This article by curator and professor Yu Xingze analyses and interprets the latest paintings by Chinese artist Shi Shaoping (1968). His works can be seen until 28 May 2023 in the solo exhibition “The Metamorphosis Series – The Infinite Images” at the Chun Art Museum Shanghai. Shi Shaoping was born in 1968 and was mainly inspired by the 1980s. This generation of artists was marked by a period of rapidly growing global capitalism, political upheaval, significant wealth inequality, mass media and flashy music and fashion, including electronic pop music and hip-hop. The 1980s was the time of the African famine, the height of the Cold War and also its end, marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall. The author Yu Xingze (1976) is a Chinese artist and professor of architecture and urban planning who works in Beijing, Shanghai and Bochum. The Chun Art Museum in Shanghai presents and researches modern and contemporary artworks as a non-profit art museum.
The work of the Chinese artist Shi Shaoping is dedicated to the exploration of memory. The painter employs two key concepts in the narrative context of his works: memory and time. His “narrative graffiti” painting presents actions and characters in a special way. Depicted characters and the narrated stories freely and independently create an endless imaginary space and experience a new emphasis within the contextual framework. This article particularly emphasises the importance of “narrative graffiti” painting and sets out its status.
The history of graffiti as part of contemporary art
At the beginning of the 21st century, graffiti became a worldwide cultural movement and artistic phenomenon, and many graffiti creators are now world-renowned artists whose works are exhibited not only in public spaces but also in museums and galleries. They usually use elements such as patterns, words, symbols and signs to express their views on society, and thus graffiti has become a part of contemporary art that reflects all aspects of society and has also become an artistic style with cultural symbolic meaning. “They reflect the will of the urban visual culture and convey many different cultural values. In China, graffiti as an art form distinct from mainstream art and fine art is not as widespread and recognised as in Europe and the United States, but it has a long history of record. Its history can be traced back to the Han Dynasty. In the biography of Wei Heng in the Han Emperor Ling’s book Jin, it is mentioned that the great calligrapher Shi Yiguan liked to write on the wall. Just like the act of graffiti described in Lu Tong’s Tang Dynasty poem, “Take ink suddenly on the inkstone, smear it on a poetry album and draw a shape like a duck”, graffiti refers to the naughty act of scribbling and is the earliest source of the word graffiti in China. Many ancient Chinese literati liked to doodle after drinking. For example, Zhang Xu, a great calligrapher of the Tang Dynasty, loved to paint walls and desks in addition to drinking. This type of graffiti is historically known as “wall inscription”, and most inscriptions are poems, not paintings. Shi Shaoping has studied Chinese calligraphy and gained a wealth of experience in writing. In his recent paintings, he applies techniques similar to those of pen and ink to present a complete narrative structure with narrative content, full of fantasy and humour, while reflecting on some phenomena of contemporary society and expressing his concern and thoughts about the problems caused by these phenomena.
Form and expressive features of narrative texts
Shi Shaoping’s new works use two common text forms: Writing and Painting. He uses words to express his views and attitudes, and these words can be divided into two forms: visual written text, i.e. content, and painted connotation of the story, i.e. writing. In this way, the writing and the painting are translated into written sentences, and the visible written words resolve the doubts created by the audience’s understanding of the painting. The arbitrary colour combined with the flexible lines reveals the natural and free visual scene of play and arbitrariness, which is similar to the landscape paintings in the critical logic of the Jin and Tang Dynasties, “resolving the conflict between morality and nature, reason and sensibility, the self and the world”, and has similarities with the ink opera in Chinese painting. It has become a unique painting pattern in Shi Shaoping’s recent works, where aesthetic logic is more real and moving than ideological logic; and his works also explore more possibilities of painting between certainty and randomness. He uses rough, straight lines to depict the power behind the figure, which also breaks away from the basic characteristics of writing.
