One does not so much enter into the landscapes of Ying Li as collide with them. Brushed impastos accrete on her canvases like minerals on the walls of a cave. Discerning the scenes can require an act of imagination, but they reward the viewer’s efforts with a luscious physicality and surprising palette.
Li’s second exhibition at Lohin Geduld featured more than two dozen easel-size landscapes painted in upstate New York, Pennsylvania and Newfoundland. The weather in them ranges from vernal to wintry, and the subjects from single trees in surrounding greenery to village seascapes. Constant throughout is Li’s paint application, which seems to originate from the artist’s legs as much as her wrist: swaths of oils brushed out two tablespoons at a time into variegated strokes, piled up until the layers form a topography of their own, punctuated with dashes and commas of contrasting colors.
The Impressionist landscape is arguably the most thoroughly rehashed topos in the history of art, and there’s considerable pressure on the contemporary painter not to rehash it further. Li addresses this challenge by amplifying the volumes of Impressionist colors, in everything from hachure to low relief. A Common Tree (2010-11) exemplifies Li’s method. Red, orange and amber clumps of paint cling to the tree’s form like autumnal barnacles. The greens beneath its boughs, viridian and chartreuse, were applied as if admixed with actual grass then dotted with fallen leaves, umber shadows, and-so it seems-bits of stray white sky.
Of interest in Li’s case is that she does not treat her method as a settled matter, a simple routine of turning the Impressionist technique up to eleven. She employs abstraction that she varies in degree and kind from piece to piece. In Dancing in Snow (2009-11), for instance, she depicts a tree in a snowy clearing with thick layers of white, black and near-primaries. Coloristically and to some extent structurally, the painting explores the same territory as late Mondrian. She allows the paint to lie flatter in Window on Town of Tilting (2010). Here the lower portion of the window frames a view of the brick red, close-built Fogo Island village. The upper part looks out on a long rectangle of Newfoundland sky, cream streaked with blue and orange. It is as if Li fused a Mark Rothko multiform with a Tom Thomson field sketch.
A fat, 3-foot-long blue brushstroke slides down the left edge of Melting (2011), a 50-inch vertical and one of the larger pieces. Unidentifiable as anything but a foreground element in a landscape buzzing with frozen, silver air, the mark typifies the extent of Li’s daring. Throughout the exhibition, composition, color and technique seem improvised and tentative, as if the whole figurative project could give way. But it does not. Li’s powers ensure that her painterly travels reach satisfying destinations.
Photo: Ying Li: Dancing in Snow, 2009-11, oil on panel, 15 1/2 inches square; at Lohin Geduld.