DUST IN THE AIR: THE ART OF XUHONG SHANG
By Dr. Glen R. Brown
The art of Xuhong Shang has long drawn impetus from a yearning for things indefinable. Taking uncertainty itself as an object of pursuit, his work has made a practice of striving for what is by its very nature elusive, as amorphous and insubstantial as a play of light on rippling water. Previously, the source of Shang’s yearning and the nature of his striving were general enough for his art to encompass issues as wide ranging as the problem of self-definition, the difficulty of relating the present to the future in terms of causality, and the impossibility of understanding even the immediacy of the present in any comprehensive manner. His metaphors were appropriately drawn to conjure obscurity, randomness, and liminal states: nightfall on the edge of a city, butterflies buffeted on a breeze, the descent of an aircraft through a layer of clouds. The tendentious vagueness of these metaphors lent Shang’s works a feeling of abstraction, an air of the timeless and universal.
The exhibition Marred, constitutes a shift in Shang’s reflections on uncertainty, one that carries with it implications of more specific contexts. Though the hints of a change in inspiration are deliberately subtle, the works reflect the artist’s dawning awareness that his thwarted desire is not, or not solely, a consequence of insurmountable aspects of the human condition but rather a matter of the situated nature of the human being specifically in the contemporary world. Shang describes this situation as psychological and relates it generally to the proliferation and dissemination of information, especially through the virtual realm of computer technologies. The pathos of this situation, reflected in the melancholy spirit of Shang’s work, arises, in effect, from a loss of innocence: a dispersal of the bliss of ignorance by an incessant stream of information. From a narrower perspective, it can be linked to the specific knowledge of an ailing world, a biosphere crippled by an excessive indulgence in human ambition and desire.
Marred is composed of three series that investigate the theme of psychological situation in varying degrees of specificity. The Virtual series, the most general of the three, consists of paintings that stress the difficulty of focusing (visually and conceptually), and the consequent problem of situating the self. Here, the issue seems, at least initially, to be one of determining a literal location: of fixing a specific point in space. This undefined location is implicitly that of the viewer, who is made subject to disorientation through an ambiguous depth of field. Shang ensures this disorientation through his unusual method of applying paint and by the manner in which he displays eight of the paintings themselves: end-to-end in a horizontal band that is at once continuous and disconnected.
Produced by blotting black acrylic paint through the backs of unprimed canvases, the Virtual works are indistinct as representations, though they vaguely suggest bird’s-eye views of topography. Virtual #68, for example, resembles a mountain ridge at twilight on which random outcroppings of rock punctuate a thin accumulation of snow. In contrast, Virtual #18, feathery in its seeping of paint and less dramatic in tonal contrast, appears more like a pine forest enshrouded by a bank of mist. More importantly, the scale seems to change between these works. If perceived as a panorama, the band of Virtual series works creates the effect of a shifting focus, as if the scene were viewed through a camera lens randomly zooming in and out as the eye travels from left to right.
As the black-and-white palette and the horizontal scroll format of the eight end-to-end paintings of the Virtual series suggest, Shang has drawn inspiration partly from traditional Chinese ink paintings, specifically the mountain images of the Yuan dynasty literati artist Huang Gongwang. “Western painting, because of its linear perspective, really pulls your eye inward,” Shang notes, “but Chinese painting pushes you away. In my paintings it’s almost as if you were up in an airplane, very far away, looking down on the landscape. At the same time, I’m trying to pick up the characteristics of Chinese painting in an unconscious way. All of the paintings were done from the back. Most unconscious abstraction leaves the painter still facing the canvas, so that the hand may be randomly applying paint but the eye still controls the composition. My paintings are not controlled by the conscious mind or the eye.”
If this absence of control, particularly of the orchestrating influence of the artist’s eye, partly accounts for the viewer’s sense of evasiveness in the Virtual paintings, the works of Shang’s Moonbeam series seem to imply that objects of desire may, on the contrary, become elusive through too much control. The marred vision of the night sky that Shang presents through his Moonbeam works insinuates the role of acquisitiveness in alienating the contemporary human being from nature. The black paintings, such as Moonbeam #10, pair the distant moon with notations suggesting recorded observations: data that in the sciences is used to unlock the secrets of the universe and subject it to human control. The v-shaped cuts into the unstretched Moonbeam canvases convey Shang’s observation that the heavens have fallen victim to international competition, a race to carve up outer space into a patchwork of territories that perhaps someday will even become hosts to galactic colonialism.
Largely because of these observations, the Moonbeam works are wistful and melancholy. Knowledge of human aspirations to control outer space appears to intervene, like light pollution, between the viewer and the night sky, leaving the moon increasingly less distinct and conceptually more distant. As the series progressed, Shang changed the moon’s environs from black to beige, suggesting the imposition of a filter or scrim between the viewer’s eye and its object and confirming a loss that the black Moonbeam paintings only adumbrated through their curling edges: “It is as if,” Shang says, “the sky were peeling off. The beige paintings make the black ones seem like sad memories. There’s no clean sky anymore.”
Nor, Shang argues, is there any longer a clear position to be taken up by the human being. The works of the Random series, scattered like so many wet leaves blown against the wall by a swirling wind, embody Shang’s conviction that “today you don’t know how close or far you are from nature. You’re only randomly situated. You can’t look at a landscape without recognizing what humans have done. Even when you can’t actually see the effects of those things, nature seems far away. You try to contemplate it but it can’t be fully grasped.”
Through the Random series works Shang struggles to articulate the psychological consequences of this elusiveness, of the growing opacity that he observes between the contemporary human being and nature perceived as an extra-human absolute. Works such as Random Series #24, with its heavy black allusions to a storm cloud, a mushroom, or a cerebral cortex, act partly as stimuli in a colossal Rorschach test. Ominous black silhouettes suspended against leaden skies or submerged in the murky hues of aquatic depths, the forms of the Random works are vaguely reminiscent of natural objects but are impossible to identify in more than tentative and ephemeral terms. “They are like forms randomly hinting at nature, almost like dream images that come to you suddenly,” Shang asserts. “They’re formed psychologically as shapes that start in daily life, but they’re more like dust floating in the air. They’re something that you try to catch but never can.”
This inability to catch a fleeting object, to secure its impression and define it concretely, is a pervasive theme in Marred. As the works of the exhibition reveal, a psychological grappling with contemporary issues such as global warming or the conquest of outer space has begun to influence Shang’s work to a certain degree, but ultimately these issues remain subordinate to an overarching reflection on a general experience of distancing and alienation in the contemporary world, regardless of the origins of that experience. Indeed, it would be counterproductive to ascribe too much specificity to the content of work that tendentiously entwines itself with uncertainty. If Shang’s paintings are successful as reflections on the irresolution of human desire and the impossibility of grasping its objects, credit is due to the artist’s ability to prevent content from gelling and his work from becoming more than provisionally explicable. In the end Shang’s realm remains that of the undefined.
Brown, Glen R. “Dust in the Air: The Art of Xuhong Shang.” Xuhong Shang. Hua Gallery, 2012. 11-13.