Between Wind and Water features Beili Liu’s abstract drawings and a spectacular site-specific installation. Wind and water, of course, suggest feng shui, the ancient Chinese geomantic belief in harmony with nature, which one 17th-century Christian missionary scoffed at: “What could be more absurd than their imagining that the safety of a family, honors, and their entire existence must depend upon … a door being opened from one side or another … a window opened here or there, or one roof being higher than another?” Leaving aside the question of Western superstitio absurdissima, within the magic domain of art, such details matter considerably. Liu, who has spent half her life in China and half in America, deftly synthesizes materials and processes to produce contemplative works with a contemporary, international sensibility.
Liu refers to her 2D works as “process drawings,” reflecting the importance of materials. The Affine cut-paper lattice collages surely derive from traditional scissor skills that she acquired as a child. (“Affine,” by the way, refers to geometric transformations.) The two Wind Drawing Series, Aerophytes and Pods, refer to plant life (aerophytes: air-plants that subsist without soil); the sprawling blooms of sumi ink blown across wet acrylic invoke landscape abstractly, with rich textures similar to those of tusche washes on lithographic stones. A large horizontal collage, “Lapse/Passage,” composed of overlapping strips of charred vellum, suggests a ridged tree bark, or a cliff face, seen close up — a minimalist Tang mountainscape. The Airseed mono drawings resemble photographs or photograms of soap bubbles (or x-rays of concrete aggregate); the evanescent sumi ink bubbles (surely there is a poem on this theme!) paint their own pictures.
The centerpiece of the show is the installation “Stalemate,” two cylindrical eighteen-foot-long stakes, pointed like pencils, coated with gray, metallic graphite, and suspended in mid-air confrontation. Anyone who saw the armored jousters at the Splendors of Dresden show years ago may see this as a contemporary version of that imminent fission/fusion collision; related painting subjects would include Goya’s club-wielding peasants and George Bellows’ murderous boxers in “A Stag at Sharkey’s.” Liu’s avatars of “fierce energy,” however, are immobilized by webs of “slender, soft, feminine threads,” like the famously sinuous, tentacular nymph’s fingers in Ingres’ “Jupiter and Thetis.” Happy non-draconian Year of the Dragon! Between Wind and Water runs through February 18 at Vessel Gallery (471 25th St., Oakland). (510) 893-8800 or Vessel-Gallery.com