The canvas, an artifact of churning cascades of hue, made me want to touch the little ridge of the boat: two rising strokes of orange and red with a hint of yellow amid striations of color. Through it, a brush has left myriad hair-thin grooves as if cutting a record in hot vinyl.
I found myself lingering longest before The Heartbeat of a Canadian Goose, the largest work on view. Defying the conceit of the frame, paint clings to the sides of the canvas. Two ridges of red rivet a real maple leaf to the churning oils. The leaf seems to move downstream through rapids of color as a metaphor for time, the real medium of Li’s work.
Imagine watching a nature documentary — say, Winged Migration — and painting all its frames on a single canvas. The result will be a paean not so much to birds as to duration itself. But here’s the rub: Heartbeat is created from real life, from unfiltered sensations surging up through the sluices of interiority, from moods, thoughts, and memories rushing over the visible. What to record then? What to leave out? When to stop?
Allowing for chance without second guesses, Li’s paintings perform her career in miniature. They traverse from native realism to adopted abstraction. They make an escape, layer by layer, from the flatness of a rectilinear plane to the eye-popping topographies of marks and matter, where the artist in exile has set up her true home.
What, When, Where
Sojourns. By Ying Li. Through November 25, 2017, at the Gross McCleaf Gallery, 127 S. 16th Street, Philadelphia. (215) 665-8138 or grossmccleaf.com.