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The Chaos in the Orderly

Author: Zhang Qing Translator: Wang Jie 2008

If poem is the "essence" in literature, then likewise abstract art is the "essence" in art. Whether Huaisu's calligraphy or Pollock's painting well prove this. Abstract art is not a simple variation or decoration to combine dots, lines, planes and color blocks. It is not a pure externalism, let alone the adjusted visual system. Then what is abstract art? It should be flown out directly from the artist's passion and sublime into a unique artistic notion, exceeding all the ordinary visual patterns of modernism in life. It demands the wisdom for swift creation. Sometimes the wild and passionate brushstrokes on canvas almost make an artist to lose control, as if he reaches an illusionary world. Some abstract artists even can't believe that they create these paintings afterwards.

Artist Shen Fan is inborn with the talent for abstract art. When viewed in distance, the artist looks like an Arhat. But when approached closely, the artist renders a profound artistic aura.

About 25 years ago, Shen started his art career with traditional ink-wash painting, then water-color, oil and the latest multi-media material, and all these finally forms his abstract art through different methods, expressions and practices. His latest art pieces amaze the viewers with excitement as they reveal the passion yet blended with peacefulness from the artist. In the 1990s, many artists were active to pursue the meaning and power of the artistic language itself. Some tried different experiments ranging from canvas to multi-media material. Because of the involvement of various materials, the interactive motion between painting and painting, between painting and object or between object and object, which a result goes beyond the single visual experience. Through such practice, Shen requires a fresh experience; He not only adds many elements in his artworks but also experiments on sundry unique making process, which fuses an extraordinary effect in his art pieces. While at the same time, there is a twist and turn in his practice of color, which enables him to enter a colorless world. At the beginning, he uses monochromatic hues, for example black, red and white. But colorful hues are shallow and illusory, while black and white colors are stable, pure and unaltered. Behind these abundant hues, he finds the pure spirit and a visual power.

In 2000, the repetition of simple lines is the trait of Shen's painting. The character of the location of his studio inspires the title of the painting. For example, because his studio was sited along the Suzhou Creek, he named his painting as "The River Series." After the "The River Series," he begins to start with the traditional patterns blended with chaotic and wild brushstrokes that represent cloud, water, mountain and stone. Thus Shen's monochromatic painting stands out and the artist forms his own unique artistic language.

In recent years, Shen is creating his "Mountain and Water Series." The first phase of the series emphasizes on the detailed depiction of mountain and water. He tries to conjure up the shape and the spirit of the traditional subject in his paintings. But he soon deconstructs the shape of mountain and water. He plumbs those mountain and water with simple repeated brushstrokes. It seems that he starts with mountain and water and also ends with the subject. In his latest series, he focuses the shape formed by dots and lines. Those curving waves are crowded in his tableau. He uses a chop seal as a kind of decoration and puts it somewhere in the painting, as if giving a distinguished visual effect with some Zen flavor.

Because of the opportunity of a temporary job at the European Ceramic Centre, he is able to practice in a new area. In ancient times, China was regarded as the "Capital of china" in the eyes of the Westerners, then how can a Chinese artist face the ceramics in the West? Shen hesitates for a while on this familiar yet strange context, and then he uses the ordinary subject of flower to start with. But the colors of his flowers are mainly black and white, which makes his Western peers think that these artworks are filled with the Taoist thinking. In fact, the colors were inspired by the group of cows normally seen in the streets in Holland, and the artist's inspiration actually comes from ordinary life. The artist always says, "Art is life, and life is art. Life is not art, and art is not life. Life is life, and art is art. Art is not art, and life is not life." Who knows? Perhaps the artist is responding his impression towards Holland with the Chinese philosophical thinking of Yin and Yang. Later, Shen did a series of ceramic plates in monochromatic color: black, white and red, the same hues he used in his paintings.

"Sky," a lamp-box installation is his first installation piece. In 1998, he captured the sky over some major cities in Europe. Back in Shanghai, the artist also captured the sky over Shanghai and formed all these skies in a huge lamp-box installation. Except the shooting date, the viewers could hardly tell the difference among the skies over different cities. There is a common saying among old Chinese people "We live under the same sky and on the same earth, why you are incapable of doing something while the other are?" Does Shen describe it or visually question it? Anyway, starting from the skies over different cities, his abstract thought is connected with the urban modern aura.

For him, installation is a new language and experience, totally different from his previous "controlled" working method and condition. The switch from abstract painting to installation seemingly is the switch in form, but basically it continues to explore "those meaningful forms" through different angles. If there is no implication in an art piece, then it loses its meaning. Likewise if there is no meaning in an art piece, then it loses its solid base in form. But how to switch the abstract spirit through installation and embody the essence of the ancient Chinese philosophy, culture, ink-wash painting, calligraphy, print and sculpture? How to establish a new connection between traditional art and contemporary art?

"Mountain and Water: in memory of Huang Binhong", a five-meter wide and ten-meter high neon-light video installation was unveiled at the 6th Shanghai Biennale. Those neon tubes represent brushstrokes in different speed and power. Accompanied by the Chinese traditional melody, the pitch, the length, the volume and the timbre of each note echoes with the length, the direction and the position of each tube. Sometimes the music is brief and strong while sometimes it is melodious and touching. In the adoption of colors, he chooses white among his three favorite colors including black, red and white. Every ten second, the neon tubes will shine one after another, which forms a striking contrast with its dark backdrop. The white light and shade radiated by the neon tubes gradually and glamorously light up the whole exhibition hall, while the luminous reflection of mountain and water on the floor enthralls the visitors as if they are standing on the flowing water to appreciate an illusionary mountain view.

In the past two decades of practice, Shen has switched from painting to installation. The neon-light installation is not only an exploration towards the master's (Huang Binhong) artistic soul through the reference of his brushstrokes, but also extends the master's idea of "the chaos in the orderly". He swiftly inherits and develops Huang's theory through the contemporary art practice. Thus it is clear that the artist's journey, whether in any form, is filled with a Chinese flavor via a contemporary angle.

Related Artists:
SHEN FAN 申凡

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