Karen Smith | A Walk in the Woods with Shi Guowei

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By Karen Smith

In the recent years, since his return from studies at the Fachhochschule Dortmund in Germany, Shi Guowei has evolved a singular, and compelling, style of visual expression. This resides in a subtle, and deft, combination of photography and painting. Specifically, between black and white photographs that he makes in conventional fashion by observing scenes and documenting his observations, and an approach to hand-colouring the photographs that unfolds over an extended period of time. This process requires steadfast coordination of eye and hand, first through the camera lens and then via the highly controlled daubing of a brush. And, similar to the successful deployment of many artistic forms through history, the combination of materials and execution together expresses much more than might be assumed from a pragmatic description, or the label “hand-coloured photo”.

Outwardly, superficially, the subject of Shi Guowei’s recent endeavour, as evidenced in the group of new works presented in “A Walk in the Woods”, is landscape, or rather nature, used in a generic or slightly abstract form that eschews the particular. Within the context of Shi Guowei’s immediate cultural framework, this content and approach to using it may not be surprising, since, in terms of the traditional arts, of ink and literati painting, landscape is almost always esoteric, a resource deployed to conjure a spiritual state via means of a metaphoric, rather than a purely descriptive, lexicon of motifs. Similarly, Shi Guowei is less concerned with depicting a physical resemblance of nature, than with finding means to illuminate an inner world of experiences and abstract emotions. This, he does, with a quiet, subtle skill. So much so that, courtesy of his masterful combination of straight documentary photography with a lengthy manual process of colouring, his “photo-paintings” are imbued with a metaphysical force, and an aura of the sublime.

Shi Guowei himself uses the terms “photo-painting” to describe his works. Each individual piece begins from a photograph, and is always one he has taken himself first, by going out and discovering a place. This physical motion, as an act of self-immersion in nature and the climatic atmospherics of a particular location, is important to the process of identifying the scene that will be the basis of a composition. Working with a large format camera, he makes a careful set of frames. None of the final photo-paintings are intended to present the scene as it might have appeared to the artist on site, nor how it might appear to us were we to find ourselves on the same spot. Shi Guowei is an artist who turns to a camera as a tool for producing source material rather than a finished product.

Once the photograph is made, then the painting portion of the process begins. The thinking here is not a simple appropriation of one medium to another. Shi Guowei spent several years obtaining a masters’ degree in photography in Germany, where he acquired mastery of photographic techniques and experienced an immersion in the craft of dark-room printing. One of those techniques was the hundred-odd-year-old method of applying coloured ink to black-and-white photographs, which made them appear to be colour photos and a livelier rendition of reality. This practice naturally began in an era when colour photography had yet to be invented and was hard to imagine. And, when the slightly surreal results of the added-on hues were not only understood as manmade additions, but were wholly accepted as approximations of the real, in spite of their affected exaggeration and strangeness. The pigment toning of black-and-white photos was a feature of photography in China early in its history, when technicians showed remarkable mastery of inking (relatively) life-like layers across monochrome images. Not least, through the mid-20th century, which produced a rich array of ideologically-inspired pictures, hand-coloured by turn to the tenets of a positive, warm glow and unmistakable revolutionary timbre. In this period, the saturated tonality was rather perfectly suited to the visual requirements of the political messages that images were conceived to convey. The approach that Shi Guowei pursues takes a rather divergent course, eschewing the decorative or the ideological, in favour of a form far more illusory.

So, whilst Shi Guowei may have made a fine photographer, he was also possessed of a strong interest in painting, which could not be denied. Thus, the practice he has adopted and evolved satisfies both interests, offering a neat solution to these parallel concerns. At the same time, it consciously blurs the boundary between painting and photography, undermining the apparent reality of a photograph with the conceptual invention of a painting in ways that are deceptive because they are barely apparent.

The very earliest examples of Shi Guowei’s experiments in this field were focused in their subject-matter and content upon objects from natural history; the kind of specimen preserved using taxidermy that are found in natural history museums. Gradually, over time, he turned to living examples of nature in the outside world, and to working on a far larger scale than initially envisaged. And with some success; the most recent works are confident, succinct, and noticeably large. They show that nature is less his Muse than a highly efficient prop, for they are certainly not intended to be read simply as natural scenes, but as musings on mood and psychological states. “Because the process of hand-colouring takes time, I become deeply engaged with the images,” he explains, “gradually interpreting the content that lies within the pictures through the prism of my emotions. These emotions, the fluctuations in my own mood, directly influence my use of colour and the manner of the brushwork. It often seems that day to day I am working to a different narrative.”

