WANG GIVES US MOMENTS FROM DREAMS. ACROSS BEAUTIFUL CANVASES OF HABOTAI SILK, HER DELICATE BRUSH REPEATS IMAGES AND FIGURES. LIKE A DREAM, THESE IMAGES POINT TO MEANING, HINT AT SOME TRUTH THAT'S HIDDEN OUT OF SIGHT.
There’s a strangeness to recurring dreams; a familiarity, a sadness. We sleep and dream and in the dream, perhaps, we recognise our surroundings. If only we could recognise our state of consciousness we might dream lucidly; instead, we relive moments, meetings, places and experiences. Images, patterns that return and which we only recognise when we wake - when it’s too late. Glasgow-based artist Shipei Wang gives us these moments from dreams. Across beautiful canvases of Habotai silk, her delicate and thoughtful brush repeats images, objects and figures. Like a dream, these images point to meaning, hint at some truth that’s hidden out of sight. Like a dream they are unknowable, un-literal. They are not didactic: there is no code. These paintings truth lies instead in atmosphere, emotions. Images are not a metaphor; Wang’s language is more universal. Caught in surreal scenes, her figures hint at something wider; isolation and identity, the place in-between us and the world, between the conscious and the unconscious. The place mediated by dreams. With a [very special collaboration? New limited-edition print on the way?] Terra Cotta Prints caught up with Shipei to learn more how she paints and what she hopes to achieve.
Tell us about your background in painting, and how began working with silk instead of canvas?
I didn't really paint that much at art school - you’re kind of encouraged to do more than “just paint”. After graduating, I moved back towards more directly visual forms like painting and drawing, the media I felt most familiar with. After getting back into painting, I went to Tibet, where I first saw Thangka Scrolls. They use silk, or very similar fabric, and pigments, and they paint on it. Some of them are ancient, and they were just beautiful. The way that the pigment sits, how it soaks up; what it does to colour: it makes green just a tiny little bit greener than if it were painted on a canvas or something else.
So I started experimenting with silk. At that point, I was already doing quite detailed stuff, and I just didn't really enjoy using more traditional sorts of canvas. It’s a very harsh material for certain types of paintings. As I worked with the silk, I noticed that the paint goes through to the backside of the material, because it's very fine. It creates this very abstract pattern on the other side, depending on my brushwork.
I started working with the back; I wanted to use it because it seemed like a way of making the most of the silk, highlighting its use. So I started painting on one side and then re-stretching the silk and painting on the back, and that’s where I am now. I start with a composition, but before I actually settle on either side, I intuitively switch around, back and forth, until at a point I'm like, okay, this looks right. Then I work on the details from that side, and it becomes the final painting.
Do you think that working as a painter now comes with a certain pressure, to change things up, to encode more information in your work through your choice of materials?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, any kind of modern painting you're having to engage critically with whatever's going on, whatever you want to express. It's not like back in the day when you just painted a portrait, and if it looked like the person it was a success. It's not so much looking at it as a ‘painting,’ but as a way of, I suppose, creating an object that just happens to be in the shape of a square. I think quite a lot of contemporary painters now are using different materials, or materials that have a specific connection to whatever that work is about. Or maybe a certain material just translates better with what they're trying to achieve.
There’s repetition across your practice: repeating the process of swapping the sides you paint from, or motifs that crop up across different works. What does repetition do you for?
It’s something that I've always done. Although I will say that my interests have shifted over the last couple of years. Two years ago I was focussed on these imagined landscapes with quite abstract characters. But there were certain elements, like certain shapes, that always recurred, because for me it was about creating a sort of narrative, with characters that take part in this series of paintings.
I felt like I’d finished that series, and wanted to do something new. With the pandemic it made a lot more sense for me to start using myself as a model. And I guess translating that into what was happening last year, I thought a lot about my relationship to who I am as a person, and who I am in the head. Now the repetition occurs in multiples of the same character; painting on both sides gives some distance to the same figure, it doesn’t look the same even though we know that it is. And it’s a way of distancing myself from the figure: I use myself, and paint myself in situations, but they’re not self-portraits. The character is more like a symbol of self, rather than me, myself.
"NEXT TO YOU" by Shipei Wang photographed in the TCP studio
Do you think you’ll pursue that kind of covid-informed use of yourself as a model as things start to recover?
More recently I've been working on compositions that feature the same repetition of figures, but with more context. The figure might be in an environment, or engaging in some sort of activity, or in a more refined space with more objects in the background. It makes sense, I suppose. Painting is so from your own head, so you’re dealing with yourself. Maybe with things opening up more, I'm also just unconsciously including more things into my compositions just because I'm doing more things, you know?
How do you work out your compositions?
I work from reference photographs, and outline everything on Photoshop or Illustrator. Then I trace it onto a newly stretched piece of silk. I used to project the image, but recently, I’ve started to trace it. When everything is so digital, sometimes there can be a disconnect when I actually start to paint, whereas now when I'm tracing it I'm also thinking about the composition, the colours, and getting a feel of how it's going to be intuitively. I'm trying to convey a sense of space, the feeling of melancholic existence. Sort of a quietness, a sense that everything is just frozen in that specific moment. But then, once you turn your eyes away, it's going to disperse and things will keep moving.
That kind of digital disconnect from the painting surface was sitting on my mind for quite a while, but introducing this new element, turning the paintings to work on both sides, has changed that, because I don't have any control of how the other side is going to come out looking. When you turn the painting around, you're working with something that's unpredictable, which creates space for my instincts, and lets me just see how it goes. It creates some chances for the unpredictability I’m looking for. And sometimes it doesn't work. But when it does work, the result is definitely more interesting.
How much do you think the environment, the city you’re in, shapes your work?
I think maybe the details would change if I was somewhere else; if I lived in Spain, maybe I'd use brighter colours, or incorporate different objects or architecture. Maybe these particular things I'm using right now are just things that I find, that I see around and unconsciously come out when I'm working through a certain painting or composition.
I've always felt quite dislocated, less connected to my surroundings maybe than other people. If you grew up in London, and you live in London, you feel at home. And there's a sense of, like, grounded-ness in knowing that's where you're from. Having moved around, I guess, I’ve found that I’m very flexible, I can get to know a place really quickly, and you know, have my own thing going on. But there's always a sense of disconnect. It could be something really small. Like, a shared cultural reference point that I might miss. I think those tiny little gaps are familiar for anyone who's not living in their own country, or in their own home.
I think there's a sense of confidence when you are from where you are, and you're there. Whereas when you move somewhere else, you’re always slightly questioning yourself. Am I doing it right? Am I saying the right thing? A sense of not feeling whole, or being slightly fragmented. And I guess that comes through a lot in my paintings, The repetitive figures are actually the same person, but it's a fragment of the self in different contexts; something hidden away that’s been pulled out because of the situation, the context at the time.