SHI ZHIYING, Mars, 2010, oil on canvas, 200 × 600 cm. All photos by Andrew Stooke for ArtAsiaPacific.


Shanghai Oil Painting and Sculpture Institute Art Museum

Shanghai may be a city of hazy atmospheres, of spaces lost in mist, but not so in the Shanghai Oil Painting and Sculpture Institute (SPSI) Art Museum, where the air seems polished like a diamond and vision is heightened. Sun Dongdong, curator of its current exhibition “Transcendence,” claims that in the show, “nature takes on different visual forms.” The pictures are sharp under bright halogen light and, as a result, laid bare, which is how unnatural and complex the “image” has become in the contemporary world.

The artists featured in “Transcendence” are painters Xie Fan, Yan Bing and Shi Zhiying. All three probe a space between the traditions of Chinese painting—performed with ornate gestures correspondent to the experience of the genre’s subjects, such as the mountainous landscape—and of Western modernism, which privileges formal invention and empiricism. Painting allows the three artists to explore this territory with different material options. In the case of the Beijing-based Xie, paint is diffused into the fine grain of silk. Yan, a graduate of Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, covers the texture of coarse jute canvas with dun-colored pigment. As for Shanghai-born Shi, paint flows diluted onto a flawless white surface.

SHI ZHIYINGMars (detail), 2010, oil on canvas, 200 × 600 cm.

Installation view of “Transcendence” at Shanghai Painting and Sculpture Institute Art Museum, 2016, with (left) YAN BING, Black Cloth, 2015, and (right) SHI ZHIYING, Ocean No.3, 2014. 

Shi Zhiying’s wide landscape, entitled Mars (2010), is a six-meter-wide triptych. Rhetorical gestures, in the form of multiple improvised marks, produce a panoramic view of the surface of the distant planet. Received from elsewhere, presumably from the camera of NASA’s Viking II mission, the marks are rendered as if the artist had made a direct record of something seen. It’s silvery monochrome palette suggests cold precision. It is a careful and accurate record of the arid topography millions of kilometers away.

Yan Bing has a radically different attitude to the manipulation of cultural images. In Black Cloth (2015), ostensibly the image is a faithful depiction of a humble square of cloth pinned up by two corners, either hung to dry or covering some other image behind it. The visual connection to Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915), the iconic painting of a black square on a white background, is insistent. A larger painting, Big Cowhide (2014), slips between a representation of the cowhide, stretched out flat, and abstraction. Two sharp lozenges, entering at an acute angle from the top, and geometric elements in the lower part of the canvas, elevate the non-figurative quality of the composition. In another work, images of farm tools leaning against a wall are realistically shown, each one depicted singularly on a tall, narrow canvas, making a row of identical panels. The physical arrangement recalls the work of minimalist artists such as John McCracken, who made many works that presented multiple identical units in a row. Yan further complicates the proposition as he depicts the tools leaning against a wall, while, typically, McCracken’s work is designed to be lined up on the floor and leaning against the wall, rather than hung.

YAN BING, Farming Tool, 2012, oil on canvas, seven parts: 160 × 40 cm each. 

The painting’s wooden support is also an element in Xie Fan’s works. Painted on silk, but stretched like a canvas, the transparent fabric reveals the structure of the stretcher underneath, like a ghost. In works such as Full Mountain (2012), the image is built up in tones and reads like a photograph. In fact, it is composed of relatively informal dabs of black paint, which diffuse into the silk and subsequently produces a blur, the effect of the tone being the result of density. The subject matter of the painting is given in the form of the generic idea of a mountain, as in a traditional Chinese landscape. The use of silk links the work to traditional Chinese painting practices, while the oil paint slightly clogs the fine weave. The effect of stretching the material, as if it were canvas, reveals strength, but suggests dignity that is outmoded.

The three artists contend that it is the experience of living in the present that transcends the image. Painting still has the capacity to do something that mechanical reproduction can never achieve: it can connect to the representational traditions of the past.


XIE FAN, Full Mountain, 2012, oil on silk, 120 × 200 cm.

“Transcendence” is on view at the Shanghai Oil Painting and Sculpture Institute Art Museum until March 23, 2016.