The large scale of each print means significant ground has to be covered – quite literally – hence the time it takes for a photo-painting to be completed. It is this expanded element of time that gives rise to the fluctuations alluded to above. Changes in mood or energy levels, lapses in concentration and attention are inevitably documented in the finished work as shifts in tone and intensity.

Painting on a photo still sounds like a fairly simple process, and yet, like the delicate skills required to master Chinese brush painting, with which it has much in common, it is more complex that a paint-by-numbers style of filling in blank spaces on a monochrome map. Complex because Shi Guowei’s application of a thin layer of colour to a photograph is not meant to be obvious. He wants viewers to be almost duped by a first impression, and feel drawn to look again by a nagging doubt about something in the picture they can’t quite put a finger on. To achieve this, the managing of scale is certainly one of the challenges. Hand-colouring uses a water-based ink with the qualities of water-colour pigment. And like water-colour painting, it has to be done with aforethought – there is no means of altering, or correcting mistakes by painting over them. The artist has but one chance to get it right. That requires not only manual dexterity, but consistency in mental attention, and emotional intensity. This is complicated by the fact that Shi Guowei relies upon memory to complete his illusion of reality. There are memories specific to the place in the photograph, which are Shi Guowei’s primary focus. At the same time, it is a natural habit that, in moments of uncertainty, or of lapses in concentration, the brain falls back upon the conscious/unconscious resource it accumulates through life experiences of reality, and of seeing and absorbing nature’s subtle atmospherics. As such, it would be easy for an artist to resort to acquired habit of seeing or learned skill at describing nature, rather than letting go and working intuitively. “I have always thought that ‘colour’ is a highly personal perception,” he asserts. “Each person has their own understanding of the same colour, which is the reason I believe emotional colour to be the most real. I chose tones I think are suitable to make the work lively and accurate, but subjectively highlight the original colours in ways that are more stimulating to my mood. Such tones can only be obtained through human intervention, so the effect is not entirely unrealistic, nor entirely fantasy. It is somewhere in the middle.”

Like many young artists, Shi Guowei began with grand concepts, and the idea of art’s role in making big statements, its ability to change the world, each piece its own manifesto. Thus, early works attempted to explore, to visualise, social and cultural issues, but were, he felt, too illustrative, never transcending a literal narrative which the artist directed or constructed in too conscious a fashion. Perhaps he was already becoming aware of the limitations of time-specific social or political topics, or moved by intuition to make a change to his way of working. Either way, he found himself paying more attention to his own feelings life’s encounters, in Shi Guowei’s words, following a desire “to find and feel the resonance between things, and to find means to convey temperament through an image.” It is this journey that has brought him to the recent works in “A Walk in the Woods”, which certainly achieve his goal. Here, contradictions are discreetly embedded, and emotions subtly concealed in images that, at first glance, are seemingly calm and attractive. “But look closely and there’s an intense anxiety behind those images,” Shi Guowei suggest. In point of fact, this was also perfectly represented by previous works like Blue Forest 2016 and Grey Forest 2014, or even the seemingly straight forward Summer 2015. The tonality here projects a seductively surreal allure over scenes that are profoundly claustrophobic, cloyingly dense and promise to consume anyone fool enough to be lured into the promise of paradise they dangle before the eyes. A similar intense sensation emanates from the recent example Overlapping Plantlife (相互重叠的植物). In fact, the aura of almost all Shi Guowei’s recent works centres on various degrees of intense sensation, whilst offering thoughtful, and thought-provoking, points of reference to the external world, often in the form of forest, wood or tree.

Some theorists believe that photography today shows us “something of how we understand anything.” Perhaps not photography per se, and more the subjects or moments that are frozen in each frame. As a young aspiring artist once myself, I made a series of black-and-white photographs that I took in not one but multiple locations, of trees, near, far, and surrounding me. I did this in my third year of art school.

