Yun-Fei Ji was born in Beijing in 1963, three years before the start of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). Launched by the demagogue Mao Zedong, who distrusted intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution was an attempt to turn China into a utopian paradise run by and for workers. In 1976, when the revolution ended, elementary schools, universities, and everything in between had been closed for a decade. Ji’s mother, who was married to an army doctor, spent years being politically “re-educated” in a rural labor camp. Her fate was better than that of the conservatively estimated one million people who died during this decade. This is the backdrop of Ji’s upbringing.
Along with the artists and filmmakers Liu Xiaodong (1963), Yu Hong (1964), Xu Bing (1955), Hung Liu (1948–2021), Wang Xiaoshuai (1966), and Jia Zhangke (1970), Ji belongs to the generation that studied at the Central Academy of Fine Art (CAFA) in Beijing in the first years after it reopened. Like the other painters in this group, he learned the state-sanctioned style of Socialist Realism and then elected to unlearn what he had absorbed in order to reinvent himself. After graduating from CAFA, he taught for two years at the School of Arts and Crafts in Beijing. During his spare time, he secretly studied calligraphy — which was considered intellectual, bourgeois, and obsolete — with two artists. It is his mastery of classical Chinese art, calligraphy, and the stylized brushstrokes for this type of landscape painting that gained him attention in the United States.
Working traditionally with ink, mineral pigments, and brushes on mulberry paper, what made Ji’s recovery of Chinese ink painting and scroll painting all the more remarkable is the degree to which he opened it up and used it to respond to current events, such as post-revolutionary China’s massive Three Gorges Dam Project and the consequent displacement of more than 1.5 million people, while incorporating caricature and the grotesque, somewhat influenced by George Grosz and James Ensor. Where China claimed progress and cultural pride, Ji witnessed destruction and decay.
For those who have followed this artist’s work, his exhibition, Yun-Fei Ji: The Sunflower Turned Its Back at James Cohan Gallery (November 17, 2022–January 7, 2023), will be a surprise. Known for his reinventions of Chinese landscape painting, the show includes 16 paintings in acrylic on canvas, a wholly new medium for this artist.
It seems to me that Ji could have continued working with ink on paper in a scroll format for years, eventually becoming a well-known niche artist, an “exotic” figure in the landscape of American art. Perhaps that is why he changed. He knew he was headed toward an irrelevant cubbyhole if he stayed on the same track. Or perhaps he just got bored with doing what he knew best. Whatever the case, I think the change was decisive, radical, and interesting.
I think Ji changed because he recognized that, for all of his success, his methodology and subject matter would be seen as apart from Euro-American art. And yet, the forced relocations and interior migrations caused by the Three Gorges Dam Project are hardly an isolated phenomenon. If the two World Wars and the Holocaust are among the defining international events of the 20th century, then ethnic cleansing, displacement, and forced migration are the legacy of that century. As long as Ji continued to work in the tradition of Chinese landscape painting, Western audiences may have seen his views of displacement and protest, wayfarers carrying all their possessions, and melancholic ghosts as foreign to their experience.
This is why Ji’s change is radical. He decided to take on the Western tradition of painting in order to suggest that his subject matter is global, rather than local to China. Stylistically, he does not employ caricature or expressionist exaggeration, as he once did, and he paints with a dry brush rather than draws in watercolor and ink. As with ink painting, he does not scrape down and build up; he uses acrylic in chalky colors. The works range in size from 24 by 18 to 64 by 48 inches (“Early Spring Bloom 2020”).
While the traumatic social upheaval caused by the Three Gorges Dam Project is still very much on Ji’s mind, as evidenced by painting titles such as “Migrant Worker’s Tent,” “Satellite Dish on a Bed,” and “Everything Moved Outside,” new things are happening in his work.
Three paintings signal a departure for Ji: two depictions of flowers (“Sunflower Turned Its Back” and “Early Spring Bloom 2020”) and a three-quarter-length view of a standing man — and my favorite work — “The Man with Glasses.” Along with this shift in subject matter, there is an interplay between abstraction and representation, flat pattern and volumetric form, as in “Migrant Worker’s Tent.” Ji’s use of paint enables him to achieve effects with color, saturation, and viscosity that he could not previously. In “Migrant Worker’s Tent,” the horizontal stripes of the tent are divided into three sections by two vertical forms, one of which is a porous, dry brushstroke. The horizontal bands are continuously changing. Color is laid over color; the middle section has color intensities not seen in the other two sections. The bare canvas between the bands evokes the tent’s materiality.
In this and other paintings on view, Ji evokes the continuing migration and reconfiguration of art styles, while also making them into something that is his own. We can think of what French artists absorbed from Japanese woodcuts, the juxtaposition of pattern set against pattern, and how this manifests itself in his work. Ji’s position is that of a sympathetic witness. He understands that many people’s identity is inextricable from the few material possessions they have, and these things help them survive.
Something different comes together in “The Man with Glasses.” Against a mottled brown, violet, and gray-blue abstract ground Ji has depicted an elderly man in blue pants and a long blue jacket over a pale blue shirt. The man is looking down, his hands in his pockets, and we cannot see his eyes. His head seems too large for his body, a deliberate choice by the artist. The shirt becomes a series of dry brushstrokes near the bottom and the gray-blue pants are largely unpainted. The jacket’s color reminds me of the blue surgical scrubs worn by doctors, which folds another level of feeling into the painting. The fact that the portrait resists a reductive reading is important to the change in Ji’s work and thinking.
The premier coup approach is in keeping with ink painting, which cannot be revised or layered, but in his use of paint he works differently, as seen in the mottled background and single dry brushstroke used to separate the front pockets of the shirt. The incompleteness of the man set against a dark, fully painted abstract ground seems both a formal and emotional decision. The man is ephemeral, while the dark, inanimate ground is permanent. The evocation of change and transience is also inherent to Ji’s paintings of sunflowers and blossoming branches. In these works, he meditates on the relationship between forced change and inescapable transformation.
Yun-Fei Ji: The Sunflower Turned Its Back continues at James Cohan Gallery (52 Walker Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) through January 7. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.