It has been quite some time since I have experienced this feeling: I walk into an exhibit—without having read any thought-provoking reviews, without having listened to any step-by-step guides to interpretation—and my attention is instantly, viscerally attracted to a work.
Facing Shao Fan’s work directly, one can neither perceive his subjective consciousness as an artist, nor detect evidence of the existence of any historical context whatsoever; rather, the nodal point to which the gaze repeatedly returns to savor is his extreme painterly skill. Shao defines the appreciation of beauty as that which delimits the artist’s subjective space: a limitation that leaves art as the aesthetic vehicle for the individual’s union with nature. In his artistic expression, Shao does not make an effort to highlight the individual. Perhaps at a point of division between the classical and the modern, one that seems consistent with the Daoist integration of subjectivity and objectivity, Shao believes in the cyclical, eternal return of time. He thinks that a good work is able to part with historical context altogether.
The creatures depicted under the stroke of his brush are not prophetic messengers, nor handy vehicles of cultural satire. Within Shao Fan’s process, the customary context is deconstructed, the subject detached from the narrative. He seeks to embody his understanding of Daoist philosophy through his paintings by conveying harmony and balance in nature. His work is guided by principles similar to those of traditional Chinese art, whose masters advocated the use of sensibility and perception in capturing the internal truth of the object, thereby realizing true unity with the self. The surface texture of Shao’s paintings is that of a stone wall in ancient China: worn with the imprint of time and mottled with the vicissitudes of life. Whether they are beasts, humans, or inanimate matter, the objects of his narration—set in relief against this texture—seem as if they have been endowed with man’s most primal reverence for nature.
Shao Fan’s installations have their foundation in Ming aesthetics and handicraft; within traditional works, he captures the forms of eyelashes, vertebrae, or excrement. After dissimilation, deconstruction, and restructuring, he makes these things newly available for tactile and sensory consideration and play. The use of this kind of object—one that can be put towards play, rumination, and admiration—is in fact an extension of Shao’s classicist persona. His work Ming-style Manure differs from the work of the many Western artists who use excrement in performance; Shao does not employ the kind of shock or provocation that so often come with material comparison or an attempted migration of context; rather, he overlaps the ancient and the modern, rationally using art to externalize and unpack his own philosophical deliberations. This conforms to the way of traditional Chinese art. Tradition stressed art as originating from the subconscious; but even when one achieved complete autonomy during creation, one still could not possibly completely eliminate rational thinking.
We are always attempting to merge with Western culture, and during the course of this fusion, the aesthetic value that Eastern culture originally possessed is subject to deconstruction; the ordered expression of so-called “cultural heritage” tends more and more towards formalism. Shao Fan’s works do not seem to be in the same category as those produced by artists who play the China card under the premise of catering to Western theories (arguing that, at the very least, they have not assimilated based on flattery). Shao sees fusion as a naturally occurring process, one that takes root in Chinese tradition and in Eastern aesthetics. When Shao proclaimed himself an “incurable classicist,” his self-deprecation was not only a form of cynicism aimed at any potential critics; more importantly, it was a sort of profession of his own faith, and an oath of fidelity to it.
After years of precipitation, Shao Fan himself tends to be more introspective, commensurate with the Daoist thought that he venerates. Now, he prefers nature and intuition, in a kind of quiet return to the self, and thus, to the heavenly. Yin Yan