Painting, at its best, is like alchemy. A painter quiets the mind and allows his materials and some other unidentifiable force — a muse, inspiration, the Chinese concept of “qi” perhaps — to take over.
That unnamed life force manipulates oils and acrylics into suggestive brushstrokes, smears and stains, assembling and dissolving before our eyes, inviting us to ponder the universal energy that courses so vigorously through the world and our own bodies.
Now through June 20 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the public can take in the powerful yet peaceful canvases of Chinese choreographer, dancer, filmmaker and painter Shen Wei in “Painting in Motion.” The three-part exhibit features Shen’s large-scale abstractions in which he’s unabashedly unleashed his “qi,” notebooks filled with sketches plotting his spellbinding choreography, and several of his mesmeric short films. A façade outside the museum is another offering, based on a still from one of the films on view, “Passion Spirit.”
An internationally acclaimed artist who most Americans will recognize through his elegant choreography performed on a giant scroll at the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Shen spent two summers at the Gardner (2018 and 2019) as an artist-in-residence. What’s on view now at the Gardner includes two paintings he completed while in residence, as well as several large pieces completed both before and since his Boston stay. One of the three films on view, “Passion Spirit,” was commissioned by the Gardner in 2019, and tells the story of how “passion” and “spirit,” represented through the forms of two dancers, can eventually come together, resulting in one integrated and free figure. His notes and sketches of choreography themselves recall miniature abstract compositions.
“In both my painting and my choreographic process, I definitely have to have a kind of passion, a kind of mood, for what I would like to do,” says Shen, speaking from China via WeChat. Shen has been riding out much of the pandemic in “meditative creation” in his homeland. When he creates, he says, he allows the mood to take him where it may, until it transforms into something that might be called art.
“In painting, it is more like a flow, an energy flow,” he says. “In calligraphy, we have a kind of qi energy through brushstrokes. I like that idea of transforming human energy through visual art.”
Many of Shen’s paintings are large enough to get swallowed up in entirely, presenting a sweeping panorama that feels like a landscape, but isn’t. It’s the feeling you might get while perched on a ledge at the Grand Canyon or while peering out a window on a plane. Pieranna Cavalchini, curator of contemporary art at the Gardner who co-curated the show with museum director Peggy Fogelman, describes it as “reflective space and meditative space, perhaps also spiritual research.”
Manipulating his paints, Shen manages to create works that feel timeless and ineffable. Natural elements come to mind, although Shen does not attempt to recreate any particular form. His series of sepia-toned paintings “Reflecting Elements” resemble cloudscapes or turgid waters, although they are just loose smears and stains. His series “Suspension in Blue” recalls a playful dance of sea spray, although the oil and acrylic are scumbled freely and seemingly effortlessly. Yes, the paintings recall Chinese landscapes from the Song Dynasty, but emptied of any figurative content, they are free to portray the naked primal consciousness that powers the universe.
It is, in fact, a dance between potent power and tranquility, movement and stillness. It’s what American abstract expressionists were doing mid-century, but with Shen’s Eastern sensibility. Picking up on its meditative aspects, the Gardner is offering viewers an opportunity for quiet reflection themselves with the help of a guided meditation that accompanies Shen’s “Untitled Number 8.”
“It is pretty important for me to have time for myself alone; to have more time to feel the world, to think about everything I have absorbed between me and the universe,” says Shen. “When you are with a lot of people, sometimes you do not have the time to think and feel and be aware of things between you and the world. Sometimes you go with everyone and do whatever people are gathering do. When you are alone, you get to really feel, to think, to absorb things about life and the universe and to express them through your work.”
Shen is the son of a Chinese opera director, performer and calligrapher, and a theatre producer. Although he studied classical opera at the Hunan Arts School, along with calligraphy, he discovered a passion for modern dance in his youth which led him to become a founding member, at the age of 23, with the Guangdong Modern Dance Company, the first such company in China. In 1995, he received a fellowship that took him to New York, where he founded Shen Wei Dance Arts. Since then, he has worked on numerous commissions, including for the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma, as well as for contemporary ballet companies such as Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal.
Both his painting and choreography have combined techniques and styles from the Eastern and Western traditions. Cavalchini says she first thought of inviting Shen to the Gardner after seeing one of his performances at Jacob’s Pillow more than a decade ago. When she learned the choreographer was also a painter, she made a point of visiting his New York studio. Seeing the work, Cavalchini knew he would be just the right artist to invite for a residency.
The theme of a spiritual energy, a consciousness powering and connecting both humankind and nature, would seem to reflect the Chinese philosophy of Taoism, as might the idea of painting as a form of meditation. And the idea that a painter might connect with some deeper force as he works was brought home to Cavalchini one day during Shen’s residency. Cavalchini had made an appointment with Shen and knocked on his door at the appropriate time, but evidently, absorbed in painting, he had forgotten.
“He opened the door and I realized that he was like on another plane. He was somewhere else. He was like in this meditative trance state.”
It’s similar to the way a viewer might feel standing before one of Shen’s paintings.
“Shen Wei: Painting in Motion” is on view at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum through June 20.