Fei Li’s large-scale paintings in her solo show at First Street Gallery are layered with paint, collaged fragments of dollar bills, magazine cutouts and jetsam of daily life. These visual cues are immersed in vivid yellows, blues, and greens, altogether representing the chaos of our moment. Drawing on a wide array of sources—Chinese calligraphy, pop culture, science fiction, myth, and current events—Li invites us to engage with her own anarchic universe.
Tell me a bit about the genesis of this exhibition.
After my last solo show in 2019, Chaos In An Almost Classical Mode, I continued to probe the possibilities of visual language to revolutionize human experience through emotional power and poetic reality. I also explored what Asianess means in painting. The mixed media paintings in this exhibition were made during 2020-2021, in response to the pandemic-spurred violence against Asian women and the Black Lives Matter protests. The paintings employ humor and abstraction to unearth the painful and destructive politics of daily life, while centering the beauty and the dignity of the marginalized. They also focus on dismantling both the assimilation and the stereotypes of paintings by the Asian diaspora in the western art canon.
Please guide us through the show.
The show in the main gallery consists of 4 mural-sized mixed media paintings that embody the female physical labor of my foremothers—my grandmother was a factory worker and my mother an athlete. While working on the paintings, I witnessed the incessant abuse meted to elderly Asian women subjected to hate crimes during the pandemic. I couldn’t stop thinking about their yellow and brown menopausal bodies that were suppressed and abominated. At the same time, quarantined in my apartment, I regularly FaceTimed with my mother in China and talked about her and my grandmother, conceiving how to recreate and revitalize their ostensibly minor history into abstract shapes, colors and forms.
Repetitive labor and instinctual nature—both frequently ascribed to women—are not considered important in the global capitalist system. Part of my process is to embody this labor as a metaphor, like my grandmother moving cargo from the ship to the harbor decades ago, or my mother swimming miles and miles every day when she was an athlete. This female toil is also seen in the small-scale series Night Parade of 100 accented women in the project space.
One of the large triptychs is titled I inherited many muscles and stories from my grandmother and mother. The painting started with a landscape space, which is a Chinese painting tradition. The female bodies in it are saturated with folk tales, science fiction, food, and kitchen knives, pulsing with pain and joy. The red splatters across the pictorial space are reminiscent of pungent menstrual blood, evoking the physical experience which is not accorded any cultural significance.
Also on view are two art books called “Shape Dictionary of My Neighbors.” I clicked street photographs of my neighborhood of Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn, home to a community with vivid everyday life, intense energy, and heartwarming human connections that reminded me of my childhood home. I extract the energy and beauty of quotidian life into abstract shapes, asking people to get into the zone of co-existence, to experience the transient immortality of objects such as a pair of delivery bike gloves belonging to a Chinese immigrant, or the window reflection in a Black-owned hair salon. I adapted these shapes in my paintings as well.
Born in Minnan, China, Fei Li lives and works in Brooklyn. She studied at the San Francisco Studio School and in 2012 moved to New York City. Her works have been shown internationally in museums and galleries, including the Katonah Museum of Art, Spartanburg Museum, Asian Culture Center in South Korea and Chinese European Art Center in China. Li is the awardee of numerous funded artist’s residencies, fellowships and grants including Yaddo; Jon Imber Painting Fellowship in Vermont Studio Center; Dumfries House (Scotland); Drake Arts Centre (Finland); The Alfred & Trafford Klots International Program (France); Kunstnarhuset Messen International A.I.R Program (Norway); City Artist Corps Grant and Queens Arts Fund New Works Grant. She is the founder of the collaboration platform Accented Projects
Fei Li, The Unofficial History Of Tomorrow at First Street Gallery, through November 20, 2021 526 West 26th Street, Suite 209, New York, NY 10001.
A live performance of a tête-à-tête between music and words on November 13, 5 pm. Free and open to the public.
Editing credit: Aurvi Sharma