Art

Formal and Furious Landscapes

Installation view, 'Ying Li: Paintings' at John Davis Gallery (all photos by the author unless otherwise noted)
Installation view, ‘Ying Li: Paintings’ at John Davis Gallery (all photos by the author unless otherwise noted)

HUDSON, NY — With their vintage timber beams and rough stuccoed walls, the exhibition spaces in John Davis Gallery’s carriage house could easily upstage any artwork within. This is especially the case with the top, fourth floor, where sloping ceilings and wood girders quaintly intrude on the headroom.

Paintings by Ying Li, however, readily hold their own in this space. All 12 of her furiously brushed, vibrantly hued landscapes look to have been produced by a cathartic burst of energy. With seeming abandon, she strokes and sometimes trowels on the paint, and for one particularly encrusted painting — “The Last Tree” (2015) — has even squeezed pigment directly from the tube, embedding smooth strings of color into the churning surface.

But what’s most remarkable about these paintings is the way they combine this indulgent technique with a respectful eye for traditional composition. Her paintings reflect the visual aspect of real scenes — landscapes in Switzerland and Maine, as the titles indicate — and despite their violent surfaces, they locate forms with pictorial, if not topographical, conviction.

Ying Li, "The Last Tree" (2015), oil on canvas, 20 x 16 in
Ying Li, “The Last Tree” (2015), oil on canvas, 20 x 16 in

As with any capable colorist, Li’s hues don’t simply depict objects but impart a sense of presence. A certain freewheeling discipline gives coherence to these dislocations of color, ordering their intervals across the canvas. “The Last Tree” may have the most tortured surface of all, but we sense a hard yellow receding in space as a sun-splashed path, framed by the elusive blue-greens of shadowed foliage — furiously knitted as strokes, but evanescent in hue. A few jabs of floating white establish flashes of sky behind; streaks of deep blue-blacks, pressed directly from the tube, stand as the adamant trunk of a tree. These events connect in frenetic harmony — or perhaps, in a unity of disharmonies. Is the single stab of pale, green yellow a distant sunlit tree? It’s impossible to say, but it convinces as a natural, observed phenomenon.

If “The Last Tree” verges on the claustrophobic, “Bay, Cranberry Island (Dawn)” (2014) unfolds in broad, spacious bands of yellow, off-white, and rust-red. One feels a vastness of space, even as fierce brushstrokes continuously bring the eye back to the surface.

In a sense, each painting risks two kinds of picturesqueness: first, the charm of its bucolic subject, with scenic mountains, lakes, and trees; second, the captivating aspect of a highly sensuous technique. Their consistent pictorial power, however, reflects an urgent sense of purpose rather than self-indulgence or bravado.

At one end of the floor, under a low, slanting ceiling, three canvases have been propped on the seats of small wooden chairs, lined up like rapt schoolchildren. Not every painting could hold up under such circumstances, but Li’s intense canvases do, holding us rapt as well.

(click to enlarge)
Left to right: Ying Li, “A Common Tree” (2010–11), oil on canvas, 40 x 30 in; “Cascading” (2011), oil on canvas, 24 x 24 in; “Ascona Clouds” (2013) oil on linen, 18 x 24 in (click to enlarge)

Ying Li: Paintings continues at John Davis Gallery (362 ½ Warren Street, Hudson, New York) through November 8.

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