Abstract Artist Pushes Boundaries of Traditional Landscape
by Clifford Michel
Within the Gallery of the College of Staten Island, the title of the current show, Foreign Terrain, by accomplished painter Ying Li seems self-evident. Twenty-four partially abstract works of art grace the Gallery with vibrant portrayals of landscapes from her recent residency fellowship at Centro Incontri Umani Ascona.With the Alpine regions of Italy and Switzerland as her subjects, Li confidently straddles the line between abstract and imagery. While still wanting to show form and the beauty of nature, Li separates herself as she is able to draw out themes with abstract expression.
“One intensifies the other—you cannot separate these two. I always try to say something through a painting. When there’s a landscape in front of me, there’s such character and such mood that I try to convey,” said Li, who is also a Professor of Fine Arts and Departmental Chair at Haverford College. “I choose what to paint, what kind of landscape, what kind of angle, what time of the day it is. Those choices and decisions dictate the painting I do, and I don’t choose them by accident.”
Li uses alla prima (wet-in-wet) in her art work, a style where wet paint is applied over wet paint. In paintings such as “Vallo Onsernone #5” the vibrant exchange is clear as brushstrokes zigzag across the canvas. The dark blue strokes plow across the painting and form a deep canyon. Around the edges, the primer is still visible. Alla prima is far from representational portraits, Li needs to work quickly in order to properly convey the forms in front of her.
“The whole process is frustrating, but then you have to figure out how you can get out of that frustration, you have to make decisions and find some sort of solution to make it work. But that’s the exciting part, you never get bored. Because you have to learn a new way of how to deal with and reach a resolution,” said Li.
Li’s decision to paint landscape as her primary subject is a personal one. Growing up in China she was trained to do art with very specific subject matters. When training, they weren’t allowed to paint landscape or still life and western modernism was suppressed. Students were told that art was for the government, so when Li immigrated to the United States in 1983 she decided to paint landscape because of its grand subject matter.
Often,when painting on location Li is humbled by the extent to which she has to prepare to paint landscape. Having to resort to a tripod that was light and sturdy enough to support her canvases and driving over two hours to Switzerland’s highest paved road were only a few of the challenges. With fruit, crackers and chocolate packed, Li painted for six hours at a time. All of this at eight thousand feet above sea level, heights high enough to cause nausea and headaches.
The thick and goopy paint on some of the paintings in the exhibit are a result of Li’s direct engagement with the landscape. Clouds moving in often distorted her view of mountains and valleys, so Li decided to work with it and reflect the atmosphere of the environment in her paintings. In “Ascona Rain,” thick layers of paint are layered to display the distortion that fog creates. Blue and purple combine together to cover the natural greenery. Li’s abstract adds another element to the tradition of landscape. She is able to show the flow and actual experience of the already inspiring terrain.
“In painting, everything in painting is abstract,” said Li. “Even if you paint a tree, how do you paint that? You use lines, and shapes, ranges of light and dark, tones of color, warmth, the primary colors, and tonal colors. All these things are abstract for both representational and abstract painting. In my work, I like to have a sense of place and a sense of the scale of a landscape. Also outdoor of light and the sensation that when outside everything moves, so I try to convey that concept, mood, atmosphere, and sensation.”