YI KAI, Circuit Head With Symbols, 2015, acrylic on rice paper, 79 × 104 cm. Courtesy Alisan Fine Arts, Hong Kong. 

YI KAISpring in Circuit World, 2015, acrylic on rice paper, 99 × 63.5 cm. Courtesy Alisan Fine Arts, Hong Kong. 

What Goes Around Goes Around

Yi Kai

Alisan Fine Arts
China Hong Kong USA

A close relative of the Golden Rule (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”), “what goes around comes around” is a maxim that encourages courteous social behavior, by suggesting that compassionate actions are mystically rewarded with good fortune, while suffering is inevitably returned to those who cause it. For this social code to result in ubiquitous harmonious exchange, all parties must subscribe to the same faith in reciprocity and/or fear of retribution. Yet, like all utopian ideals, it is something that simply cannot be realized, as corruption, greed and oppression often leave the karmic circle incomplete, and wrongdoers walk free of punishment for their misdeeds.

Chinese-American painter Yi Kai expresses his disappointment in the failure of fairness through his aptly titled solo exhibition, “What Goes Around Goes Around,” at Alisan Fine Arts in Hong Kong. The collection of recent acrylic paintings on rice paper, displayed earlier this year at Claremont Graduate University in the United States and 53 Art Museum in Guangzhou, appears as misty, abstracted landscapes, loosely structured by layers of freehanded grid patterns. The grids—referred to by the artist as “circuits”—are suggestive of networks of modern telecommunication, urban sprawls or the windowed facades of buildings, where each reading evokes the rigid organization of manmade structures. A Tchaikovsky-esque series of four paintings on one wall (all 2015) imagines circuits as they would appear through different hazy-colored seasons.

Diminutive figures, painted in two or three quick brushstrokes, serve as a significant factor in the large landscapes that they inhabit. As with his use of rice paper, Yi Kai borrows this technique of scale from traditional Chinese painting. Due to their casual application and scaled-down size, the small figures are partially concealed beneath the grids—a subtle suggestion that commanding structures and buildings too often eclipse the autonomy of individuals. This is particularly exemplified in the work Blue Circuit Building (2015), in which huddled groups are obscured by crisscrossing lines.

YI KAIHuman on Urban Landscape 1, 2015, acrylic on rice paper, 79 × 104 cm. Courtesy Alisan Fine Arts, Hong Kong. 

Yi Kai was born in 1955 in Changsha, China. When he was ten years old, Red Guards came to confiscate his middle-class mother’s books and took her to a labor camp. At the age of 15, Yi was drafted into the Chinese army as a projectionist and drove from village to village screening propaganda films. Yi became uneasy after noticing the stark difference between the movies he played and the realities of the starving villagers he showed them to. Because of his talent for draftsmanship, he was soon selected to paint posters and make woodcuts for the army. In 1979 he was one of 35 students chosen out of 4,000 applicants to enter the Art Institute of the Army of China, Beijing, where he earned a BFA in traditional Chinese painting. In the late 1970s to early 1980s, when China starting opening up to the West, Yi was exposed to Western culture and democratic alternatives to the status quo at home. Public sales of art were prohibited at the time, but Yi snuck his paintings to the hands of cash-paying foreigners and, in 1985, he obtained a Masters of Fine Arts from the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing. Shortly after, in the summer of 1989, Yi marched with thousands of protesters in the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement. The subsequent, horrific massacre and its aftermath left him angry and apathetic about China’s future. Using savings from private sales and an invitation from the Midwest China Center in Minnesota, Yi eventually emigrated to the United States, where he has been working and teaching since. His recent figurative work, not included in this exhibition, features robotic figures in gas masks, military helmets, business attire, as well as landscape paintings that often depict garbage dumps, decrepit buildings and crushed cars. In 2004, Yi co-founded an Arizona-based nonprofit agency called Global Harmony Through Art to explore cross-cultural issues and art education.

The source of Yi’s skepticism toward the concept of accountability is clear: the lack of reparation for his family’s mistreatment and oppression under Communist rule, and the absence of any open national acknowledgement of the Tiananmen Square massacre, is a glaring example of a karma left unfulfilled. However, without the artist’s biographical information at hand to support this conclusion, the rice paper paintings may at first appear as rudimentary, American-influenced updates on a traditional painting style. Nonetheless, it is worth taking a longer look at Golden Human With Gray World #1 (2015)—a dreary, gray work which abstractly portrays a melancholic, downcast atmosphere, and is juxtaposed with the metallic hue of paint used for the figures below that suggests human warmth can still shine through strife—which provides a glimmer of optimism in the show.

YI KAIGolden Human with Gray World 5, 2015, acrylic on rice paper, 76 × 51 cm. Courtesy Alisan Fine Arts, Hong Kong. 

“Yi Kai: What Goes Around Goes Around” is on view at Alisan Fine Arts, Hong Kong, until December 2, 2015.