"They are all untitled, and I think he did it on purpose, so as to minimize preconceptions that might influence anyone looking at them," curator Dr. Karin Oen tells me as she walks me through the installation of artist Shen Wei's exhibition at the Crow Collection of Asian Art.
The eponymously titled exhibition is Shen's first in Dallas and debuts his most mature painting series to date. Though better known for his choreography, Shen began his artistic journey as a painter. The visual arts have played a key role in his development as a choreographer and have been an integral part of his stage productions, but as he enters a new phrase of his career, he is falling back into the world of painting. "The creative process is one that ebbs and flows, and he is experiencing this pull-back from dance and wanting to paint more," Oen says. This exhibition is a result of that desire to devote himself to his first love.
His life in dance has influenced the work, and there is a great sense of movement to these new paintings -- all of which were created in 2013 and 2014. They are physically challenging and complex, with a great sense of depth and space and a delicate balance between the white canvas and layers of dynamic brushstrokes that animate the surface. From a distance, they resemble ink paintings, but upon closer examination, the dripping paint lines, quick splatters and layers of oil paint become evident. You feel as if you can almost dive into the liquid pools of thickly applied paint.
What he has created are quasi-landscapes that resemble traditional Chinese paintings, but his are meditations on those ideas and concepts, far more subtle and strange than his predecessors. They are mysterious stories cleverly twisted and layered to draw you in and transport you to a world of muted colors and simplicity. In a way, this relates directly to his choreography. The same sense of grace appears in both his painting and dance movement. You can feel the breath in between each brush stroke, the step of his foot as he approaches the canvas, the plié he takes as he reaches up to bring the brush across the surface in a staccato, or lyrical, fashion. And just like his choreography, more and more is revealed as you explore each piece.
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You begin to find shapes of trees and bushes, an outline of a river and mountains, a man or a woman walking into the darkness. The landscape starts to become familiar, and maybe you'll find a deer curled up hiding in the grass (or at least I did). Yet, the narrative is never explained to you, no hints are given as to what Shen is actually intending to portray, but that's the beauty of his work. You are allowed the freedom to explore and define it yourself. Which is why he leaves them untitled, as Oen explains. "The [paintings] speak for themselves, and he wants us to find our own meaning in them."
The presentation of them also calls for self-discovery from the viewer. Each work is unframed and unstretched, yet carefully pinned and hung on the wall both representing the fragile nature of the work and the immediacy in which Shen created them. "It was his intention to have them shown in this way -- very simply," Oen says, and "leaving the works untitled is an extension of his careful use of negative space -- similar to the Daoist concept of wu wei [non-action] or the Japanese concept of ma [void or pause]."
It also allows the viewer to approach the work easily and without any obstacle. You can get up-close and personal with each of the pieces and explore the layers of oil paint intimately to find your own story within them. Making each experience unique.
The exhibition of Shen Wei's painting opens on June 14 and runs through September 28 at the Crow Collection of Asian Art, in collaboration with TITAS' presentation of his choreography on Thursday, June 19 at the Winspear Opera House. Shen will also be participating in a panel discussion on his work for members of the Crow on Tuesday. If you are interested, it's not too late to become a member, and if you do, you'll also receive a discount for tickets for the dance performance.