The World of Shen Fan

Wu Liang

Visiting Shen's studio, you will discover that it looks like a simple workshop, not like a place for producing paintings, but one in which dyeing and rubbing are done and moulds are made. His works of art are totally separated from the environment that surrounds them, and their existence cannot be explained in sociological terms. They simply echo from a long way off certain concepts from art history. These handmade products of dyeing-style, with their solemnity, their abstruseness and their monotony, remind us of witchcraft, of self-cultivation, of incantations, scrawls and lost, exotic writings. Shen's function is not that of a disseminator of information, but is more that of a wizard or a meditator, a mysterious prophet, a thoughtless madman, or maybe a blind official historian standing aloof from the world and doing everything his own way without regard to the advice of others. The chain of meaning has been broken and the denotation of symbols disappears in the over-lapping glue-like colours. All that is left before us is an expanse of colour. Culture is divorced from the personal cipher, and the painting is separated from the explanation. This is the scene you encounter in Shen's studio, where he is in and out, handles matters, labours and meditates. As a place, it is situated and takes up a position in the world like any other place, but its particularity and confrontational feel is obvious.

Confronted with the world, Shen's work is neither a mirror nor a symbolic record of what surrounds it. It rather harks back to the beginnings of the world, to the existence of matter under the influence of spirit, changing into forms in which being and spirit meet each other directly.

Shen's works, through endless repetition, obstinately and patiently reveal this to you. They are there, they continue to propagate themselves. Existence of any kind must manifest itself in a repetitive way, Only numbers can prove that existence is not a contingent event, and has the “convincing persuasion of class.”

However, this does not mean that Shen Fan brings elements within the span of human existence into his work. Rather it means that, while the faces of Shen's paintings differ from all the visual phenomena in our daily lives, they are surprisingly close to the essence of our lives—repetition, labour, reiteration, propagation, as meaningless and futile an effort as that of Sisyphus, an anti-heroism, unknown to the public, and with nothing to dazzle in their performance.

Without some element of performance, works of art are doomed to be unpleasing to the eye. The first impression of Shen's work is that it is monotonous, undenotable, chaotic, dizzying and unitelligible. They require you to look but show you nothing- a single colour (black, red, blue or even white), a network of criss-crossing lines, leaflike ribs and splitting fibres. They look like a dripping, solidifying body, a kind of squeezed vestige of continuous stains and twiggy lines formed at random. But if you step back a bit, you are soon struck by the wall-like appearance of the coloured layers, returning to their flat state and interrupting your thoughts.

This part of Shen's work takes on a structural bas-relief effect. Grease paint is used and emphasized by him in bulk. On the tough paper Shen habitually uses, the grease paint begins to show its character as a plastic substance. It is no longer only diluted with turpentine oil then daubed on the face of things or used to depict something else, but itself disappears into a dream.

Shen's works open to inner elements and display a kind of charn and character in monotony; they do not seek the extensiveness and abundance of content, but sticks to their own limits, engaging in the same toil everyday, cheerfully, gamelike as well as rigorously, like alchemy. This unique character is extremely difficult to be conspicuous in today’s culture. It may not be an original concept, but it is doubtless very precious.

Shen's attitude towards the world is pessimistic. Perhaps he thinks that everything in human life is repetition. He has gradually identified with this dispirited opinion and even regards it as truth. Shen's works are all based on this view. He and his works free themselves from the entanglements of secular concerns, but still his works return to the same secular logic. The only distinction is that Shen's work has never denoted the world or the concept of the world. It only denotes itself. It acquires a new space by accumulating layers of colour, of vestige and grease paint. It fatalistically displays a tragic charm-it attracts you or excludes you, because it is, of itself, the world.

Shanghai, August 1996