For Yun-Fei Ji, history is a spinning whirlwind that picks up people, objects and landscapes, throws them into the open air and catches them in an endless loop. It is a tangible, driving force in the artist’s ink and watercolor paintings, a threat and a promise that whatever humanity has created can be unceremoniously put asunder. In this waking dream of a show, Ji populates hallucinatory landscapes with vagrants weighted down by crammed bags, soldiers turned spectral waifs, animals with human heads and humans with animal features and appetites lost in a swirling, chaotic milieu of tormented trees and underbrush.
The visual style of Yun-Fei Ji’s paintings will be instantly familiar to audiences both American and Chinese. Ji takes up the tradition of classical Chinese landscape painting, appropriating its vocabulary of calligraphic lines, muted colors and spare elegance in a brushy, liquid combination of color washes and jagged ink strokes. He knits these together into figures often dwarfed by expansive natural environments. But a creeping feeling of unease underlies the recognizable cliché of peaceful Chinese landscape pastiche. At first blush harmless, under closer scrutiny Ji’s scenes reveal themselves as biting political satires and elegiac testimonials to the victimizing of humanity by itself.
Migration runs like a tide through Yun-Fei Ji’s work. It pushes and pulls at his characters as well as at the artist himself, a Chinese expatriate who has lived and worked in Brooklyn since receiving his M.F.A. through a Fulbright scholarship in 1989. Three works titled The Wait, The Guest People and The Meeting Point (2009) create vignettes of wandering migrants entrenched in transitory landscapes, stuck, perhaps autobiographically, in the space be-tween starting point and destination. Composed like letterboxed movie frames, these three scenes tell stories of aimlessness and futility. The peasants’ striped and checkered plastic-burlap sacks—ordinary objects familiar to anyone who has watched a street vendor pack up—become characters in their own right, at once elements of the landscape and symbolic representations of the shiftless burdens placed on the human figures. The baggage comes in all shapes and sizes, some colorful and stacked in looming mountains, others wrapped up like dumpling skin, sitting rotund and grotesque on the ground.
Interspersed between his larger narrative works, Yun-Fei Ji has also created singular set pieces, slow-burn panoramic moments that unfold as monstrous in-sects creep from behind trees, ghost soldiers drift with mouths agape and anonymous migrants look on stolidly. Etched in sharp ink strokes that match Ji’s calligraphic narrations, the crowd inhabits a space sometimes blank, some-times filled with a confusion of forest, but always empty of land-marks, incomprehensible and unsympathetic.
One such set piece, Columbus Park, New York (2008), turns what should be a familiar tableau, a New York City park visited by a few scattered figures hanging out around a picnic table, into something strange, haunted by invisible ghosts. The pale colors of the painting, serene yellows, pinks and greens that turn harsh and sour together, build into a beauty at once quiet and violent. The trees twist and claw at the air, conveying a sense that the weather might turn at any minute, a metaphysical storm gathering in the distance.
The exhibition’s title references a Chinese ghost story in which a man returning home from a feast in a heavy rain encounters another figure. The man grows more and more frightened as the shrouded figure doesn’t speak or move. When fear overwhelms him, he bolts home only to be visited by a fellow refugee from the rain yelling about his own encounter with a ghost. In the story, the pair laugh about their mutual confusion, but there’s little humor in Yun-Fei Ji’s stories. Rather, the exhibition’s title becomes a poetic summation of the intransigent transience that runs throughout this body of work. Ji’s migrants strain to recognize one another, to intuit where they are or what has catapulted them into their wandering. Thin as ghosts, they push on through their dream landscapes, fighting toward nowhere. Kyle Chayka