Hands-On Art - Shanghai’s art scene comes of Age

By Ulrika K Engstrom

A growing number of galleries, art institutions and international exhibitions testify to Shanghai’s artistic rebirth. More importantly, the city’s artists express a confidence and willingness to experiment that eclipses their more established (and conservative ) counterparts elsewhere.

Shanghai-born abstract painter, Shen Fan, for example, paints with his hands. He got the idea while in Europe, watching the performance of a Belgian pianist.” He touched the piano as if it was his lover,” says Shen. “I thought I could do the same in my paintings. So I started to use my hands instead of a brush, and then I could suddenly create a soft movement full of emotion.” Shen Fan attended the Fine Arts Department of the Shanghai Light Industry Institute. In the early 1990s, he became one of the first Chinese artists to be invited overseas, studying at the European Ceramics Work Centre in the Netherlands.

But Europe is not the only source of Shen’s art. Suzhou Creek flows past his studio, located in an old weaver’s factory. It’s not a pretty sight. Looking out his window, Shen sees a running sewer, a dumping place for endless amounts of industrial and domestic waste. Yet he also sees a source of inspiration.

In his most recent series of paintings, entitled River, Shen Attempts to impose harmony where none exists. Using his hand and fingers, he describes swirling patterns in yellow, reds and blues, moulding the paint like a piece of sculpture, into a portrait of quiet contemplation.” Life in Shanghai is chaotic,” says the artist,” and everybody is looking for balance in life.” And change. River is a serious departure from Shen’s earlier style in its use of colour and abstraction. In previous works, he used only one colour – a somber black – and had a more realistic approach. According to Shen, abstract art chose him, not the other way around.” I realized,” he explains,” that the viewers’ knowledge of the world portrayed in my painting destroyed the overall impression.” That led him to believe that true art could only be expressed with one colour.

Like Shanghai itself, Shen is evolving. Art isn’t static, and the future of art is here, in this city, ever-changing.