Ocula Magazine   |   Insights   |   Exhibition

Regarded as one of the key figures of China's 'New Generation' (xinshengdai) in the 1990s, Shen Ling is renowned for her use of a vibrant palette to create emotionally charged oil paintings.

Shen Ling Records the Psychology of the Times

Shen Ling, Six Records of a Floating Life 5 (2015) (detail). Oil on canvas. 200 x 200 cm. Courtesy Tang Contemporary Art.

Juxtaposing the artist's seminal oil paintings with her enduring experiments with paper and mixed media, Void Flowers, Yearly Portrait at Tang Contemporary Art, Beijing (5 November–8 December 2022) traces Shen Ling's artistic practice since the late 1980s.

Curated by Feng Boyi, the artist's first major solo exhibition in China since 2014 opens with a group of relatively recent works. Borrowing its title from an 1809 memoir written by Qing dynasty scholar Shen Fu, the idyllic series 'Six Records of a Floating Life' (2015) depicts the leisure of having a siesta surrounded by lotuses and magpies.

Shen Ling, Six Records of a Floating Life 4 (2015). Oil on canvas. 200 x 200 cm.

Shen Ling, Six Records of a Floating Life 4 (2015). Oil on canvas. 200 x 200 cm. Courtesy Tang Contemporary Art.

Detouring from her signature expressionist and emotionally charged style, Shen Ling embraces a lightness of touch in these works, adopting a composition that breathes through the blank areas of the canvas. The empty space is reminiscent of the philosophy of void upheld by traditional Chinese painting, which is epitomised in the artist's 'Void Flower' series (2020–2021).

In the 1990s, Shen Ling's work was characterised by an expressionist, autobiographic style that celebrated individuality.

Reposing on tall bases across the exhibition halls, a group of intimate drawings invites viewers to walk through them. Drawn and painted in grisaille, apparition-like figures surface from the near-blank background. Scribbled Chinese inscriptions in the corner read 'Destiny', 'Drunk', or 'Cut, it won't break; ruled, it will make a mess', poetically alluding to the Daoist idea of inexertion (wu wei).

Exhibition view: Shen Ling, Void Flowers, Yearly Portrait, Tang Contemporary Art, Beijing 2nd Space, Beijing (5 November–8 December 2022).

Exhibition view: Shen Ling, Void Flowers, Yearly Portrait, Tang Contemporary Art, Beijing 2nd Space, Beijing (5 November–8 December 2022). Courtesy Tang Contemporary Art.

Five accordion-like albums stretch across the walls of each gallery, conjuring up in the artist's eyes, 'the soul of the exhibition'. These montages, each consisting of up to 20 leaves made of traditional xuan paper, collect fragments of the mundane and zoom between interior and exterior scenes, distant views, and close-ups.

The albums almost function as the artist's diary, as a sequence of hazy silhouettes delineated by improvised strokes suggests the passage of time and beckons viewers to walk back and forth. Folded over and over, the thin, rice paper creates a visual rhythm that removes certain spaces from immediate view while generating new, organic spaces.

Exhibition view: Shen Ling, Void Flowers, Yearly Portrait, Tang Contemporary Art, Beijing 2nd Space, Beijing (5 November–8 December 2022).

Exhibition view: Shen Ling, Void Flowers, Yearly Portrait, Tang Contemporary Art, Beijing 2nd Space, Beijing (5 November–8 December 2022). Courtesy Tang Contemporary Art.

The image of the painter herself, holding a brush recurs in the albums and throughout the exhibition. Blurry, expressionless visages are stained by watercolour or smeared by charcoal and ink. Their compelling eyes gaze out knowingly, as if to incite an intentional distance.

Shen Ling embraces a lightness of touch in these works, adopting a composition that breathes through the blank areas.

Beyond straightforward self-portraiture, dark, untamed flowers as in Twilight (2022), arise as another significant motif across Shen Ling's oeuvre—a metaphor for sensuality, sexuality, and vitality. The fluorescent work belongs to a group of ethereal oil paintings rendered in a flattened perspective reminiscent of murals (2021–2022).

Shen Ling, Twilight (2021). Oil on canvas. 200 x 200 cm.

Shen Ling, Twilight (2021). Oil on canvas. 200 x 200 cm. Courtesy Tang Contemporary Art.

Inspired by Chinese folk art, the canvas unfolds a beguiling utopia crowded with blooming flowers and surreal creatures. Yet the paradise is immediately intruded upon by a haunting hand holding the brush, discreetly reaching from the bottom to the centre of the canvas, where a huge, incongruous armchair resides.

The last gallery traces Shen Ling's early career in the 1980s and 90s. Contrasting her later free-hand style, works from this period layer thick and painterly brushstrokes with a glossy, impasto finish, clearly influenced by Western Expressionism.

Shen Ling, Photography Realism (1994). Oil on canvas. 145.5 x 112.5 cm.

Shen Ling, Photography Realism (1994). Oil on canvas. 145.5 x 112.5 cm. Courtesy Tang Contemporary Art.

In the abundantly detailed painting Photography Realism (1994), everything—from peeling wall coverings and overflowing trash cans to the painter's bulging eye and plump cheek—jams in an overly cluttered studio room.

In the 1990s, Shen Ling's work was characterised by an expressionist, autobiographic style that celebrated individuality. She was included in the famous New Generation Art exhibition in Beijing at the former History Museum of China in 1991, which marked a turning point in the field of oil painting, towards down-to-earth representations of quotidian life.

Shen Ling, Creation of Graduation: Loneliness No. 4 (1989). Oil on canvas. 152.7 x 192.5 cm.

Shen Ling, Creation of Graduation: Loneliness No. 4 (1989). Oil on canvas. 152.7 x 192.5 cm. Courtesy Tang Contemporary Art.

Here, the journey through the artist's 30 years of practice concludes with two oil paintings from the series 'Loneliness', created in 1989 on the artist's graduation from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.

Amid upheavals in both politics and art in China, Shen Ling encircles a group of stylishly dressed ladies with a tense jumble of lines. Against a bleak, earth-toned background, their faces reveal an unsettling melancholy and confusion, as the title suggests.

Exhibition view: Shen Ling, Void Flowers, Yearly Portrait, Tang Contemporary Art, Beijing 2nd Space, Beijing (5 November–8 December 2022).

Exhibition view: Shen Ling, Void Flowers, Yearly Portrait, Tang Contemporary Art, Beijing 2nd Space, Beijing (5 November–8 December 2022). Courtesy Tang Contemporary Art.

Shen Ling records the psychology of our times through her depiction of the everyday. As painting has become a meditative daily practice for the artist over the ongoing Covid-19 lockdowns in China, her works make a powerful statement in their search for ways to locate personal experiences within a broader social and historical context. —[O]

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