March 4 - March 25, 2009
Influence, Inspiration and Choice: The Education of Ying Li
“Art is not the mirror of society but an essential part of the fabric of society, with a unique role to play, and more than anything else its role has to do will affirming the stubborn particularity of a person's experience.”
The New Republic, December 24, 2008
This exhibition is not intended as a retrospective, nor should it be taken as such. Though it features the work of painter Ying Li from 1976 to 2006, my narrow focus as curator was on the task of placing a selection of the artist’s early pictures, created first as student, and later teacher in the People’s Republic of China, along-side canvases of her subsequent years as a painter in New York, in the hope of illuminating the roles of influence and inspiration in the development of an artist’s vision. It is a task somewhat at odds with Ying Li’s energetic and always forward-looking attitude, and so I must first acknowledge that this exhibition could not have been produced without the patient indulgence of the artist herself, for which I am deeply grateful.
Central to a comparison of Ying Li’s early canvases with that of her recent work is that chapter in China’s modern history known as the Cultural Revolution, the effects of which form the basic influence in her education as an artist. It is the specific character of this influence, combined with Ying Li’s instinctive and eventually successful negotiation around its sweeping ambitions that dramatically illustrate the resilient inner vision artists inevitably rely on for direction.
Ying Li’s success required cutting a path through a difficult cultural landscape. Her formal education took place during an infamous period of repression and anti-intellectual censorship that established radical new political limitations on all cultural activity in China. For students of Western painting this meant they would be handicapped by a filtered view of that painting’s history. For their senior colleagues these political intrusions were catastrophic. Ying’s father, Fangjie Li, ended up in a re-education and labor camp, the Communist Party having suddenly declared subversive his once lauded teaching of Russian literature.
Ying Li lived and worked with her fellow students at Anhui Teachers University in a studio with little heat under a cracked, leaking roof. Military style clothing helped, as did the low freezing point of linseed oil. But even to get this far she had to overcome a pervasive attitude (of pre-communist origin) among faculty, students and administration alike, that women artists were better suited for making quilts. But Ying came to Anhui to study oil painting in the Western style, and to that end remained undeterred.
Western style painting had found its way to China in the nineteenth century. But in the decades following the 1949 revolution, and particularly during the Cultural Revolution, Communist rule limited the available historical record of Western art to choices deemed supportive of the proletariat ideal, or items authored by artists with acceptable political credentials. Modernism was probed tentatively, and only deep enough to reach some of Picasso’s Blue Period street people. Such politically motivated selectivity left the bulk of Modernism’s expressive energy hidden, and it was this artificially truncated narrative that served as Ying Li’s initial exposure to easel painting.
But censorship proves a clumsy tool. The mind is too nimble, the eye too quick. Apparently lost on those who rely on censorship is its Achilles’ heel, located precisely in those sections that seem to a keen observer missing, and therefore the most intriguing. Instead of merely erasing inconvenient space, censorship tends to create a corridor of lit rooms punctuated by unlit rooms the very darkness of which beckons seductively. This is particularly true when censoring visual imagery. A great deal of Modernism’s message is coded into the minutiae of formal elements, like Van Gogh’s expressive color, or the gestural tension of his impasto strokes. None of these things would mean much to a party official whose job is to influence students politically, but suggest extraordinary possibilities to a painter. And it was within these possibilities that Ying Li found inspiration.
Not only in an educational attempt at blatant cultural manipulation, but in art education in general, influence and inspiration make an uneasy pair. From the Latin spirae, for breath, inspiration originally made reference to the effect on an artist by a muse, whose role in the Greco-Roman pantheon was that of guide (if not manipulator) of human creativity. When Christianity replaced the muse with an angel, the word’s metaphysical character persisted undisturbed. Today we skirt the issue of intervening spirits, concentrating instead on the event itself, which may be characterized as an artist’s experience of sudden and positive clarity of purpose. But this banishment of an invisible hand lends weight to the notion that inspiration is the recognition of something perhaps already present in the deepest self, and in any case only knowable intimately.