Artistic freedom depends on the independence of artistic quality. Therefore, conscious decision is the basis of artistic freedom, which is also the prerequisite for the independence and self-perfection of the creative subject. Self-strengthening constitutes the inner core of the human spiritual world and also forms the most valuable essential characteristics of the free spirit. Shi Shaoping emphasises free creation, self-expression and individuation of the narrative. In the course of his creative work, he has abandoned the established constraints and norms of painting and allowed his imagination to run free in a free, relaxed and unconstrained state to express his inner feelings and sincere thoughts about life. The contents of his painting reveal the rich inner world of man and also the trace of modern Chinese intellectuals’ aspiration for a spiritual home, which achieves the functional goal of art in the real world and provides a spiritual motivation for the reconstruction of the conscious character of contemporary Chinese painters. Regardless of the form of painting, its high form is to establish a self-regulating system with infinite creative ability from consciousness to spirit, and the creative power of the subject can show infinite brilliance. Shi Shaoping embraced life with an active attitude and became a “rebel” in the Shanghai painting school of his time. His painting style combines free expression with quiet reflection on human nature, reflecting his view of the cruel side of human nature. He harnesses the spirit of free exploration to observe the state of social change. Therefore, his artistic freedom actually refers to a non-free creative path from freehand sketching of human nature to social criticism. Only by advocating self-awareness and self-thinking and self-judging can we achieve true freedom of mind and action. It is the so-called “unity of nature and man” that can achieve the greatest degree of physical and spiritual freedom. Like the ancient Chinese hermits living in the countryside and mountains, they seek freedom of the spirit in the intertwining of ideal and reality.
Shi Shaoping believes that free creation is the life force of art and the core element of artistic behaviour that can truly reflect the artist’s feelings, personality and thoughts. Through self-expression, artists can transform their innermost feelings and ideas into visual images so that they can truly communicate with the audience. Shi Shaoping’s recent paintings emphasise “self-expression”. Through the language of the paintings, the childlike and open nature of “self” and “expression” is disseminated. The alternation of images, the continuation of the same theme in different background fields and the deliberate reiteration of the theme with the change of narrative content present a structured three-dimensional image to the audience. He makes use of temporal space and figurative themes, and uses simple colours and lines to capture the narrative content structured by these themes in different fields. Considering the canvas as an ordinary object, Shi Shaoxing seeks the free nature of painting by repeating the rhythm and content of the painting, such as the simple and general images of fishermen, harpoons, birds, boats, water and various things. These rich contents seem to come from Shi Shaoping’s own experiences, and combined with the scenes of him gaining independence after a separation, the figures in his works become free individuals. It is a subjective and intermittent painting that constantly dilutes the characteristics of people and objects in different situations to remind the viewer that the people and objects he paints are just simple symbols. Unintentionally, he transforms all attempts to analyse and understand the main idea of the content into a light and pleasant visual reading.
The “narrative” in the expression of narrative painting usually does not refer to a simple description, but shows a multi-layered and multi-dimensional narrative structure through the intersection of people and scenery. This also becomes a connection that evokes empathy and emotion in communication and interaction with the audience. The intersection of people and events is a central element of narrative. In narrative art, the final conclusion of events is achieved through the actions of characters, but the characters in Shi Shaoping’s works are understated rather than highlighted. However, this does not mean that the characters in the works lose their role as the main narrative; on the contrary, their integration into the situation enhances the unfolding of the story.
His narrative method uses the “sketch” and the “one-act” to complete the image of the character, eliminating the character’s personality traits and creating the effect of “watching from a distance”. He strives to destroy the existing paradigm of narrative painting. The performance of de-characterisation does not allow the spectator’s eye to see the external features of the characters or the concentrated description of psychology, but highlights the features of the “sketch”, i.e. there is no pre-planned composition.
Quick, casual brushstrokes overlay different colours, textures and shapes to create the effect of a fragmented scene. Even a portrait painting contains or hides narrative elements and presents a distinct, dramatic texture of life. The improvised paintings of “sketch” are very close to oneself, and line sketches and colours are juxtaposed with outlines derived from objective objects, making them objective symbols and narrative expressions of contrasting scenes.
