Ghosts and Ghouls on Grand Street: Yun-Fei Ji at James Cohan
Yun-Fei Ji: Rumors, Ridicules, and Retributions at James Cohan Gallery
April 28 to June 17, 2018
291 Grand Street, at Eldridge Street
New York City, jamescohan.com
This is the fourth exhibition by Yun-Fei Ji at James Cohan Gallery and the first in their Grand Street location, in New York’s historic Chinatown. One could say, for this reason, that Ji’s recent ink paintings constitute a site-specific artwork given that they are being viewed not only by art world cognoscenti but by the local community as well. My guess is that the neighborhood Chinese will have a more in-depth understanding of these works than other viewers, less because of the academic context than the raw intuition these images will exert over people who remember the ghost stories, often combined with familiar folktales, they were told growing up in China, the subject of Ji’s magnetic new body of work.
Paintings like At Sundown and At Midnight (both 2017-2018) are essentially nightmares based on the dire conditions currently found in hundreds of rural villages in China today. In these ink and watercolor paintings on xuan paper viewers encounter ghosts and ghouls from a past world who have returned to these chaotic and impoverished villages and are milling about the inhabitants.
For Chinatown residents, Ji’s paintings may serve as an allegory of what is happening elsewhere; but for Chinese farmers and their families it is reality, one they are forced to confront as an everyday occurrence. In rural China today , extreme poverty has become a fact of life. This has much to do with the fields formerly used for growing crops that have been flooded to produce electrical power or polluted to the extent that farmers no longer have land to work and water to fish and drink, thus leaving their families in a desperate state constantly fighting for survival. Their fields are now dumping grounds for antiquated computer parts that poison the furrows they once tilled.
These harrowing conditions are at the source of what Ji paints and through the act of painting in a style reminiscent of the Southern Sung Dynasty (1127 – 1279), the artist reminds himself of the China that few urban residents have actually seen. Consequently, these ghouls and ghosts, first shown in a hand scroll, The Village and Its Ghosts (2014), and then again three years later in the chilling They Come Out Together, are indirectly focused on new-born refugees living an iterant life of poverty. As the artist has made clear in interviews, the urban centers are where the power exists that systematically contributes to the downgraded conditions that determine the chaos and perpetual tribulations found in countless nomadic peasant villages.
The emotionally distraught protagonists of Eight Neighbors (2017-2018) gather at a stopover camp amid the ghosts and debris to discuss their options in terms of where they will go next.. Before the Long Journey deals with a related subject in which bundles of clothing, sacks of rice, and cooking items, have been sparingly packed, based on extreme necessity. Meanwhile, the “neighbors” mill about as they prepare to depart from the campsite. Whereas traditional Chinese ink painting pays considerable attention to the facility of the brushwork involving closely scaled harmonies in subtle darks and lights, Ji’s watercolor and ink paintings, lay flat, relatively subdued, as they are absorbed by the xuan paper. The figures are painted in a semi-Western style, while the all-over perspective is closer to an obverse space where the distances between things are more uniform as opposed to radically separated from one another.
In Break Camp (2017-2018), the obverse perspective is more pronounced and possibly more obvious to the viewer. This and Family Bundles and Batches (2017-2018) deal directly with the underlying theme of economic migration. While the obverse perspective is clearly more pronounced in the former, it still lingers in the second more muted ink work, implying a disruptive psychology within the ensemble. In either case, the mood of these pictures suggests an anxiety and expectation of what might happen as these people walk interminably together as an itinerant village tribe presumably in search of a place to live.
As an exhibition of paintings Yun- Fei Ji’s haunting performance manages to throw another light on how the approach to ink painting remains closely bound to Chinese history. In doing so, Ji makes clear that which is most important to him draws intentionally and purposefully on the past as a means to exorcise the hidden realities of the present. Put another way, there is no overt political theme in these paintings other than the tension by which Ji’s brushwork is embedded within the representation of each figure, object, and landscape. In this sense, the brush becomes an indirect signifier of revolt.