Shen Fan -- One View of Beauty, Perhaps

Xiao Kaiyu

In 1912, when commenting upon the young Robert Delaunay--the pioneer of Abstract Painting--Apollinaire said that Delaunay's departure from the stereotypical perspective implied the leap of an entire generation to a more lofty aesthetic. The essence of this aesthetic is precisely Apollinaire's firm belief that "pure art constitutes reality". We can apply these words to today, and use Apollinaire's reference to a "leap" to refer to the reality of fine arts in the 20th century, or to at least half of that reality. In another article called "The Three Virtues of the Plastic Arts", written in aphoristic form, Apollinaire made a related but obscure remark--obscure in the general sense rather than the sense of the poet Thomas Eliot's reference to impersonal writing :"Firstly, artists are humans who wish to be non--human". The artist I will comment on here will separately add footnotes to Apollinaire's two opinions. A full fifty years ago, Jackson Pollack's shocking paintings and the bolder and more convincing theories of Clement Greenberg gave us ample proof. But what we will provide here will contain a few little Oriental tricks.

The reason for starting this article with Apolliaire's two opinions is that the artist here introduced began his work in the area first opened up by the pioneers of abstract art. Furthermore, with Chinese artists entering the field of abstract painting fairly late in the day, it is difficult to say that they have already moved from the exuberant first stage into a more mature stage in which form and content become review the original intentions of those pioneers can provide an interesting and meaningful contrast between the current enthusiasm for creation and the same enthusiasm of a measure already forgotten. Contemporary Chinese artists refer increasingly to the sheer personal and sometimes disagreeable style of modern European and American artists when delimiting their own artistic Styles. When exploring their own position in an artistic creation relative to such close examples, it is rather difficult to avoid submerging their aesthetic judgments into the consciousness of their senses. Shen Fan lives in the city of Shanghai, which contains a group of abstract artists. Amongst this circle of abstract artists-- the only one in China--Shen Fan has devoted himself to painting for quite a long period. Such an experience, which at first seemed remote and later solitary, has helped him to discover the fulcrum of his paintings--the instinct of life. Used as an artistic term, "Instinct of Life" sounds obscure, just as it seems very drifting when used as a criterion to evaluate art works. But used here, it is precisely pertinent to depicting the irresistible new power reflected in the paintings themselves and transforms the belief that "pure art constitutes reality" into a new and irresistible force. In turn, it also describes the obstacles encountered when the vitality of paintings created with an independent will are separated from the life instinct of the painter himself. To understand the significance of these obstacles, perhaps we should study the lust for power in the life instinct of the creator. But (at this juncture) it is not enough to simply prove that when the painter is still full of human nature and not just painting nature, the space in his works is weakened by the extent to which its artistic weight (painting nature) is checked by the presence of the life force.

Before he fixed on the use of paper oil painting, Shen Fan tried various other means of painting. The pictorial effect he now pursues surpasses the several stages represented by Paul Klee and Piet Mondrian. Among them, the paintings executed (with market pens, glass card paper, straight line and colour contrast) filled with the enlightenment of the simple images of heaven, earth and objects covered by snow on a winter's night, show an enchanting sense of form. But, on the alert for duplication, he soon gave up the drawing technique as being too close to Minimalism and Art Deco and turned to directly applying watercolours with his hands. Shen himself explains this by saying that he wants to allow one part of the body--the hand--to directly touch and penetrate the surface of the painting. In 1988, Shen Fan held his first personal exhibition at the Shanghai Art Museum with this batch of water-colour works. These water-colour paintings reveal Shen's reflection and choices on both the partial and integral ways of thinking in that period. Under the influence of the warm atmosphere surrounding the discussions of Logical Positivism and Scientific Philosophy, which believe that a terrible difference would emerge if one stuck to both the macro and detailed ways of thinking, Shen Fan reacted against the idea of the artist nakedly controlling the whole picture from a commanding height with" independent" or "complete" works prostrated before the painter's will, an idea which before the birth of surrealist art governed the dignity of painters, merging hostility into optimism. The completeness of a painting is invariably the result of different elements of the painting canceling each other out and undergoing an inevitable self-dissolution in which the completeness of the picture withers and collapses. As a result of Shen's acceptance of partial ideas, boundaries disappear and both the heavy and light parts of the picture intensify, as if the picture were lifted down from some other boundless entity. If we say these water-colours have some hidden meaning which can help us to understand the intentions of many other painters, then we have to stand a little apart from Apollinaire's position. We can't find a better explaination than that the paper should accept the painter's passion and instinct directly and without omission. If this approach is used to explain the term "non-human", then the artist' profession becomes rather special. When works of art acquire an instinct of their own, the artists themselves are exhausted. The artist' instinct, of course, warns them against this danger.

