James Cohan Gallery February 19 – March 27, 2010
Yun-Fei Ji is among the few remaining adherents to a once-great tradition now besieged from within and without. The arts of Chinese landscape painting and calligraphy evolved over millennia in symbiotic relationship to a culture now in the throes of its second massive revolution since the 1940s—communist, then capitalist. It is virtually impossible for a person who has not experienced such cultural change to imagine what it feels like. But its effects on Chinese art are glaringly apparent.
The force leveraged against traditional culture during the Cultural Revolution is now well documented and its spiritual repercussions are revealed in works such as Gao Xingjian’s novel, Soul Mountain. What the revolution began, capitalism seems destined to complete as the pace and scale of industrialization leave little room for (and seem to pay little heed to) the preservation of ancient culture.
In contemporary art, Eastern and Western, Chinese culture has become a fetish. Many contemporary Chinese artists have gone in for a pop sensibility that relies on received notions of Western aesthetics either to lugubriously celebrate or completely ignore mass capitalisms arrival in China. On the other side of the coin, non-Chinese artists attracted to classical Chinese ink painting adopt its elements for their own work often with little or no understanding of the culture they are aping. In short, the riches of China’s painting tradition are falling through the cracks. This phenomenon is likely at work in a great many non-Western cultures but, due to the recent vogue for all things Chinese, it is happening very noticeably in China’s case.
And then there is an artist such as Yun-Fei Ji, who spent his formative years in China during the Cultural Revolution and now lives as an expatriate in New York. In light of his homeland’s callous neglect, it is almost heartbreaking to observe the tenderness with which Ji handles the painting tradition into which he was born. He is hardly a follower—Ji's painting looks absolutely contemporary. But there is no mistaking the esteem in which he holds his forebears and the work he devotes to ensuring that his painting will not seem trivial in comparison with their great accomplishments.
The innovations of the Tang, Song, and Yuan dynasties make themselves felt in the rising mountains, twisting trees, distant islands, and gentle atmospheric mists that hold Ji’s ink paintings together. Perhaps it is a product of the era in which we live that the codification of landscape and calligraphic techniques, and masking of intent, in Ming dynasty painting seems particularly important to Ji’s work. There is something so barren and lifeless about his environments. Not that the painting lacks life, but that the landscape depicted seems on the verge of disintegration. This we owe in no small part to the disenfranchised hordes who wander through it. They seem to carry all they own on their backs, their strong, impassive faces belying loneliness despite the crowds.
This is post-revolutionary, post-industrial China, and it is not a comfortable place. Such unease in the presence of such sensational natural beauty seems hard to understand. Perhaps their peripatetic state has rendered these people strangers in their own land, which might now seem as remote to them as it has always seemed to those of us born oceans away. Like Xingjian’s nameless hero in Soul Mountain, it may be that, despite the apparent hopelessness of the quest, they seek a solitary communion in nature such as the literati of the Song and Yuan Dynasties were said to have found.
Melancholic ghosts and ghouls move among the wayfarers, seeming at some times to taunt and at others to comfort, alter-egos for the artist himself. There are boorish creatures with great protruding tongues; small, scraggly, large-eyed scavengers; and wraiths with whom Lo Ping would likely have claimed alliance. As the eye moves over the delicately wrinkled surfaces of the Xuan paper on which Ji works, the remnants of a culture's riches intermingle with the signs of its decay. It is a strange elixir of exhilaration and tragedy that issues from the spectacle of a culture in transition and decline.
ContributorBen La Rocco