Friday, June 18, 2021

Emenations of Time and Eternity

Shen Wei, Untitled No. 11, 2013, oil and acrylic on linen canvas, 82 x 211 inches

Radical visions of existence, tumultuous, atmospheric, at once primordial and apocalyptic - the monumental paintings of multidisciplinary artist Shen Wei fuse Western abstract-expressionism at its most emotional with the perennial goal of Chinese landscape painting: to render the magical nature of consciousness as the glorious dance of absence and presence at the secret heart of being.

Shen Wei's Untitled #13 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

For the historical Chinese landscapists, the goal of art was to take us to the very center of awareness of existence toward envelopment in moments of pure being. Shen Wei's contemporary paintings do this, but without the traditional sense of tranquility and transcendence. In the Untitled series of 2013, Shen Wei uses a limited palette of black, white, and brown and invites darker, more primal forces into his work. And although the tradition of of the mythical mind-scapes of ancient China is everywhere present, he departs radically in materials, composition, technique, and thus effect. What he offers "seems to leave us suspended between the dissolution of forms, between the occult and the heavenly, and beyond space and time," in the apt words of the accompanying catalogue.

Shen Wei, Untitled Number 13, 2013-2014, oil and acrylic on linen canvas, 165 x 218 inches

In the "cosmos in flux" above, bits of landscape, broken structures, mythical beings like dragons, natural elements like earth, air, and water morph in and out of the gestural paint. 

These are closeups:

A manmade structure of some kind being swept away in an apocalyptic flood, I think.

There's another manmade structure, maybe a fence, being washed away in the flood.

Plant, waterfall, erupting lava - your choice, purposely so.

The wall text notes that "small dabs of the brush suggest lone figures, birds or dragons." Definitely calling this one for a bearded dude in a robe piloting some kind of cat-frog-dragon over the hoary abyss.

By putting aside the traditional sumi-i ink brush and emphasizing the material through the drips, splashes, pools, and clumps of abstract painting, Wei's Untitled series stresses surface and expression. Appropriate to our moment in history, this strategy limits the degree of spiritual transcendence in the work, even as it brings Chinese landscape into the 21st century. Consequently, instead of a Zen-like state of Pure Consciousness, the work reflects the fractured global reality of contemporary life, at the level of both the social and the personal: "I am made of Eastern and Western ingredients," he says. "Now wherever I work or live, I bring, express, and share this conjunction of states of being."

A selection of Wen's work in paint, film, and dance is on display at the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum until June 30, 2021. It's this painting that drew me and that I want to write about here.

Chinese landscape painting reflects the Taoist understanding of the life force in all things simultaneously cycling between coming-into-being and dissolving-into-nothingness, beyond logical knowing and naming. In the extraordinary little book, "Existence, A Story," author David Hinton shows how Chinese landscape painting emanates the deep nature of existence not by representing but by directly depicting - his word is enacting - Taoist and Ch'an (Zen) spirituality's perception of "the inner processes and forces shaping the ten thousand things":

"A painting is itself the Cosmos in microcosm, alive with those cosmological principles of Absence and Presence... the emptiness in a painting extends beyond the picture frame, suggesting the vastness of the Cosmos. And gazing at it with a mirror-deep mind, as the ancients often did for hours at a time as a form of deep spiritual practice, we are returned to dwell here in the beginning, where consciousness and landscape are woven together in a single existence-tissue, where we experience the dynamic Cosmos in a complete and distilled way rarely possible in ordinary life: whole and with perfect immediacy." (Existence, A Story, p. 90)

Here's a series of traditional Chinese landscape paintings paired with one of Wei's followed by closeups of Wei's.

Traditional landscape: Mountains, Trees, Mist (Sung Dynasty)

Shen Wei

Above: Traditional Chinese landscape painting: Travelers Among Mountains and Streams, ink and slight colour on silk hanging scroll, by Fan Kuan, c. 960–c. 1030, Bei (Northern) Song dynasty; in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan.

Below: Shen Wei, Reflecting Elements No. 2, 2019-2020, oil on linen

Shen Wei, Reflecting Elements #2, 2019-2020 Oil on linen

Shen Wei, Reflecting Elements 1-5, 2019-2020

Close-up of Reflecting Elements #2

In Wei's  most traditional-seeming (and most recent, 2020) canvases, existence indeed rises to the surface and recedes into the depths, but not in the way it does in traditional Chinese landscape painting. Avoiding mimetic reference to things like streams, mountains, or trees, Wei depicts something like the "existence-tissue," ch'i, or life force itself, continuously (and chaotically) manifesting and un-manifesting before it even has a chance to fully become any one thing. 

A sixth in the series of Reflecting Elements.

Here as in the "Untitled" series, the imagery is unsettled, restless, yet also cosmic and elemental. Wei is channeling raw, primal forces the way Pollock's brush did, seemingly mixing up all the elements in every partial, morphing "image." The "Untitled" series is what made Wei's name.

Turning to one of that series, let's again start with a traditional Chinese ink painting of a landscape and then look at Shen Wei. 

Xia Gu, Pure and Remote Views of Streams and Mountains, Sung Dynasty (c. 970-1100)

Shen Wei, Untitled No. 1, 2013, oil and acrylic on linen canvas, 82 x 211 inches

The format is similar, the idea is similar: depict a spiritual state of being by pretending to paint a landscape - but there the similarities end.

Using oil and acrylic, not ink, and avoiding direct reference to any natural topography, Shen Wei paints a vision for our times. The following are closeups of the above painting Untitled No. 1.
Flows of smoke, water, "existence tissue," ch'i

Like a NASA photo of a moving storm.

All kinds of textures in the paint here.

This apparently is a sea-monster of sorts.

And this is clearly the scaled, serpentine head of a dragon.

Wonderful swirls of paint!

Shen Wei blends tradition and contemporary trends to make important and compelling paintings for our times.