Ying Li is a Professor of Fine Arts at Haverford College, whose expressive observation-based art depicts a variety of landscapes and city scenes throughout the U.S. and Europe. Friday, September 9 marks the opening of her exhibition “Ying Li: Geographies,” on display at Haverford’s Cantor-Fitzgerald Gallery and Magill Library. CFG staff member Rachel Xiao ’17 spoke to Professor Li about her creative process and progress, as well as some of the influences behind her work.
How do you see your early artistic training impacting your relationship with art now? Do you think your training in Chinese painting and calligraphy has impacted your current painting style?
My early training was at the art department of Anhui Normal University. It really gave me a solid foundation, even though at the time I hated it. I remember we spent a whole semester working on one plaster cast, just working on that one piece with very hard pencil. It was like torture. At that time I just wanted to express myself, I wanted something free and colorful. But you know, that’s how you learn how to get your hands to do what you want to do, and how your hands and eyes can work together. Something that is very concrete and simple and trains your concentration, your focus. We also had to take Chinese painting classes as a requirement, even though I was in the Western painting division. At the time I just hated it. I thought it was so boring. You just do the same stroke over and over and over, again and again, a hundred times. I remember we looked at a bunch of old classical Chinese paintings and I thought, “Ugh they look like they’re painted with soy sauce!” At the time I couldn’t appreciate it. And now it’s like my thing, I look at that stuff all the time and I start to really appreciate how amazingly they’re distilled and they’re abstract and the clarity and crispness in them. You see right away if those are good hands working or not. I think that part helped me see how to paint my paintings in a different way, not just plain picture and color, but also how you put the material on the canvas and how your hands react to the surface and how your whole body works together to deliver that stroke. That’s really in Chinese painting and calligraphy.
I grew up around a lot of calligraphy because my parents enjoyed it, and I can definitely see that in your work – it seems like every stroke really matters.
In Chinese calligraphy and painting, it’s like this one stroke has its own identity, its own character. How you deliver that line, that’s how they judge a piece. So often when you look at a piece of Chinese calligraphy, calligraphers don’t see the text, they go right into the strokes, the artists hands, how they work. I remember this old Chinese calligrapher teacher of mine, people went to him because he was the authority and asked him to see if a work was fake or not. Even before the whole piece opened up, he said, “Oh, that’s him.” People said, “You haven’t seen the whole piece.” He said, “I don’t need to see the whole piece, I saw his hands right there.”
So Chinese painting definitely informs how you paint in terms of actually putting paint on paper. But I was wondering if as a Chinese-born painter working in America, do you ever feel pressured to tell a certain narrative or address the issue of culture in your work? How do you navigate this pressure?
I am Chinese and a Chinese painter but I grew up in a very particular period of history, under the Communist regime. I went through the Communist Revolution when I was a teenager, and I was trained, brainwashed. You see art as a tool, a message, you’ve got to have the correct political theme in it and you have to be on the same page with the government. You can’t just take off. I was trained to be politically correct, so now I don’t give a damn about it. I really don’t. I feel like the art has its own merit and its own dignity and its own language and that part for me is so rich and so much of what I can work with. It’s also my reaction to my training and my past. There are tons of artists doing cross cultural work – that part comes naturally, who you are never disappears – I see great paintings doing that kind of genre but it’s just not my cup of tea. To me, dealing with something visually and how I react to nature and my surroundings is plenty to work with. A lot of this political correctness thing is people putting pressure on themselves. You think you have to be that way but you don’t. Especially for artists, it really has to come from inside.
After reading your essay “From Michael’s Window” in the show’s catalog, I was especially struck by the way your emotions manifested and tied in directly into the city geography around you. How do different geographies influence your art – not only on a visual and observation-based level, but on an emotional plane as well?
Geography, philosophy, cultural background, your mood, the people surrounding you, the color palette – everything is so different place to place, that’s why I love to travel, and I love to drag my paint with me. That kind of thing you can’t get sitting in your studio. I don’t get that kind of inspiration. I always feel like nature and the world is so huge, it’s so much more than what I can squeeze out from my own head, and I work the best when I react to something. I feel like I have something to say about what I’m looking at. When I have that, I think the work comes out the most connected, and that kind of a connection will pass to the viewer. When the people see that kind of a connection they react to it. With the city paintings, you know, I lived in New York for 33 years. That’s the place I lived the longest in my whole life, I moved around a lot and I went to the countryside because I was sent by the government to work on different farms. Then when I got to New York I felt that connection right away. I grew up in Beijing so I’m really a city girl. I love the energy and the diversity. I love to see different looking people around me, and I’m one of them. And you feel at home. Right away I feel at home. That kind of mixing I totally just respond to. I didn’t paint the city until Michael passed away. I always sort of shied away – it’s so big and so huge and also there are lots of paintings done of New York City so it felt like, “I’ll go somewhere far away.” I had never been outside of China until I was thirty, so it was also an excuse to see the world, and at the same time I could record what I could see and feel according to certain places. I just feel so lucky and privileged to be able to do that. And different places are exciting – just like when you taste different foods for the first time, and it’s like woah!
