Gross McCleaf Gallery:  Sojourn: Recent Paintings by Ying Li   November 1 - 25, 2017      


The Heaertbeat of a Canadian Goose
oil on canvas
34 x 48 in.


A first impression of Ying Li’s paintings sticks in the mind. Entering an installation of her work, one immediately takes in swirls of paint, applied so thickly and furiously that only after a moment one recognizes trees, water and buildings. Once identified, however, such elements tend to acquire an uncannily sturdy presence. They become stable entities in a willful storm.

This holds true for her current exhibition at Gross McCleaf, a show consisting of twenty recent landscapes in which the brushstrokes have grown even thicker, and paint swirls ever more vigorous, almost violent, with lines of paint sometimes squirted directly from the tube onto the canvas. Titles reveal that the paintings depict scenes in Colorado, Maine, Switzerland and Pennsylvania, as well as New York City streets. (By way of disclosure, I should mention that I designed the catalog that accompanies the exhibition.)

The paradoxical stability of these scenes lies in Li's astute sense of color -- her understanding of how hues shift and jostle against each other, in the manner of Hans Hofmann’s “push-pull” of color tensions. Li‘s achievement is to coordinate these movements, not just into an image’s depths, but also across its surface. At points in her paintings, broad, dense areas will build in lateral sequences before giving way to a small, buoyant note; luminous swatches may sandwich a sliver of dark. The results are scenes animated not simply by descriptive flourishes but by their embodiment in energized colors and forms. Linger with the paintings, and one becomes aware of a deeper dimension to the artist’s attack: not just the obvious urgency of technique – after all, anyone can physically sling paint – but how this attack serves as a vehicle for surprisingly complex observations about nature.

Each painting, moreover, reflects a new vision. Three very vertical canvases of a New York City street, viewed from a high-rise’s upper floor, capture street life in dense mashings of hues at the bottom and broader streams of color rising above. Though few objects are distinct, in all three one viscerally senses the bustle far below, viewed through a chasm of light and space. The largest painting in the exhibition, the four-foot-wide “The Heartbreak of a Canadian Goose,” plies a very different tack; here, a blizzard of short strokes – pure reds, oranges, yellows and blue-greens, nestled among cool and warm grays – covers the entire canvas. Absorb the intervals of color cross the canvas, and individual events unfold in time; tree boughs overhang in the foreground, a plane opens beyond them, the single vertical of a tree trunk punctuates this plane like an exclamation point.

In the small canvas “Cranberry Island, The Red Canoe,” a horizontal of flaming red perches between modulated shimmers of air and reflecting water. In the far larger and more complex “Gooseland,” Li shifts gears once again, with wider strokes capturing a receding green dotted with purples, reds and yellows; its gentler composition comes as close to the idiom of Impressionism as any work in the show. “Labyrinth of Mt Gretna #3,” at nine inches wide the very smallest work in the show, is also the most schematic, with unnaturally outlined forms and no apparent horizon. Yet from its shards of turquoise green, cadmium red and Naples yellow emerges the palpable presence of house, sun and tree. A visual labyrinth indeed!

Absorbing this intensely animated work, gallery-goers of a certain background may occasionally pine for more deliberation of detail and less exuberance of facture, for more Camille Corot and less Franz Kline. But it is refreshing to watch an artist who withholds nothing, and who never settles for a mere inventorizing of her motifs. More than most painters, Li manages to combine the sincerity and urgency of the New York School with a dose of the discernment of the masters. It’s a potent mix.  

Gross McCleaf Gallery
127 South 16th St, Philadelphia PA
215.665.8138 · www.grossmccleaf.com