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Sometimes in an exhibition, there is that wonderful moment when you are not quite sure what is going in the paintings you are looking at, and you realize you have to slow down and find your way. That’s how I felt when I first saw the exhibition Fei Li: The Unofficial History of Tomorrow at First Street Gallery (November 2–20, 2021). I got a clue about the artwork from one of two notebooks in the exhibition, when I read the following line: “What is the structure that I’m participating [in] when I use brushes & in Western thought/approach dominant in art.” Elsewhere, on the same page, Li wrote: “How can I create reconciliation through language?”  

The two notebooks, both titled Shape Dictionary of My Neighbors, are written in Chinese and English, and include abstract shapes made with colored markers. They will help open the door for viewers who wants to immerse themselves in these works. 

Fei Li, Shape Dictionary of My Neighbors (2021), mixed media notebook

Fei Li was born in Minnan, China. In 2012, after studying at the San Francisco Studio School, she relocated to New York. The feeling of displacement that emerges with moving from China to San Francisco to New York manifests itself particularly strongly when it comes to art making, materials, and process. As the two quotes in Li’s notebook suggest, the artist rightfully feels as if she inhabits a liminal state between one cultural circumstance and another, and she knows that achieving rapprochement between the world views and customs of China and America is unlikely. 

Li is a mixed media artist who works on tall, narrow formats reminiscent of Chinese scroll paintings. The support is Yupo, a resilient synthetic paper that allows her to use acrylic, spray paint, airbrush, and marker, as well as to collage different materials to the surface. These materials include colored paper, fake bank notes, comics, and photos. Her imagery encompasses streaked forms that reminded me of finger painting, figurative shapes, images derived from various sources, and cutout shapes, which evoke wings or resemble eyes.

The swirls and streaks of thin acrylic paint convey a tumultuous world of clouds and water, in which various vignettes and actions are taking place. Because of the height of each panel, and their arrangement in groups of three or four, seeing becomes fragmented and jumpy, with one’s attention being pulled this way and that. I think this disorder mirrors the artist’s feeling of dislocation and experience of living in the diaspora. 

Fei Li, “I don’t know how to cook but I know how to buy off the kitchen god” (detail)

This sense of dislocation really struck home when I began looking closely at the three panels of the painting “I don’t know how to cook but I know how to buy off the kitchen god” (2021), which measures 80 by 150 inches. Across the top of all three panels Li has used different shades of blue to suggest the sky. A wiggly line made by an airbrush appears in some places. In the leftmost panel, where one might see the sun or moon, Li has collaged a brown bagel. It is lower in the sky in the second panel, suggesting that time is passing, and that everything is in a state of change, a feel enhanced by the thin, brushy streaks and smears. In the rightmost panel, a featureless figure is flying, holding the ends of a dark blue cape aloft. Behind her, we see a tray of muffins, which is an odd and surprising way to suggest a constellation. 

Below the sky’s changing, populated atmosphere, Li uses pale blues, mustard yellows, violets, and green to evoke an abstract landscape that seems to be tumbling down the painting’s surface. This feeling of falling is underscored by the vertical and diagonal direction of the shapes, which is reinforced by the streaks and smears running through the paint. 

Installation view of Fei Li: The Unofficial History of Tomorrow at First Street Gallery, New York

Within this turbulent abstract world are collaged images of Asian food dishes and Cheetos, as well as outlined figures embedded in the paint: faces, featureless figural shapes, and collaged figures derived from printed sources. If you are what you eat, what does it mean to juxtapose two mutually exclusive diets. Is reconciliation impossible, even through food? 

In the lower part of the third panel is a collaged cluster that includes a meat cleaver, a camera, and the phrase “How To Kill,” the H partially covered over with a film of blue. Do we read “How” or “Ow” or both? This cluster adds an ominous note to the painting, and, to my mind, alludes to the six Asian women killed by a lone individual in Atlanta in March, 2021. Nearby, the word “powers” inflects the cluster, like a radical in a Chinese ideogram. 

The dual consciousness of East and West that the viewer encounters in these works merges the artist’s subjectivity with different artistic practices. By working on a scroll-like format with collage, and collaging images of both Western and Asian dishes to the painting’s surface, Li invokes the jarring central dilemma of her life; she is not quite comfortable in the world she inhabits. She realizes that she will likely never fit in, and will always be seen as an outsider, someone who is not white. 

Installation view of Fei Li: The Unofficial History of Tomorrow at First Street Gallery, New York

While I think that Li’s orchestrated collision of paint and printed images, abstraction and representation, East and West, can be brought to even greater clarity, her inquiry into the dual consciousness that comes from being a Chinese woman living in the diaspora is an important subject that much of the art world has yet to acknowledge. 

I have focused on this single work not because it is necessarily the best or strongest, but because it is the one I delved into the deepest. Each of the large paintings is full of various vignettes that, in some cases, evoke the genre of Chinese fantasy films mixed with other sources and inflections. In the smaller room, the viewer can see the two notebooks and some small collages. Together, they suggest the scope of Li’s ambition, and the urgency pushing it forward. 

Fei Li: The Unofficial History of Tomorrow continues at First Street Gallery (526 West 26th Street, Suite 209, Chelsea, Manhattan) through November 20.

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