Experiencing Fei Li’s landscapes is like walking into a jungle. Her tangled calligraphy leaps and coils across the paper like vines, folding in associations with visual language; the disparate sensations of walking through dense vegetation and reading a scrawled manuscript are flattened into one experience, such that the idea that the two were ever separate seems like an abstract theory. Li’s work suggests an almost synesthetic relationship between embodiment and reading, naturalizing the simultaneous experience of bodily movement through space and cognitive or cultural movement through language. It does not seem strange to believe that one can feel like one is reading a landscape like a book.
Li’s landscapes are fundamentally abstract, yet their linguistic evocations seem like conflations of written text and figurative image, despite being neither. Based on Li’s training in Chinese calligraphy from when she was two years old, the movement of her brushstrokes seems to call forth a visceral association with writing. They almost resemble metonymic Arabic calligraphy drawings, in which the word for a figure is written to stylistically resemble it. However, Li’s work refers not to a singular object or phrase but rather to a holistic sensation of movement and space. The result is a dynamic series of ink drawings that encourage a viewer to engage with a form of reading that precedes language, a paradoxical experience of translating without words. This is not to say that the work’s meaning is beyond words, but rather that it demonstrates the reciprocal relationship between words and meaning. Far from being unable to be articulated, Li’s landscapes feel like the beginnings of a new written language.
Redolent with associations, Li’s landscapes almost become Rorschach tests for their viewers. Evoking a certain kind of delirium, the brushstrokes suggest Chinese calligraphy, then jungle undergrowth, then British tea garden. In Hidden Dimension No. 135 (2016), the loose horizontal strokes in the center ground lap against tight verticals, sketching out what might be a pool of water surrounded by thick vegetation. Small, deliberate strokes read like hidden messages within the ink forest. The riot of movement would almost be chaotic if it were not so tightly ordered. Like hand lettering, the image feels scalable, as if it would be legible rendered as either a sweeping mural on the side of a building or etched in delicate blue lines on porcelain. The result is a piece lush with meanings, continually asserting the tight relationship between sense and interpretation.
Though many of Li’s pieces could be imagined as decorations on vases or dinnerware, they exist at an amplified scale, and the lyrical tension of her strokes shifts as a viewer’s body does in relation to the works. Li’s powerful, large-scale paintings overwhelm the human body; when viewed from a distance, they take on an impressionistic quality that is just as engaging. In Hidden Dimension No. 101 (2016), a chaotic landscape curls around a gallery corner, enveloping any viewer within its expanse; up close, a viewer becomes entangled in the active, looping marks that sketch out a vast and varied environment. But when the work is viewed from farther away, what once appeared like dense undergrowth or rushing water now looks like clouds or drifting fog. As with Claude Monet’s largest paintings of water lilies, one’s relative distance from Hidden Dimension No. 101 changes the meaning of the work, creating a tense and precarious meditative experience.
But in certain works, Li does not allow for this meditative distance. The mirrored panels on the floors of Li’s installations restrict a viewer’s movement and force constantly fragmented encounters with the reflections of the pieces. Here, Li forges a relationship between a viewer and her work that she calls “a battle between moving and being moved,” between inherent and iterative signs. This intensifies the fundamental premise of Li’s Hidden Dimension series: Reading and interpretation are active, bodily engagements in both language and landscape, with distance, boundaries, and meanings constantly being drawn and redrawn in relation to a viewer’s position. Li’s work refuses fixed interpretations of either meaning or environment, capturing the almost entropic dynamism of nature and culture.
Fei Li is a Chinese artist who lives and works in New York. She studied with Lon Clark at the San Francisco Studio School and moved to New York in 2012. Li’s works have been shown internationally in museums and galleries, including the New Britain Museum of American Art in the United States, the Museum of Abbaye de Léhon in France, the Asian Culture Center in South Korea, and the Chinese European Art Center in China. She was awarded a 2016 Queens Arts Fund New Works Grant, funded by the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs. She can be found on instagram: _fei_li_.