Though sharing similar roots in the superstitions of the antique, the word influence has never lost its sense of intervention. It is derived from a metaphor suggesting flow, implying a slow and consistent stream. Believed by Ancient Romans to emanate astrologically, influence is understood today as a force that may spring from any point in the surrounding cultural environment.
The difference between them is that an artist can choose to respond to influence, while inspiration is felt on too deep a level for discourse. An artist’s ability to accept or reject influence is often taken as a sign of growth and maturity. But inspiration is not even perceptible until its transfer is complete. Inspiration is private, idiosyncratic and easily relates to intuition, sensibility, and those properties we associate with feeling. Influence on the other hand is public. It transpires in a shared environment. It can be located, mapped, imitated, absorbed or discarded.
The power of inspiration, and the corresponding weakness of influence, is apparent in an anecdote the artist shared with me during a studio visit in preparation for this exhibit. In 1980 Ying Li, then a young professor of painting in Anhui, while enjoying a privilege not extended to her students – that of perusing newly available Western art magazines in the library – came across a reproduction of a painting by Pierre Bonnard, an artist whose very existence was news to her. Though she neither spoke nor read English and could make no use of the written information, the image communicated more than she could even fully grasp at the time. Her understanding of painting until this moment – the questions raised in her mind regarding where those intensely applied brush strokes of Van Gogh might lead – culminated in her confronting this single image featured on what might have been nothing more than an ad for an auction house. Visual acuity more than made up for her lack of access to relevant texts. The image was enough to give support to what she had already experienced on her own regarding the possibilities of oil paint.
In time, such inspiring events may become significant, but are first experienced internally and therefore likely to be tested on an equally intimate scale. All painters know this. It is an aspect of the learning process intrinsic to the medium. Though new techniques are often the result of chance, they may also be consciously tried in a part of the canvas expected by the artist to receive little notice, allowing the general thrust of the picture to provide a sort of cover. For example, in Self Portrait, 1980, the bright red stroke in the bend of the figures’ arm, when considered in the context of the painting’s cool palette, seems a bit eccentric. But that small red stroke can be read as a precursor to the intense color contrasts of Ying’s later work. And though it may appear trivial to a viewer, such incidents are typical of what a painter takes as useful from a finished canvas.
There are other reasons artist’s choose covert methods when applying inspired ideas. Unlike influence, the purely instinctive nature of an artist’s inspiration is often difficult to covey in words. As Arthur Koestler put it, “…true creativity often starts where language ends.” Unlike the sort of discourse generated by influence, a confession of inspiration inevitably suffers in translation. According to several biographers, Arshile Gorky could rhapsodize about Paolo Uccello’s rendering of feathers; Cézanne’s letters left us with the tease of a “…petite sensation”; and Barnett Newman wrote eloquently of an inspirational visit to ancient Native-American burial mounds. And yet nothing in Gorky’s work overtly resembles Uccello; I have yet to read a coherent description of Cézanne’s little sensation; and finding a visual correlation to burial mounds in Newman’s work is at best a challenge. Such clues to an artist’s motivation are fascinating and biographically informative, but they also function as indicators of the inadequacy of language in explaining what actually moves an artist to make characteristic choices.
Ying Li’s arrival in New York in the mid-eighties and her experience in the MFA program at Parsons School of Design not only gave her a chance to study the full spectrum of Modernism, it provided an environment conducive to a reconciliation of the conservative style, for which she had been trained in China, with her instincts for exploring the physical qualities of oil paint. Though her study in China was certainly successful in terms of her absorbing conventions of late nineteenth century rendering, it was her years in New York that made possible an exploration of those techniques that exploit fully oil paint’s uniquely evocative properties. A painting finished in her last weeks at Parsons is hung in this exhibition at the artist’s suggestion beside a similarly shaped traditional landscape, executed in the same year, to illustrate that together they suggest her coming to terms with both periods in her life. As evidence of influence these two pieces are continents apart. But in terms of inspiration they represent a fusion of ideas that causes little disturbance in the silent, flexible space of the mind.