Presence, Intervention, Memory and Display of Graffiti
Shi Shaoping’s new works do not adhere to the boundaries of traditional painting or words, but break through conventional definitions by interweaving and overlaying inscribed symbols. His paintings also pay homage to real life scenes, with the elegance of literary paintings and the full emotions of real life. After learning about the world, Shi Shaoping draws from the details of life, reflecting his disdain for false and empty “concepts” and his longing for real life situations. Few brushstrokes combined with multi-dimensional structural relationships depict the flashing moments of life in eternal fragments. These fragments seem to use the quiet “moment” as representative languages, fully interpreting the schematic concepts of the “decisive moment” and “less is more”, as well as the dynamic effect of white space and temperate painting on the appearance of the painting, forming the specificity of his expressive technique. He establishes a certain hypothetical positional relationship between people, scenes, events, places and cultural elements, as well as continuous fields of change of multiple places and the same object, and tries to anticipate interventions and interventions in the existing order, creating a “graffiti” of various themes and characters, situations and connections, stories and fables that are intertwined internally and externally. Whether Shi Shaoping ends up narrating the findings or emphasising the importance of the painting process, it openly reveals the presence of the artist himself. He embeds various kinds of personal states of mind in flowing colours and dry brushstrokes, and this present narrative becomes an important feature of his textual presentation.
Shi Shaoping’s presence is reflected in his habit of using several similar symbols in his paintings, such as harpoons, fishermen, fishing boats and rivers. He borrows these familiar contents to write different chapters of his story. The mountains and rivers seem to have become his most emotional destination, and leisurely fishing has become a paradise in his heart. But Shi Shaoping “thinks of the hustle and bustle of the city even though he is in the mountains and forests”, and misses the so-called “world on earth” and the “hustle and bustle of the city”. “He thinks of the noise of the city while he hears the frogs singing.” This nostalgia stems from an instinctive reminiscence of the hustle and bustle of city life and human emotions. His series of works with allegorical and hortatory content therefore includes such vivid paintings as “The Blind Man and the Elephant”, “Mr Dongguo” and “Zengzi Slaughters the Pig”. He even borrows directly from traditional stories, such as “Spear and Shield” and “Waiting for a Rabbit to Kill Itself”, which are both suggestive and allegorical, conveying multiple reflections on circumstances, changes and turbulence in the complex real world.
Shi Shaoping emphasised the formal value of painting itself and its important place in the concept. His emphasis on the characteristics of painting also reflects his emphasis and respect for his own cultural semantics and reflects his human nature and behaviour in reality from the perspective of memory. When the audience sees these complex and multi-layered paintings, the individual sense of shame is accompanied by the memory of past hypocritical behaviour, and the induction of this shame has a certain degree of vigilance and inhibiting function for hypocritical behaviour.
Shi Shaoping has always been fascinated by the concept of memory and reflects on the discussion of memory and time in his works. Human memory is the cornerstone of an individual’s knowledge and identity, while time is a benchmark for recording the course of life. He seeks to explore the relationship between memory and time in painting, using different elements to organically integrate the two and create a space of emotional intervals and intertwined images. Memory in his new work is a vague, even secret existence, as evidenced by his use of ambiguous imagery, distorted positions and fractured forms to signify the uncertainty of memory. On the other hand, he explores the influence of time on memory by using cold, unforgiving illustrations to show the helpless thoughts caused by the gradual disappearance of memory. The cultural character implied by Shi Shaoping’s memories is embodied in an “object” associated with memory. The “object” is used in the memory mode to enable viewers to remember the past and strengthen their sense of identity. One of the characteristics of memory is that it is group-oriented, with unconscious forms of “implicit memory” that are constantly reconstructed and influence the present and future course of life. The spectator’s memory may disappear with the chaotic memory fragments of the past, but its schematic content enables the spectator to seek new carriers and reconstruct the cognitive link between the spectator’s memory of the past and the current life situation. Goethe said, “Life seems most vulgar, so simple as to satisfy the ordinary things of everyday life, but life is always secretly obsessed with certain higher demands and seeks the means to satisfy them; where there is no interest, there is no memory; Shi Shaoping believes that fixing memories in a certain place can not only maintain memory for a long time, but also confirm the value of memories. Memory and time are living symbols that, in the process of overlapping and coming together, will always provide a sense of cultural identity of “being endowed”.
