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For Two Artists in Shanghai, Reality Is Ripe for Manipulation

For Two Artists in Shanghai, Reality Is Ripe for Manipulation
  • PublishedOctober 6, 2023

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The two painters who will be represented at Frieze London by Gallery Vacancy in Shanghai share a need to depict the extraordinary in the ordinary, one through everyday industrial items and the other through the simplest images from nature.

That juxtaposition is what captivated Lucien Tso, the founder and director of the gallery, located in the upscale Huangpu district of Shanghai. The artists, Ni Hao, who is Taiwanese, and Shi Jiayun, who is from Chongqing, China, but lives in Shanghai, are integral parts of the contemporary Asian art scene with their individual senses of urgency, he said.

“Both of them create a sort of parallel universe with how they interpret reality,” Mr. Tso said in a recent phone interview. “At some level, they manage to alienate themselves from the existing reality and they try to rearrange that reality. They perceive and filter and recalibrate to whatever is happening around them. I see that in both of their works.”

Mr. Ni, 34, grew up and lives in Hsinchu, about an hour from Taipei. With degrees from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Rhode Island School of Design, he spent three years in New York City before returning to Taiwan in 2018, and the next year had a solo show at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. He has exhibited across Asia and around the world.

For Frieze London, Mr. Ni is creating two 3-D sculptures that are a continuation of his series, “Fresh ttears, hot blood, wet kisses” from 2014. (The two T’s in “ttears” are intentional.) Each sculpture is made of three industrial air filters that each measure 2.5 feet wide by 4.5 feet tall. Mr. Ni attached letters and chrome emblems he collected from junkyard cars in Taiwan and the United States to spell, in English, the title of the piece, “Dedicatory Stele for You,” and words he randomly chose, such as blood, sweat, adrenaline and iridescent laceration, to portray how humans become ensnared in everyday objects, sometimes intensely.

“I also use small whimsical sculptures of dust, hair, papier-mâché and clay, all embedded into the paper filter with the letters and emblems as if they all went through the filters and got stuck, almost like a car going at high speed,” he explained. “It’s an act of impact. It’s a sort of everyday violence.”

Mr. Ni is using the concept of a grid system to portray how such a grid can represent modern life, he said.

“One of the focuses in my work is the idea of everyday life and how we construct the environment we live in,” Mr. Ni said. “I’m focusing on this visceral feeling of filtration and how speed and violence come into contact with something pure.”

For Ms. Shi, 31, who holds degrees from the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in Chongqing and the School of Visual Arts in New York, it’s about a different kind of connection, often a lack of one, at least on first observation. Gallery Vacancy will take around eight of Ms. Shi’s new paintings to Frieze London, and she’s been hard at work on them for the past couple of months.

“I’m glad I turned the stress to motivation,” she said with a laugh in a recent video interview. “It helped me get a new body of work.”

That body of work, untitled, will be similar to her style that Mr. Tso described as “a sense of suspended space while the objects depicted in the paintings are isolated in a more surrealist manipulation of shadows and light.” Her works have been shown around China and the United States. Frieze London will be her first show in Europe.

“I use painting as a way to connect the fragments of my daily visual experiences,” Ms. Shi said. “It’s not about a solid image. It’s something between abstract and recognizable. It’s defamiliarized.”

She said that she had always felt a certain need to surrender to what’s in front of her — to work in tandem with her subjects.

“I was watching an interview with Brian Eno about surfing, and he said it was about constantly being in negotiation with control,” she said. “This resonated with me. I’m vulnerable. I feel a large landscape beyond me. What I can do is connect the things around me.”

One of her works headed to London is “Leaf #3,” oil on linen, which, like several of her works for Frieze London, incorporates leaves, bark, light and shadow.

“You can see the leaves or the bark, but there is a kind of in between,” she said. “You can feel that duality. When I paint them, even though it’s just simple bark or a leaf, I am somehow connecting with them. I’m not interested in building my own style or visual language. I’m interested in connecting things.”

There was a specific sense of connection with the works for Frieze London, Ms. Shi said.

“You don’t always have the same amount of time to capture the viewer’s attention at an art fair,” she said. “The vibe is different from a gallery because everyone is absorbing a ton of work.”

And vibe and traffic are what it’s all about for Mr. Tso at this year’s Frieze London, since it’s one of the first chances for gallerists, artists and buyers to travel in and out of China without restrictions since the Covid pandemic. That has created more opportunities for Chinese artists — and for art aficionados coming to China, he said.

“We have this urgency to be reconnected,” Mr. Tso added. “Contemporary art is the international language. We need to stay connected with the global art scene.”

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