This same flexibility extends to her understanding of formal issues, as Ying Li is apparently comfortable drawing upon a wide expanse of gestural possibility, marked at one end by the heavily worked surface of Tiber River Storm, its physical density articulating the light of the Umbrian landscape in which it was painted, and that of Maryland Dove, Launched, dominated by a calligraphic, dry-brush technique that floats comfortably beneath the picture plane while allowing us to feel a similar sense of space and light through a delicate weaving of color.
This ability to fuse disparate elements brings us to the most extraordinary fact of Ying Li’s art, which is that she is a plein-air painter with roots in the landscape-inspired canvases of Willem De Kooning. Committed to optical cues (as was De Kooning, even prior to his landscape period) Ying Li has become adept at finding a balance between the paint’s color and textural qualities, but unlike De Kooning, never at the expense of rendering a subject incomprehensible. As art critic Faye Hirsch observed, “Although Li’s florid gesture and color register the influence of Abstract Expressionists […] there is a kind of efficient communicativeness to her strokes…”, to which I would add that there is also a clear deference to the subject as something shared, which in some respects indicates residual influence from her early years when art was taught as a practical political tool. I don’t think it too presumptuous to consider that perhaps Ying Li has chosen to embrace that part of her past that emphasized communication – although it is certainly clear she does so on her own terms.
It is a long way from Anhui province to Manhattan. But undaunted by confining political limitations, and unintimidated by all the freedom New York can throw at an artist, Ying Li found her way, like all strong painters do, by adhering to personal imperative. From her early canvases to the most recent garden paintings there is always present a painterly inventiveness that illustrates Ying’s confidence in facing any and all influences. And such confidence is not gleaned from programs, fashions or curricula, but from that still mysterious factor we call, for lack of a better term, inspiration.
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Hirsch, Faye. Review. Art in America, November 2007.
Koestler , Arthur. The Act of Creation. London:Arkana,1989.
O’Neill, John P. Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.
Rand, Harry. Arshile Gorky: The Implication of Symbols. Montclair: Allanheld & Schram, 1980.
Spender, Matthew. From a High Place: A Life of Arshile Gorky. New York:Knopf,1999.
Sullivan, Michael. Art and Artists of Twentieth-Century
China. Berkeley:University of California Press,1996.
Winter Pond, 2004-2007
o/c 38" x 28"
Vallery of Montecastello #10, 2001
oil on panel, 14"x x 18"
Maryland Dove, Launched, 2007 ...
o/c 30" x 30" Courtesy Lohin Geduld Gallery, NY
Cranberry Island, Towndock, 2007
oil on linen 20" x 24"
Montecastello, Passing Moon, 2005
oil on linen 20" x 24"
Montecastello, Storm, 2005
oil on linen, 20" x 24"
Scorched Valley, 2006
oil on linen, 20" x 24"
Montecastello, Night Window, 2007
oil on linen, 24" x 20"
Tiber Valley, Pink Clouds, 2007
oil on linen, 20" x 24"
Montecastello, Twilight, 2007
oil on panel 16" x 16"
Morning Valley, 2007
oil on linen, 16" x 16"
Between Skull and Lilies, 2001-2004
Montecastello Sky #7, 2004
Valley, Full Moon, 2005
oil on canvas, 35" x 28"
Tiber River, 2005
Susan's Garden #5, 2008
oil on ??, 24" x 18"
Susan's Garden #6, 2008
oil on ??, 24" x 18"
Hanging Rose, 1988
Model Study, 1976
Model Study, 1979
Jiuhua Mountain, 1979
Self Portrait, 1980
Smedley in Southern Anhui, 1980
Memory of Yellow Mountain, 2003
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