Although time constantly wears away memories, narrative always reawakens memories so that fragments of distant and fragmentary memories and behaviours can be glued together to form the collective power of memory in time. This power is controlled and constrained by the ego and is linked to time, which in turn changes attitudes towards it. When memory is endowed with self-knowledge, it multiplies a continuous function by locating the present and the past in the same time and space in the temporal dimension. The examination of past cognitions expands consciousness and raises it to a new level. The individual’s self-awareness is not expanded, but he or she becomes aware of a certain behaviour and situation in the past and has a predictive effect for the present or for the future. This is also the prominent role of “memory” in Shi Shaoping’s narrative structure, and it also provides a rich plot and material for his paintings. Shi Shaoping suppresses this complex and changing memory content and tries his best to give each independent plot a loose but pervasive visual impact by creating an endless imaginary space for the repeatedly mentioned people and objects. By using the means of spatial order, he leads the audience to deeply perceive the limits of the concept of time and space, which is further emphasised within his own context. The unsightly content becomes the driving force for future painting practice and the path and basis for the interpretation and analysis of his painterly courage.
Record, Perception, Insight and Meaning of Graffiti
The memory Shi Shaoping presents through his observation and positive view is not romanticised and idealised, but presents the content of “source memory” in an imperfect way against a selective and open background. Reflecting on his past experiences became an opportunity for Shi Shaoping to adapt and reinterpret his memories, which are based on objective facts but also have a personal subjective addition. Therefore, Shi Shaoping selects events (or allusions) according to his own experiences, understanding and needs, and always maintains the inner relevance and comprehensibility of events in his works. In Shi Shaoping’s early, seemingly lyrical paintings, there are always obvious features of social records. Even landscape schemes or topical portraits are only selective records of everyday scenes, events and people, but these works can serve as a reference and contrast for later similar events or disputes in those events, becoming a reflective narrative full of existential dilemmas and a kind of record of theatrical performances. For Shi Shaoping, the events and stories themselves are easy to explain because they have a contradictory side, like the confusion that exists in the absurd middle, and “existence” and “meaning” become the two ends of the spectrum. In this dilemma, sometimes there are dramatic connections (performances) that are like scenes from real life, apart from the confusion and expectations, there are no emotions like anxiety and fear, and there is no element of doubt about reality.
Today’s painting has entered the infinite expansion of the succession of relationships, and the extraordinary display of diverse painting techniques shows the unique and fascinating charm that painting should have, and the summary seems to be the shackles to understanding painting. Under the influence of postmodernism, “conceptual discourse” became an inviolable right that restricted the purity and independence of painting, and the free expression of the painter seemed to become an unattainable dream. Moreover, in the practice space of the intelligent age, the logic of the creative subject of art is no longer organised around the definition of the human being alone; however, for the perception of art, painting becomes a practical proof of the presence of the absolute human being who also responds to the infinite expansion of possibilities. Even though painting is named as a relatively distinct concept in the cultural context, it is clear that the space of painting has begun to reflect and appreciate the expansion of human perception by using many different media in a certain relationship to occupy each position continuously or repeatedly. Therefore, the evaluation and discussion of painting and the value and significance of painting itself have become important theses in current art research. But the artist’s thinking and practice cannot be ignored, they are key in this research, and to attempt to plunder and cover them up would be a conceptual distortion and a conceptual manipulation of painting. Similarly, the artist’s position and role should be protected from “pollution” by logical discourse, and he must erect an effective barrier against theoretical assertions that have been thwarted or attempted to be transgressed, and adopt a stubborn stance such as scientific impeccability or political resistance, thereby strengthening his own independent spirit of thought. The value of art also lies in the fact that the spirit of art can penetrate and influence people’s lives; this is also the functional message conveyed through the perceptual interaction of art.
