New York

Yun-Fei Ji

In eight friezelike ink-and-mineral-pigment drawings on mulberry rice paper, Beijing-born Yun-Fei Ji conjures a world in turmoil that oscillates between the safety of centuries-old tradition and mortal terror concerning the next five minutes. Amid delicate, rolling landscapes rendered in muted greens, blues, and browns, vehicles collide, buildings collapse, and Goyaesque figures in grotesque masks and costumes indulge their every whim with apocalyptic abandon.

Ji’s technique, which involves staining, erasing, washing, and restaining a layered, handmade ground, exploits the chemical interaction of the materials employed to produce a wrinkled, weathered look of premature aging. This way of working, derived from the classical literati method—by which two years of research and preparation may be required to complete a single piece—captured the artist’s interest before his departure from China in 1986. The process is highly effective in making physically tangible a sense of the passage of time and the inescapable influence of a historical epoch over those that follow. Compositions that initially appear harmonious break apart, on closer inspection, into a chaos of dissonant perspectives. Sudden shifts in scale undercut the consistency of the landscape and the relation of one figure or object to the next. Representational details run the gamut from suggestive blots of ink to finely applied line: Ji’s drawings are, in every sense, multilayered.

More often than not in China, political messages are communicated via metaphor and symbolic allusion—by what is traditionally known as “pointing to the chicken to insult the dog”—and the invitation to read between Ji’s lines is both critical and explicit. Narrative flow is established only to be jarringly interrupted; the tranquil space of nature becomes a stage set for all-too-human drama; quotidian reality and dream logic converge. Faces are subject to disguise and distortion, masks and caricatures abound, and the works’ serenely picturesque titles begin to sound sarcastic when read in conjunction with the images’ tumultuous content. The Elegant Gathering (all works 2002), for example, is anything but. A riotous assembly in which a thoroughly debauched cadre of shriveled old men indulge in various acts of sexual violence, it imagines a private club for the powerful of the most disturbing kind.

When Ji makes direct reference to his national heritage, he gives it a transformative twist without riding roughshod over it. He takes liberties but retains a fundamental respect. In Ritual Cleansing of a Buddhist Woman, for example, the eponymous figure carefully removes her intestines and washes them in a porcelain bowl, while onlookers stand by. It is a genuinely unsettling juxtaposition, at once mythic and modern, unreal and everyday. In A Monk’s Retreat, a flood washes cars and buildings away. A group of translucent street vendors stands and watches, their fragility and rottenness on display.

In works such as the epic Wedding Ballad, Ji’s extensive use of decorative backdrops constitutes another way to rupture both visual space and cultural signification. The calm established by swaths of patterned fabrics serves only to highlight the tension accompanying the convoluted drama that unfolds in the rest of the picture. Just as British painter Chris Ofili uses stylistic elements borrowed from African and Australian traditions to bring the contemporaneity of his own project into sharper focus, Ji reaches back into China’s historical legacy in order to jolt us out of any false sense of security we might still have about its present.

Michael Wilson