Since the late 1980s, Shen Fan adopted the stone rubbing method to create paper oil paintings. He should, and indeed must, place obstacles in the way of his passion. In his expressionist-style oil painting exercises of the early 1980s, two characteristics appeared which he later discovered to be his innate talents--the print effect with wide borders and blocks, and the colour black, which he used with such proficiency. His special method of artistic creation gave technical support to his ideal of painting. The repetitive procedures involved in daubing the paint on the canvas, serving as a photographic plate (elastic and stretched tight on the frame) then rubbing it onto rough paper, not only guarantee his unremitting pursuit of the contingent natural accident by which a painting is freely created, but also avoid the possibility that other chaotic elements of human instinct should pour into the paintings. Attention should be paid to Rudolf Arnheim's comment that a curve is a line reflecting the mind and mentality. He was adamant that if a straight line--the contrary "non-human" line--was not used to balance it, then the painting would fall into chaos and failure because people will find the mind repulsive. There are only curves in Shen Fan's works, no straight lines. We have no way to offer new ideas to replace Arnheim's opinion. Shen's method of solving the problem is primarily through the use of the crafty nature of the rubbing method itself. After being rubbed several times, the picture is still flat and the rough paper looks slippery and grim having been dyed by the oils from the oil paint. It seems like a miracle that the colours adhere to the paper, and needless to say, the colours penetrate into the picture. Since the painting lack the false space of perspective, and the rough oil-soaked paper refuses to exhibit "depth" in any sense, Shen's work forces sight to remain on the pure plane. The vain hope of mind, if retained, mutinies before the swirling movement of the intricate lines in his works. But the lines which are the essential part of the most attractive of Shen's works from 1993 and 1995 were a little stiff, and the tension (which excited people ) in those works, filled with short straight lines, is much greater. In the best of Shen's paintings, the density of the lines is always such that they combine together. The result of repeated overlapping makes the first several rubbings, in fact, become the background of the picture. Thus, the picture is given an impression of plumpness and thickness, or we may say that it takes on depth. Those points which are not wholly out of the painters control (partly due to the criss-cross of lines), remove the worry about whether there is a centre somewhere in the picture. They show that the painter not only insists on the partial idea, but also that he has never been aware that he looks at it with an idealistic eye which views things as a balanced whole.

Since the start of the 1990s, Shen Fan has gradually shifted to painting with a single primary colour--blue or white, red or black. He focuses on tracking the magic power (not the change of colours) of a certain colour, and usually he succeeds like a patient hunter. Both the whites and reds contribute their luxurious and pure charms to him. Without the contrast between colours and the changes of colour itself, the vitality of colour emerges as a pure, elemental force in the form of a sound. But only when Shen uses the colour black does he seem really calm and unhurried. His 1993 batch of black paintings displayed not only the dynamism of language but also something of a sense of silence. Of all colours, the colour black has the highest absorption capability. Black night absorbs light, black bats absorb sound, black crows absorb life. Light, sound and life can only enhance the blackness of night, bat and crow. Shen's concluding works of 1993 and 1995 were all done in an almot flawless blackness which created a bridge between the colour black and human instinct, and displayed the chaotic capacity of pure colours.

What is instinct? When should instinct throw off its constraints?

So, rather than say that Shen Fan chooses Life's Instinct, it is perhaps better to say that he hears the call of the colour black.

Perhaps Apollinaire's maxim was meant as a warning to artists to guard against themselves. Otherwise, life cannot model itself on art.

Shanghai, February 1996

Shen's 95 and 96 batch of long horizontal scroll of paintings, with their delicateness and tranquillity, takes up the connection with painting tradition of ancient China.