But the emotions evoked by natural scenes are different from the ones evoked by city scenes?
New York was a place I lived. I had been living there for 30 years, then I started to paint it. It’s like re-discovering your old lover. But going to Switzerland or Spain – I had never been there. I had no expectation of what I would see, so when I just saw it, it just had that kind of impact on me. That’s a very different reaction from when I did the city paintings from the window of Michael’s study. And there’s something really interesting about painting somewhere else – a lot of these paintings I go back, I re-visit, I do second and third visits. I love to do that because every time I just sink in deeper. Every time your understanding of a place is very different from your reaction at the beginning. Also when you paint on the same site over and over again, it gets you to work on painting issues.
What do you mean by painting issues?
The formal issues like what you have right in front of you, the composition and the color palette and putting down what you see right away. The second time, you think how could I do this differently? You have your history with the place. How about I focus a little differently? Tilt the horizon a little higher, or diagonally, or to the left or right? It opens up a whole new thing. If it’s a bright palette, how can I do a moody darker thing? How about I paint this place in the nighttime? Just so many possibilities. Revisiting gives you the chance to do all that. It’s like getting to know a person from different angles or in different social contexts. There is no one view where you can say “that’s the one place” – it’s really about all the different faces put together.
In your piece, you also write that you are a “much messier painter now.” Could you talk about how this encounter with grief has changed you – your relationship with New York or your relationship with your art?
My reaction to the city after Michael passed away – well, he was always there. He was a New Yorker and he loved the city. He grew up there and played baseball on the street and knocked his teeth out, and he went to City College and he was captain of the baseball team there, and he really knew pockets of the city. We used to have these great bicycle outings, going up and down the city and across the Brooklyn bridge. So I cannot help thinking about how he sees things, and that adds a lot of emotional layers to my work. When he was here I always took things for granted – I never thought, “How would I see things from his view?” because he was there, he would tell me what he sees. But now I hear him. That makes me look with more appreciation and look more carefully. He was a very thoughtful levelheaded person, and I’m always [Ying waves her hands in the air], now I’m like, oh, take your time, pay attention to details. I see more this way – I can stare across the window and notice things changing on the roof, they’re planting a roof garden there, or notice they’re holding a little club on a different roof – I pay a little more attention.
I’m always a kind of messy painter because I’m always frustrated. I think that comes from trying to get things right. People say “you paint so thick” – all this paint, it’s not intentional, it comes out of frustration and the desperation of trying to get it right or get the color more intense so I have to add more, straight from the tube to get the crispness. At some point that really bothered me, and I tried to think why I was so messy and tried to be neater. Then I thought, that’s just not my thing. I can’t force myself to change who I am and how I do things, so I tried to change it to my advantage. If I go from the tube I can get both the drawing and the clear color at the same time. Also I feel like why not give it a try? See what happens, what turns out? That got me messier and messier – the process of trying to get things clear actually becomes messier, then the clarity comes out of that messiness. That’s my process.
Just in the way you described the messiness of your process of painting, I can see how that would apply the messiness of an emotional response.
That’s so true, it’s like the process of painting is a discovery of yourself, seeing how you react to certain situations. Because during the process it’s really about making choices – there are so many different ways you can go, and making these decisions really sort of tells who you are. In a way, it gets me to understand myself better, know myself better, and then you recognize who you are and make better of it. I cannot be Da Vinci. You do your best to get from yourself.
Has your time at Haverford impacted your work in any way? Do you have plans for future geographies that you would like to explore?
I will say this: Haverford really got me into painting landscape. Before Haverford I lived primarily in New York, and Haverford really got me connected to nature, even though this is like a suburb. But the campus itself has a feeling of natural growth, not people pressed on it. Has a feeling that we are a part of it, that part got me to start painting landscape. I’ve been painting landscapes since I got here, I painted the trees on campus over and over again. The light here is so different from New York, it got me to think about the issues in landscape painting – how can I get that kind of a sensibility? And through Haverford I got to go to different places like Fogo Island, Newfoundland. Things like that totally open up the world and really got me to reconnect with nature.
I am planning to return to Ascona, Switzerland, and am planning to go back to Cranberry Island even though it’s a place I’ve already revisited. It’s interesting, because every time I go back I feel like I have hundreds of paintings I need to do right there. It makes me see more possibilities and more problems with previous paintings I’ve done. I love to go back to places, and at the same time I love to go to new places. I’d love to live in Rome for a month at least, and just paint on the street. Because when you’re painting, it’s very different from just being a passenger passing through or a tourist looking around. When you set up your easel and take out your sketchbook, you see the place as a different setting – you start to scrape off the surface and try to get deeper. And places like Rome or Switzerland, there are so many paintings and postcards done before, it starts to become a kind of stereotype. And you think, that’s awful, this is not what this place looks like. You start to paint how you see the place, how you want to do the place, how to make it not look like a postcard, paint it in a way that people have not seen it before.
For more information on Ying Li’s exhibition and work: exhibits.haverford.edu/yingligeographies/media/