I had always liked trees – still do. There is an expression to their form and resonance to their motion that is distinctly lifelike, emotive. My response was impulsive at the time, although by the third year in art school, one has already expended a great deal of enthusiasm for doing, for theory, for more doing and more theory, and realised that it is the doing which is the hard part; that thinking too much at times does not overly contribute to the success of the final piece, in whatever form that might take. Intuitively, when you reach a mental roadblock you go back to the basics, to simplicity, in search of something, a mantra perhaps to meditate upon, as a means to understanding yourself and what it is you really want to express. Or, conversely, things that don’t require too much thinking, and that resonate for formal qualities alone and allow the mind time out. The trees in my pictures feel both friendly and threatening; a cosseting enclosure and obstructive barrier, depending upon the viewer’s mood, which is not unlike the sensations prompted by The Deserted Pine Forest (冷清的松林). At the time, driven by impulse, I didn’t think too much about what I was doing, or what I was trying to say. Later, as I looked at more and more art, I realised just how many artists, at all stages of their career and of all conceptual persuasions, have been drawn to making similar statements about trees. Admiring, yet hesitant, conscious, yet intuitive, each one looking, observing, struck by magnificence, a sprit, a living scene, or simply a mesh of lines, curves, shapes and shadows; the mystery of nature, as something bigger than ourselves, generation after generation.

Of course, in the cultural context of China, courtesy of the ink tradition, landscape retains a distinctive metaphoric resonance. Through his choice of subject for his photo-paintings, Shi Guowei seems to recognise this. His pictures transport us into a world of nature, of landscapes, of trees large, small, near and far, and in extraordinary detail, whilst simultaneously remaining somewhat abstract. They are aligned with that unconscious impulse that drove me to walk in a wood, being both about their subject, and having nothing to do with it at all. They signify nature, the objects they depict, but at the same time so much more. “My manual intervention (in images that appear to document reality) suit my way of looking at the world,” he says, “as well as my understanding of colour and its affect upon the senses. I use the familiar language (of nature and photography) to tell stories beyond words. The images are a sign language.”

One reason why Shi Guowei’s process comes at the question of objectivity in photography from a fresh direction lies in a further manipulation of our so-called “objective” senses or astute mind. Each “photo” is in fact not one but a combination of multiple images. Each single photo-painting is constructed from multiple frames seamlessly stitched together. To spot the illusion requires careful attention. Shi Guowei’s skill in deflecting attention away from the actual structure of the photographs lies primarily in their delicate colouration, which suggests a contrast with the present; a world from the past, suffused with an air of nostalgia. We are first distracted by colour, but if we allow ourselves to succumb to that nagging doubt about the “something not quite right” about the reality they project, we discover the subtle effect of the compilation of images, and that Shi Guowei’s photographs lack the single vanishing or focal point of a conventional photograph. There is an echo here of how British artist David Hockney uses the (stills and video) camera to produce impossible visual spaces. In one example, Hockney constructed a rig upon which multiple video cameras were mounted to each record the same scene as he drove the car atop of which the rig was fixed, resulting in a multiplicity of time and perspectives. As writer Arthur Kolat notes, “Unlike (Hockney’s) earlier photo collages which included a multitude of consecutive moments, The Four Seasons, Woldgate Woods 2010-2011, includes both consecutive time and simultaneous time.”

This is true of Shi Guowei’s panoramic scenes, which throw us off-balance in the subtlest of ways. To being with an obvious example, the intriguing Tilt from 2016 shows a line of trees with the familiar sky-ward thrust of the tree skewed off true. The visual effect is curious. Are the trees falling over? Did they simply grow this way? The mood is quiet, still, not unlike a similarly composed work The World’s End 2015, which prompts questions less for the odd nature of growth than for the absolute ordinariness of the elements featured.


