Photo-painter creates stories without words

Liu Xiaolin
"The Drawn Out Moment" is artist Shi Guowei's first major retrospective, featuring 21 of his artworks, created from 2006 to this date.
Liu Xiaolin
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Shot by Hu Jun. Edited by Zhong Youyang. Subtitles by Yang Yang.

Artist Shi Guowei still remembers “the sticky moment” when he found his artworks could not be categorized as either photographs or paintings.

“But very soon, I was flooded with euphoria,” he said. “I’m one of the marginalized, that’s so cool!”

Devoted to his own approach of “photo-paintings,” he enjoys “straddling the borderline,” and walking in between the two art forms.

Today, he is lauded as one of the rising stars of the Chinese contemporary art world. Almost all the works showcased at his current solo exhibition in Shanghai are on loan from buyers and collectors, said Karen Smith, curator of Shanghai Center of Photography.

Photo-painter creates stories without words
Dai Qian

Artist Shi Guowei poses in front of his work “Early Spring Polar Tree.”

“The Drawn Out Moment” is the 44-year-old’s first major retrospective, featuring 21 of his artworks, created from 2006 to this date.

The past 15 years has seen remarkable changes in his art creation, especially the narratives and approach.

“Back in 2008, I was a young cynic with a lot to say,” Shi said.

Focused on people and social topics, his art is intense with bright colors. However, he soon found the narratives powerless and superficial.

After 2013, Shi started to explore an introverted approach of expression, focusing his lens on the ordinary of everyday life.

“I still have a lot to say, but in a much reserved way,” he said.

Photo-paintings give him a way out, to express “what goes beyond words.”

He likes to work with a large-format camera, capturing some of the most ordinary views and objects that somehow intrigued him with “familiar strangeness.” He then chemically developed his black-and-white prints onto photographic papers and meticulously hand-painted the photos layer-by-layer.

Shi first tried his hands at hand-coloring photographs during his graduation year when studying photography at the Fachhochschule, Dortmund.

Whilst acrylic color is the common pigment used in the ages-old technique, thanks to its efficiency of coloring, Shi took on watercolor as a challenge.

“With watercolor, you have to think very clearly beforehand, because once you start, there’s no way back. You have to keep pushing forward,” the artist said, adding it is also a way to train himself in perseverance.

“So is life. Once you decide, you have to accept any consequence without hesitation,” he added.

“But it’s also quite exciting. Even if you seem to wander off the right road, who knows where it will end if you keep walking? What if you finally come back to the right one?”

Hand-painting with watercolor is time-consuming, which requires strong cohesion in mind, eyes and hands.

It usually takes 30 days for Shi to finish one piece of work, which normally measures 150cm by 180cm. He compared painting on large-scale photos to canoeing, forging ahead alone against the mood swings.

“You think it will be easy at first,” Smith recounted on her try at hand-painting photos. “A single stroke, the entire work is undone, and all your brilliance collapses like a house of cards.”

Through photo-paintings, Shi attempts to challenge the notion that photography being the objective form of reproducing objects.

Before coloring, he compiles two or three shots, taken from different angles, into one photo, just to break the common laws of perspective in which objects recede into the distance.

“It is slightly related to the cavalier perspective in traditional Chinese landscape painting, but what I actually want is something flat,” Shi said.

“I’d like to present objects with every aspect from the front, which I believe to be the most real. That’s why you may find the image a bit strange but cannot tell what’s wrong, because it’s seamlessly collaged in a logic way.”

When applying colors, he paints intuitively, channeling his emotions and memories of the objects or views when the shutter clicks.

“Each person has their own understanding of the same color. So I decide to choose tones I think are suitable to make the work lively and accurate.”

People’s understandings of the same artwork also vary.

“The audience may find the works appealing while what I was trying to express is anxiety. Why can’t people read through my works?” Shi asked, feeling frustrated at first. Now he gets to understand and accept it.

His recent 2020 work “Early Spring Polar Tree” stands out for its portrayal of hope and recovery.

The piece captures a budding polar tree, a common plant in northern China, outside the window of Shi’s house in Beijing.

He took the photo in 2019 but had no time to color it until the coronavirus lockdown.

“I was very depressed when the pandemic hit. A lot of things changed, life deceased, people gone,” he said.

“I really needed something positive to inspire myself, so I found this piece and started coloring.”

Through the years, his techniques have slowly evolved. He’s got over the obsession of hiding the brush strokes so as to trick the audience into believing these are real color photos. Clear brush strokes used to mean flaws to him. But one day, he decided to play on them, to “emphasize on the attribute of painting.”

He also paints each and every frame of his works, as a finishing touch.

“Sometimes, I thought I was a carpenter, learning how to paint the right color without covering the wood grain,” he joked.

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