Today’s science and technology support artistic creation, and art is evolving into an immediate sensory experience through the interweaving and interpenetration of multiple media. In the case of old paintings, the aesthetic features and psychological communication of the images still require active appreciation by the audience. The two-dimensional, static nature of painting makes it increasingly unlikely that the audience will participate in the intervention. The question of whether it can get the audience to participate in and understand the artist’s creative process and image connotation is raised again for painting in this era, and it is also a test of painting’s continued survival on the shelf. However, painting is not a universal tool, let alone an image enjoyed by everyone’s visual senses, and it is only a realisation that shows the state of human existence. Therefore, it cannot reach a consensus with everyone, nor can it meet the demand for a complete deconstruction of painting. Shi Shaoping’s paintings are the visual vehicles of his personal demands. His paintings are a serene formal language with a thematic narrative that translates familiar stories into emotive images and passages. Moreover, in contemporary art where concepts are paramount, artists are often absent, and “body presence” has become a rare act in contemporary art; painting can also directly reflect the feeling of life, and all traces of the artist’s paintings become an effective support for his concept construction; secondly, the practical dilemma in which the “body” finds itself is necessarily represented in the performance of painting, but this does not mean that the body becomes a shadow element in painting, but a renewed emphasis on the sensitive and creative body. Moreover, the artist’s “body presence” and the manifestation of the “spirit of action” will be the two media that provide the audience with the interpretation of his concept in order to return to the “perceptual experience” of current painting.
Graffiti as the deep self
Narratives, physical actions and figurative ideas are conveyed in the gap between the passing of time, and time cannot linger and slow down, which also means that time cannot be squeezed and stretched, but the “spirit of presence” in time and space can convey lasting faith. Indeed, Shi Shaoping has long been filled with indifference to fame and fortune. The narrative in his work becomes his sober response to art, and it is also the openness he shows in questioning the existing laws and paradigms of art; he does not intend to create a typical image of “high morality” and “superhero” to attack the fortress of values that has been erected for a long time, but leads us to walk through the mountains and rivers and crowd to recover the memories of the world that have been slowly disappearing for a long time. Shi Shaoping is not constrained by the art of the time, so the definition of his term “narrative graffiti” is not accurate, because the discourse system in his artworks does not focus on the critique of absurd philosophy, unjust events and unjust logic, but on the perceptual and intuitive expression of images. As Hegel stated in Aesthetics, “The task of art is to represent reality in the form of sensuous images and to draw its source from the sensuous world.” Based on the unlimited transmission of information, Shi Shaoping’s artworks paint the “deep self” under intuition with instinctive needs and cognitive outpourings. These are not very logical-analytical series of “graffiti” that spread the deep self on his canvas.
Text: Prof. Yu Xingze, verfasst am 15. Mai 2023
Translation: Chinese > English, English > German
Image captions: Shi Shaoping & Cai Chunyi
About the author
Yu Xingze was born in 1976 in Liaoning Province, China. He studied at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf with Jörg Immendorff and with Professor Jürgen Meyer at the Kunstakademie Kassel, among others, as well as architecture at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts Beijing and graduated with a doctorate. As an artist, he became known for his painting on a translucent canvas. Xingze is an associate professor and master’s supervisor at Tonji University in Shanghai. His main research directions: Theory and practice of modern and contemporary art, artificial intelligence and digital art, intelligent art in public space.
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 Shi Yiguan: A Chinese calligrapher of the Eastern Han Dynasty. Born and died circa 157-234 AD, he was active between Emperor Ling of the Eastern Han Dynasty and Emperor Xian. He lived in Nanyang, Henan Province. He was a general under Yuan Shu. He was particularly good at octopus, an ancient style of Chinese calligraphy.Wei Heng of the Western Jin Dynasty recorded in Calligraphy Postures of Four Styles that Shi Yiguan was the most famous calligrapher during the Ling Emperor period.
 Lu Tong: An poet in the Tang dynasty. Born and died circa 795-835 AD. He was the grandson of the four-talented Poets in early Tang Dynasty. His ancestral home is Fanyang (Zhuozhou, Hebei Province). He is good at writing poetry, proficient in writing, and is also revered as the Tea God. He has a bold personality and an extraordinary temperament. He is an important representative of the Han Yu and Meng Jiao Poetic School .
 Zhang Xu: A Chinese Calligrapher of the Tang Dynasty. Born and died circa 685-759 AD, his ancestral home was Wu County (Suzhou, Jiangsu) Province. He is good at cursive writing and likes to drink.
 It’s from a Song Dynasty poem by Han Wei (1017-1098).
 Source memory: it refers to the recall of an event or its contextual details, requiring the collection of different features of the information, such as background information.