A pair of paintings sit apart from the rest at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where “Painting in Motion,” the first-ever solo museum exhibition featuring Chinese-American artist Shen Wei, opened Thursday. They’re smaller, simpler, busier, if that’s even possible, in a show filled with frenetic mark-making in every which way. One is black, the other white, both swiped on the canvas by the artist with his feet. Best-known as a choreographer, Shen is highly attuned to how the body moves. Every one of his works here is explicit gestural residue, but none quite like these two. They’re raw and jubilant, spontaneous and dynamic, made in parallel bursts of physical bliss. For me, they’re the best things in the show, which I intend as high praise.
Shen, now 52 years old, already had a lifetime’s worth of creative output behind him when he started painting seriously a little over a decade ago. With so many years left on his artistic odometer, it made sense for a restless artist to branch out. Shen may have started showing paintings only recently, but he’s been making them for years; a cabinet of pull-out vitrines here contain charmingly naïve portraits of friends made during his teens and 20s. “Painting in Motion” is a holistic view of an artist always hungry to try something new. But it inevitably returns to the body. Through painting and performance, movement is the tie that binds; paint is just another way to leave tracks.
Shen might be best known for choreographing “Scroll,” the soccer field-size canvas unfurled for opening ceremonies at the 2008 Beijing Summer OIympics. It was itself a painting in motion: His troupe of dancers moved across the surface wearing mittens soaked with ink, leaving behind broad licks of black. The effect was akin to a supersize calligraphic piece, evocative of millennia of Chinese cultural practice. It surely pleased the ruling party, but was also true to Shen’s background. He came from a family of calligraphers and was schooled in the classics of opera and ballet (starting in 1978 at age 9).
Shen was inspired in the 1980s by a rising Chinese avant garde. In 1991, when he was just 23, he was a founding member of the Guangdong Modern Dance Company, mainland China’s first professional modern troupe. But his ambitions quickly led him away from China; the cultural awakening that had paralleled the country’s tentative embrace of economic exchange with the West had come to an abrupt halt in 1989, with the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square ending with a still-undetermined number of students killed by the Chinese Army.
With the Chinese government’s gradual loosening of strictures around creative expression once again locked up tight, Shen accepted a scholarship in 1995 to the Nikolais/Louis Foundation for Dance. After devoting much of his time to filmmaking, he quickly found his way in the New York dance scene. By 2003, “Folding,” an elaborately beautiful piece made in 2000 with Shen’s new company, was on stage at Lincoln Center.
You’ll see snippets of “Folding” with other dance pieces on screen in the Gardner’s Calderwood Hall, which serves as a socially-distanced viewing room for as long as the pandemic lasts. You’ll also see bits of “Rite of Spring,” my personal favorite, a stripped-down dynamo ensemble of robust movement, a dance world version of lyrical abstraction; and “Variations,” in which Shen dances alone, swathed in pure white. (Shen, who was an artist in residence at the Gardner in 2018 and 2019, made a site-specific performance for the Gardner in 2017. He’s tentatively scheduled to perform live here in April, depending, like everything, on the state of the virus.)
On the loop you’ll also find “April,” a film Shen made not long after relocating to the US. It’s a little hokey, I hate to say, all youthful, angsty bluster, justified though it may be by the artist’s isolation in a foreign land. A baby-faced Shen drags an enormous sack through a bleak landscape to gather hay with a scythe, or lies naked in a field, or shakes loose great thunderheads of dust from his robes with thrusts of his hips, all in grainy black and white. (If Buster Keaton-meets-Peter Greenaway is an aesthetic you might enjoy, then “April” is for you.)
Each of the performances helps build a foundation for the paintings to stand on. Shen’s work often feels like a synthesis between the ancient and contemporary, between classical discipline and free-form modernity. (”Folding” is this dynamic at its most striking, dancers swathed in black or red, heads bound yet synchronized like flocks of birds.) Shen’s paintings, at their best, have that same uncanny sense of being unstuck in time. A series of large untitled pieces, which began in 2013, echo forward and back; “Untitled Number 6,” a two-panel piece with a pair of dense clusters of mounded paint, evokes traditional Chinese landscape painting, mountainous islands linked by a slim bridge. “Reflecting Elements,” a brand-new series, abandons color almost entirely to live solely in the tonal range of a sepia-like ochre. Entirely abstract, they’re nonetheless reminiscent of the tempestuous skies of a Renaissance painting, afire with heavenly fury. (Shen painted them while reading Dante’s “Inferno.”)
More than any other, I went back to those footslips on canvas, one white, one black. They’re called “Movement Number 5 (Slide Turn by Feet A in Black)” and “Movement Number 6 (Slide Turn by Feet B in White).” They’re full of echoes; “Number 5″ can’t help but put you in the mind of Franz Kline. Most significantly, they’re completely unique, unburdened by layers of history or medium.
SHEN WEI: PAINTING IN MOTION
At the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 25 Evans Way. Through June 20, 2021. 617-566-1401, www.gardnermuseum.org
Murray Whyte can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.