Between dimensions

Society & Culture

Shang Chengxiang's visions of the fantastical

Between Dimensions
Self-direction (2020) Oil on canvas / 200 x 310cm

This article was originally published on Neocha and is republished with permission.

The book Red Sorghum earned Chinese author Mo Yan the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2012. In the novel, folk tales, history, and contemporary ideas are merged together in a “hallucinatory realism” that captures the imagination of readers. It was novels such as this and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez that drove the unprecedented popularity of the literary genre magic realism in 1980s China. It is a genre that has allowed Chinese artists and writers to find new potential for their craft.

Shang Chengxiang creates magic-realistic paintings that take audiences on journeys through unparalleled wonders. With his works, he looks to visualize the hidden truths and desires of the unconscious mind. These sentiments can be manifested in dreams, a place where we all are able to assess what is happening in the deepest recesses of our subconscious. For Shang Chengxiang, dreams are a prism through which he conjures his fantastical.

Much of Shang’s work feels as if they’re produced through his stream of unconsciousness, with motifs and themes culled directly from the depths of a fantasy world. “In dreams, there are always unstable, vague emotions that you can’t identify for sure,” says Shang. “And those emotions are exactly what I look for.”

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Borderless No. 5 (2021) Graphite on paper / 60 x 60cm
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Untitled (2021) Graphite on paper / 60 x 60cm

Many of Shang’s works more resemble photos than paintings, peppered with lifelike details. For example Immortality, which portrays a giant beating heart entombed within an underground vault. Perhaps it’s a metaphor for an unspoken love or it could be a story of having to conceal one’s feelings deep inside as a means of protecting themselves or a significant other. Maybe it’s simply rhetorical; Shang is always somewhat reluctant to reveal his full thoughts behind each artwork, leaving room for diverse interpretations and re-imaginations.

Born and raised in Shenyang, Shang witnessed the city fall from grace as a place of significance in China–it was a city synonymous with heavy industry and is now China’s rustbelt. This change in the city reflects the broken dreams of many of the inhabitants as their lives became more difficult. It also offers an explanation of Shang’s path towards magical realism; as his hopes and dreams for the city diminished so he began to tap into fantasies to express his frustrations.

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Immortality (2018) Oil on canvas / 47.5 x 68.5cm
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Borderless No. 1 (2020) Oil on canvas / 200 x 300cm

Shang’s paintings also evoke a sense of awe. His compositions have a realistic foundation in which he inserts surreal objects such as the giant globe-like disco balls in Borderless No. 1. Two figures with their backs to us sit atop some stairs that lead to these disco balls. Their legs dangle off the edge like children on a tall chair. But clearly, these are adults, their gender unclear from our vantage point as they sit with backs to the viewer and peer directly into the glimmering spheres.

His artwork focuses on underlying human emotions, leaving his audience with an elusive ambiguity. “My work contains lots of emotions,” says Shang. “I love to set up the suspense in my work which enables people to think.” Like all great art, his works ask viewers to reflect on the meaning of this to us as individuals and what it may represent to the artist himself; does it even matter what he intended it to mean if it makes us think about the world in a new light?

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Multiple Dimensions (2020) Oil on canvas / 133 x 170cm
Divine Trace (2020) Oil on canvas / 160 x 160cm
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Self-direction No. 7 (2021) Oil on canvas / 180 x 200cm

There are many recurring motifs in Shang’s work, such as the ocean and bodies of water. Water, and the sea specifically, he believes, evokes a sense of the unknown. Multiple Dimensions is characteristic of Shang’s use of the ocean as a metaphysical space of mystery. In the painting, a black hole-like void emerges from the sea, bursting through the surface pursued by a wondrous psychedelic color field. Juxtaposed against this fantasy-like imagery is the photorealistic quality of the water—a Shang signature throughout his oeuvre—the detail in the splashing water convincing the viewer that this scene is credible.

Then there are motifs of space and the cosmos, another recurring theme throughout his oeuvre. In Thoughtsn, viewers are presented with a swirling galaxy floating in the corridor of an apartment building. The door of a room is open with the spiral galaxy–reminiscent of Andromeda–seeming to emerge from it. The juxtaposition of this nebula in a confined space alludes to the endless possibilities of the cosmic dreams of unconsciousness.

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Thoughtsn (2021) Oil on canvas / 145 x 200cm

The diversity of the mediums he uses is another distinct feature of Shang’s work. “I like oil because I am used to painting thick and heavy then leaving tiny marks with a fine brush,” he explains. “In this way, my art feels freer.” In his most recent paintings, however, he has begun experimenting with other mediums.

We No. 1 uses acrylic paint and takes viewers below the ocean surface. Beneath waves, two reef sharks swim above a house covered in snow. Inside the window, two backlit figures stand with their backs to each other. Despite the subtlety of the body language, the standoff between the sharks aptly captures the tension between the pair within the cabin.

Shang uses watercolor on paper in The Way You Look No. 2, again featuring an ocean beast this time a humpback whale. Another anonymous female figure is involved; she is standing on a piece of dead sea coral reaching out and gently touching the whale. The sense between human and creature is peaceful and loving with an underlying sadness, the type of dream where you awake and almost want to cry but don’t know why.

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We No. 3 (2021) Acrylic on canvas / 60 x 80cm
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We No. 2 (2021) Acrylic on canvas / 60 x 80cm
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We No. 1 (2021) Acrylic on canvas / 50 x 60cm

Shang Chengxiang’s latest works focus on the concept of space and time, with circular and spiral movements, and human thoughts and emotions held within this framework. Although seemingly ambiguous, his art draws viewers in and leaves them contemplating on the line between fantasy and reality. That is the beauty of his art: it is witty and thought-provoking yet also simply beautiful to look at.

His latest exhibition, Sunshine on Another Afternoon, is Shang’s third solo show at ART LABOR Gallery. This show delves deeper into his surrealist practice, including 19 new works, and brings the audience ever closer to the artist’s quest to uncover the mysteries of the universe.

Contributor: Misha Maruma

Chinese Translation: Olivia Li