One of the ways in which Shi Guowei’s photo-paintings share comparable traits with literati paintings is the invitation they extend to meander through the pictorial space – for the most part; there are exceptions, as we shall see. An example like Manufactured Landscape 2015 shows the more idyllic end of the emotional spectrum. Unobtrusive, modest, and comforting. We pass through the surface, over the objects, into a neutral space beyond to which the scenes provide an overture. And then we lose ourselves in our own thoughts. The recent works exude more jarring sensations. While Shi Guowei seems to invite viewers to talk a walk in the woods, some works actively repel us. One might compare the shimmering beauty of Birch () with Growth (生长), the latter a dense, almost monochrome piece in which the density of the trees conspires to keep us out. Following on, a work like Woods in Sunlight (阳光下的树林) opens up to us slightly, but still does not exactly extend a warm welcome to explore its sun-dappled glades. Where others works appear to open up, they feel somehow coy, and evoke the fragility of nature rather than its enduring spirit. To enter would be to infringe upon place, to cause damage in some way. This is more or less disturbing depending on your attitude towards trees or woods in general. As American author Robert Louis Stevenson wrote back in the 19th century; “It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanates from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.” I think this statement is prescient, and particularly apt for those sensitive to China’s cultural roots.

There is something about the mood and aura of the recent works that encourages the viewer to reflect upon the self, that speak of refining self along the lines that literati painters once sought to articulate through their lifestyles, their retreat from the world of (muddy) daily affairs of less-than-transparent men, of an immersion in poetry and painting and a life that demanded little from the external world, as an expression of the values they hoped to uphold. Today, such activities or comparisons may feel out of place, and yet they continue to exist in many of the choices by which people live their lives today, especially among those, like contemporary artists, who turn away from an active engagement in a society they have little chance of affecting. Shi Guowei’s photo-paintings could be understood as reminding us of our flaws and failings, and as mantras created to encourage ourselves to be better people.

Shi Guowei himself would never be so explicit in intent. Like the subtle, almost invisible nature of the colour he adds to his works, any direct comment or concept he seeks to express is barely apparent, to be intuited, possibly. And then, depends on your own perspective. What is not in doubt in the illusion at work across all the photo-paintings, nor the quality of the sublime which unites them. In the sixth century BC, the influential Chinese thinker Laozi offered the idea that the world external to our individual consciousness is but illusion. This topic has been the subject of philosophical endeavour in every culture and almost every age since, in philosophies that sought to articulate the interior-exterior relationship between Mankind and the world-outside-of-ourselves. Treatises on the subject, like that of Laozi, have become integral to the concepts that artistic expression, through history, and especially in China, came to embody. Today, the doubts Laozi expressed towards human perception of reality two thousand years ago resonate with this digital age of image-making and the manipulation to which any image maybe subject before it assumes it role as purveyor of truth before the societal gaze. The border between truth and illusion has never been so fluid. From a further point of discussion, we might compare a photo-painting like Cactus Garden (仙人掌公园 ) with Grass/Field (草地), or the more abstract Mountain of Flowers (山花), before moving on to the further abstract, wholly emotive aspects of Foam (泡沫), or Lichen. These are poetic provocations in every way, beautiful and subtle in their sensations. There is resonance here in the concept and the effect that the visual has upon cerebral experience with the concept of poetic imagination articulated by French philosopher Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962). Bachelard attempts to explain how the imagination is formed through a convergence of the language we speak being laid over experiences that are as much visual, as literary and perceptual. And, how these elements, as the data upon which the brain draws to understand/read/interpret what is seen of the world exterior to oneself, acquire their rose-tinted nature; and how this capacity for imagining, in a poetic sense, the external world within a particular space and time, and beyond recourse to verifiable or scientific fact. It refers to how these experiences feed the interior landscape of memories we retain, which then shape the way we look at the world; or what we seek to see when we look.

This is rather well reflected in what artists do generally with the illusions of reality they invest in their art, but is expressed with particular eloquence in Shi Guowei’s photographs. It is why, aside from the meditative and pleasurable aspects of the manual labour, the painting portion takes so long. “I have always believed that art and craft are closely related,” he explains. “You can’t abandon craft and simply talk about concept; if you can’t realize your concept, then there is no work and no meaning. Because the inks don’t allow for any mistake, I have to pay close attention to each brushstroke, to control my breathing as much as the amount of pigment on the brush.”

The hint of literati values that infuses a very contemporary practice is marked where Shi Guowei says “Working slowly is a very precious thing. Human life is so short that we only have the chance to appreciate the meaning of living when we slow down. I work to describe what words cannot; to activate dulled nerves. It is one of the central meanings of art.”

Perhaps that is why nature has a compelling voice in Shi Guowei’s art. As German author Hermann Hesse once wrote, “Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.”

This is, succinctly. the law that lends Shi Guowei’s art its ethos and raison d’êtré.