Installation view of SHAN WEIJUN’s “Between Light and Shade” at Alisan Fine Arts, Hong Kong, 2018. All images courtesy Alisan Fine Arts, Hong Kong. 

Between Light and Shade

Shan Weijun

Alisan Fine Arts
China Hong Kong

The first thing that struck me when I encountered the idiosyncratic, ink-on-paper paintings of Shan Weijun—a Chinese emigrant artist who leads a solitary life on the outskirts of Paris—was a sense of nostalgia. Hung silently on the spotless, white walls of Alisan Fine Arts gallery, the works presented in Shan’s solo show, “Between Light and Shade,” lead us through the artist’s inner exploration of a metaphysical space where he could, in his own words, “find the ultimate and pure escape”—an endeavor facilitated by looking toward the past. 

Looking Back (2018) embodies the metaphor that shrouded the whole exhibition. In the misty, blue-grey painting, a strip of road points to and then vanishes into the horizon, guiding viewers’ attentions to what, as suggested by the work’s title, the artist sees when he looks back: a blurry point, signifying nothing. While one may ask, “Is this it? Can the nostalgia that pervades the exhibition all be boiled down to this vague outlook?” the answer is already revealed in the painting—it does not tell us what he sees, but rather depicts how Shan casts his gaze to the past. Using a dotted technique similar to Impressionist pointilism, Shan’s paintings possess the texture of monochromatic, out-of-focus celluloid films that have partly faded because of the passage of time. A lack of clear lines and vivid colors evoke an ambiguous blending of present and past. Shan’s looking back, therefore, is not about the past being reconstructed precisely in an image, but is a gesture that is significant in itself.   

SHAN WEIJUN, Looking Back, 2018, Chinese ink and mineral pigment on rice paper, 140 × 106 cm, at “Between Light and Shade,” Alisan Fine Arts, Hong Kong, 2018.
SHAN WEIJUN, Looking Back, 2018, Chinese ink and mineral pigment on rice paper, 140 × 106 cm, at “Between Light and Shade,” Alisan Fine Arts, Hong Kong, 2018.
SHAN WEIJUN, Grain Rain, 2018, Chinese ink and mineral pigment on rice paper, 133 × 119 cm, at “Between Light and Shade,” Alisan Fine Arts, Hong Kong, 2018.

The act of retrospection was manifest in other exhibited works. Mountains No. 7 (2014), for example, illustrates a generic, bucolic landscape in suburban Paris, which hauntingly resembles a typical scene from the Chinese countryside in Zhejiang or Jiangsu Province, where Shan spent the first 29 years of his life, but could also be a rural setting anywhere else in the world. The similarity here exceeds the demand to identify the individual components—blurry trees and hillsides—that comprise the painting, as if it doesn’t matter where Shan looks. In any case, he is recollecting something from the past. Embodying the same gesture, Pure BrightnessGrain Rain and Start of Autumn (all 2018), titled after the 24 solar terms in the traditional Chinese calendar, depict several trees in spring and autumn. With the subject matter and the composition more or less maintained throughout the group of works, the warm and cool tones of ink become the only subtle indications of the changes in season. Again, instead of what is featured in the paintings, it is the artist’s act of examining the passing of time that is the true focus of the works. 

As conspicuous as this gesture of looking back is in Shan’s exhibition, it also reveals some characteristics of the place that he is ultimately seeking out. The most interesting examples of how the artist plays with distance and proximity are the circular canvases of the “Mountain Stone” (2017) series. The barren landscapes, enclosed within circles, correspond clearly with Chinese tuanshan (circular fan) paintings, possibly indicating Shan’s homesickness, while transforming the mountains that seem so near in Mountains No. 7 into unreachable planets that can only be observed through round, telescopic lenses. The same applies to the Haystack (2017–18) series, the titular subject of which is depicted three times from slightly different angles, referencing Claude Monet’s similarly titled group of paintings. The haystacks under Shan’s brushstrokes do not capture different seasons or days, however. Instead, their dotted, misty shadows bring to mind the appearance of noticeable pixels in zoomed photos, drawing attention to the distance between the viewer and the observed object. The place Shan is constantly looking for is neither Paris, nor his motherland; it is where reality, memory, imagination, and perhaps dreams all lose their boundaries, and the motionless, solemn nature of objects are preserved intact like ancient fossils in amber. It’s a spacious, empty place—there are mountains, trees, stones and haystacks, yet never any sign of living animals or people—that seems near, yet remains elusive when sought. 

SHAN WEIJUN, Haystack Nos. 1, 2 and 3, 2017–2018, Chinese ink and mineral pigment on rice paper, 96 × 90 cm each, at “Between Light and Shade,” Alisan Fine Arts, Hong Kong, 2018.

Tianhui Huang is an editorial intern of ArtAsiaPacific.

Shan Weijun’s “Between Light and Shade” is on view at Alisan Fine Arts, Hong Kong, until June 30, 2018.

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