By Wang Chunchen
The last time Shen Shubin held a solo exhibition, I called it “Rebirth on the Road of Pilgrimage,”after several years, I named this solo show and the related series “Being in the Heavenly Court.”
Today, we do not have any understanding of the organic world, and we do not fully comprehend what natural harmony looks like. When we speak about laws, we seem to forget that natural laws are the most essential rules of the universe . Shen Shubin has had a principled evolution from painting realistic figures to painting expressive figures combined with animals, reflecting the evolution from realism to natural philosophy. Shen has added structural frameworks to his new series, and he suspends various animals, unsupported, in space. The painter expands the compositional form of the paintings, but he also attempts to present an attitude. This is another concept of space, a geometric structure that has the most spatial meaning.
In modernist art, geometric structures appeared more directly in paintings, becoming well-known symbols. Shen Shubin also uses humanity’s way of understanding the world to drive his painting. The animals and geometric spatial compositions in Shen Shubin’s paintings are no longer symbols of the human world; they inspire us to confront the existence of the larger world, the Heavenly Court.
Being in the Heavenly Court: Re-Reading Shen Shubin’s New Work
By Wang Chunchen
Now is the time when we ask ourselves: “What do we think is art?” The last time Shen Shubin held a solo exhibition, I called it “Rebirth on the Road of Pilgrimage,” and he used a mood to compel the rebirth of all living things. For several years, Shen has diligently explored painting, and he has also deeply probed the thesis of his own work, so I named this solo show and the related series “Being in the Heavenly Court.” One advantage of following an artist for several years and doing a series of exhibitions is that I can observe subtle changes or advancements and further consider the artist’s creative path and intellectual progress. For example, Robert Storr has continually written about and curated work by German artist Gerhard Richter, Hal Foster has continued to study and write about Thomas Hirschhorn, and Rosalind Krauss has persisted in researching and writing about minimalist art. Where there is sufficient information about new art and artists, continuous observation and research are needed, perhaps even stretching across several generations. In China, the ’85 New Wave requires continued research, as do the Yuanmingyuan artist group, the East Village artist group, the Songzhuang art phenomenon, and the Wangjing art ecosystem. Several other historical subjects require further study, such as the history of contemporary art in Hebei. Within that, there is the Handan phenomenon (Li Xianting, Fang Lijun, Li Xiangming, and Jia Haiquan), the CAFA students and teachers sent down to labor, and students such as Wu Hung and Liu Xiaochun who were sent down to Xuanhua, Hebei, in the late 1960s. All of these could be fruitful research topics, which reflect today’s perspectives on and methods in art historical research. Shen Shubin is a young artist from Shanxi; he is enthusiastic, and he never stops creating and thinking. He is sincere and low key, but he has drive, and he has always maintained his creative passion. Because of all this, I have been in contact with him for the last seven or eight years, from his first solo exhibition in Taiyuan seven or eight years ago to a solo exhibition at Today Art Museum in Beijing to the solo show I curated for him at the Minsheng Art Museum in Beijing to the exhibition I’m curating for him at the Lingnan Museum this year. This path truly shows his change and evolution.
Before we talk about Shen Shubin’s new work, it is first necessary to discuss research methods, which also allow us to think about change. Because we previously discussed “rebirth on the road of pilgrimage,” this time we have focused on “being in the Heavenly Court.” This reflects our abilities as researchers in contemplating ways of observing the art that is happening around us; this is a challenge to our research methods and abilities. We often raise the issue of establishing academic discursive authority, but this is not a given; it must be created by the collective work of artists and researchers. With time, circumstances, and hard work, a discourse forms.
If we see ourselves in that way, we discover that our generation was transitional. Because we moved away from the past, we were the generation that hoped to achieve the glories of a new world. We have encountered many global fusions, and suddenly we cannot interpret our own existences or fully describe the appearance of the world. We work to possess the tools to decipher the world, but we have almost been prevented from approaching the possibilities of the world by its complex, tangled prospects.
We have become estranged from the world, separated from all things, and disjointed from nature. We were not born at the wrong time; the affairs of the world have always been difficult, and they have been particularly hard to predict lately. Today, we do not have any understanding of the organic world, and we do not fully comprehend what natural harmony looks like. When we speak about laws, we seem to forget that natural laws are the most essential rules of the universe and the world, and their decisive force means nothing can escape its destiny. As a result, our physical bodies are insignificant in the scope of the universe. We are little in the face of the vastness of the universe, so we are really not putting ourselves down. We must revere the heaven and earth, and as Kant said: We must follow the ways of the world and its pre-destined laws. Our human vocabulary is limited to this. From textual records, everyone from the Western Qin sages to Newton and Descartes to Kant in the eighteenth century all questioned the universe—is it real or illusory? Are there limits to it? If there are, where are they? Can we travel through time? Is the past the future? Is the future the past? Simply put, today we consider the temporal and spatial world using a physical language; our physical bodies want to grasp another transcendent world, or our current real vision prevents us from observing and transcending the past and future. Thus, we humans are endlessly confused, and we spare no effort in expressing our transcendent visions using texts and pictures. This is the reason for poetry, music, architecture, and painting throughout the ages, and we must not believe that they were created for the sensory enjoyment of that moment. Their essence is the exploration of an unknown world, or the unknown side of the transcendent world. Only when we forget this can we break with aestheticism.
Because these intellectual frameworks exist and we must respond to changes in the world, when we return to Shen Shubin’s new work, we can discuss its meaning and what we must do. Shen Shubin has had a principled evolution from painting realistic figures to painting expressive figures combined with animals, reflecting the evolution from realism to natural philosophy. I have used the term “natural philosophy” here because, in our Chinese context, philosophy is a neutral term that is related to “nature.” This is neither an abstract expository proof, nor is it just the real world in which existentialist researchers live; this is a realism that criticizes the unknown, worrying about the difficulties of the world. Transcendence and ideals are what humanity most needs today. Regardless of its location, this is an artistic and political viewpoint. Shen Shubin is young and quiet, but his brushwork questions the world at this moment. As for us writers, we must ask what we think art is.
Shen has added structural frameworks to his new series, and he suspends various animals, unsupported, in space. The painter expands the compositional form of the paintings, but he also attempts to present an attitude. This is another concept of space, a geometric structure that has the most spatial meaning. Rational people often present the universe in geometric structures, imitating the structure of the universe. In modernist art, geometric structures appeared more directly in paintings, becoming well-known symbols. Shen Shubin also uses humanity’s way of understanding the world to drive his painting. This new body of work is legible because it produces possible enlightenment. This is also to say that, artists in this vast land of China are also considering universal, world issues. The human ecosystem is part of the natural ecosystem, and nature as humans understand it is just a larger entity—part of the universe. We can imagine and question it, but the unknown is still greater than the known. The animals and geometric spatial compositions in Shen Shubin’s paintings are no longer symbols of the human world; they inspire us to confront the existence of the larger world. They lead us to wonder whether Noah’s Ark existed. Shen Shubin previously made a nine-meter-wide Noah’s Ark, and this work was comprised of a simple geometric framework, floating in a void—clean, solemn, and almost immobile. However, the examination of conscience that this inspires makes us wonder where the ease can be found. As we look at the animals and they look at us, it is as if we have been guided into that quiet distance, where we can simply be in the Heavenly Court.
Painting allows Shen Shubin to paint his heart and his mind; thought is endless, and he pursues that eternal existence.
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