The Contemporary Art Gallery presented the first solo exhibition in North America of the work of Chinese artist Guo Fengyi (1942-2010). Self trained; she belongs to an older generation whose embracing of Chinese folk culture combines with traditions of wisdom and myth. Her large-scale drawings comprise intricate details and obsessive mark-making to articulate ideas of spiritual and metaphysical significance.
While never considering herself an artist, it was Guo’s involvement with the Long March project in 2002 that brought her into contact with the contemporary art world. Originally Long March wanted to engage her as a means of demonstrating art’s loss of vocabulary in dealing with things of tradition as contemporary China moved on apace.
Guo Fengyi began drawing after illness brought her to the healing practice of Qi-qong (a traditional Chinese health practice as a means to cultivate qi energy within the body). Combined with her study of theories of mysticism, she began having visions when in these meditative states which she felt compelled to translate into drawing. Guo’s subject matter encompasses these traditional concepts of thought with Chinese philosophy, myths, cosmology, acupuncture energy maps, divination and dynastic sites – all systems which are fast disappearing in a modernizing China. Her works are charged in every sense, bringing together notions of creativity as acts of everyday life. Redolent of fields of energy and magnetic auras, drawings manifest as suggestions of the human form, otherworldly beings and internal body parts, mapped against diagrammatic evocations of invisible worlds surrounding and influencing our existence.
Cosmic diagrams, diving apparatus for oracles: within Western traditions her work is seen to locate within the idea of ‘Outsider Art’ or Art Brut, collections of which were put together by French artist Jean Dubuffet, as a means to tap into some notion of authenticity. Many of these artists were perceived as naïve, some were confined to institutions, others seen to produce work that somehow revealed a private, coded message from deep within our human psyche, alternative images of unfathomable worlds. From the perspective of Guo her work has much more value than can be conventionally attributed to art. They go far beyond that.
In a formal analysis it can be seen that her drawings provide a meeting point between two worlds – physically, conceptually and philosophically, intriguing in their mysterious complexity. There is a consistency in her formal style and expressive mark-making and pictorial sense. Yet for Guo they are an alternative means of communication, a truth in the sense that they picture messages from elsewhere and a message of both cultural and symbolic relevance to our contemporary position, a premonition from the past. In her own words she saw drawing as a “viewing from afar” and as such should be considered not as some form of representation but as a process of release, a visiting of events which burst forth into our everyday lives yet sit outside of our daily experiences. In that sense they remain true to the notion of drawing as a means to grasp something, a thing that resides outside of our immediate comprehension. Some works such as the series of SARS are ghostly demons, uncanny in their terrifying depiction of this epidemic which threatened world wide infection. Others such as the impressively large-scale scroll drawings of Shaodian (father of the Yellow Emperor), various Goddesses and deities of religious Taoism, are intriguingly unfamiliar. Through her work we get a glimpse of a pre-modern society, one in touch with the greater secrets of our world and laying claim to ongoing links with ancient histories. Hidden cultural memories are revealed as ones to be revisited and not dismissed as mere superstition, establishing an attractive subversive nature to a more systematized world.