It was with my first whiff of fragrant tea leaves mixed with the added visual delight of rose buds in my morning tea that sparked a flash of thoughts: first, how lucky we are to enjoy an bounty of imported delights such as tea, so that we are able to take them for granted. I’m remind myself of the Emperor Jing of Han in Xi’an, who discovered tea. Then I reflected on China’s abundant contribution to Western civilization. Today, the Chinese have become prodigious Art collectors. Living in the New York - Metro area I’ve observed this expanding market, in the many galleries specializing in contemporary Chinese artists.
These thoughts led me to want to write about - one Artist, Shan Shan Sheng. She is a Chinese-American Abstract Artist specializing in Public Art. She works in colorful large scale projects and literally gives new meaning to the idea “think big”. Her Art reflects her Chinese heritage - past and present and her love of nature. She’s able to express herself through Art in a universal way that is inclusive and reaches a wide audience. Her media of choice are glass and paint.
Shan Shan’s desire to become an artist started in her childhood. Growing up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution she led a simple life. She was obliged to work in the fields of the country side, but she also had the rare opportunity during this time to study traditional calligraphy with a woman master, as well as observe her father translate the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. One can see the influences of studying calligraphy and the concept of translation in “Calligraphy Cascade” celebrating Chinese and Chinese-American history in California. This piece references the building of the Trans-Pacific Railroad. It is installed at the Chinese Recreation Center in San Francisco. They also come into play when she reinterprets her paintings into glass works of Art. “Dancing Ribbons” is the first representation of this shift and was installed at the Hong Kong IFC II train station.
It was her academic career, however, that brought her to the States. She landed her visa when she was asked by her interviewers to paint on the spot. After displaying her painting skill, technique, and style she was on her way to the United States. At Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, she earned a Foreign Fellowship Certificate in Art with Distinction. She completed her Master’s of Fine Art at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Opportunities started pouring in, and she received commissions within the States and in China for large scale paintings, and she became an Artist in Residence at Harvard University.
She started her career in New York and Chicago, showing her work with Ai Wei Wei in 1987 at a group show. She decided to move to San Francisco to more easily split her time between Shanghai and the States. Other draws were its contemporary Art Scene and it’s connection with Asia.
“I am inspired by collaborations across cultures …” - Shan Shan Sheng
In addition to San Francisco and Shanghai, she has been and Artist in Residence on the island of Murano in Venice, Italy for the past sixteen years. She works in collaboration with and credits the master glass blowers at Berengo Studio for this amazing opportunity. The techniques in Murano have been nearly unchanged over a continuum of several centuries. It is in Murano where she learned to revision her paintings into large scale glass installation. The pigments are analogous to the ones she uses in her paintings. In glass, one has the added characteristic of its inherent transparency.
I asked her to share few of her favorites pieces…
“Abacus (1046-771 BC) Chinese Early Invention Series,” 2006
4.57m (15 ft) long 2.43m (8 ft) high and .914m (3 ft) deep.
Venetian hand-blown glass, stainless steel and wood.
“Abacus” explores technology culled from ancient Chinese culture with a pop aesthetic. It can be currently seen at Glassfever - a contemporary Art glass exhibition at the Dordrecht Museum in the Netherlands.
“Bamboo” - She reimagined bamboo in colorful glass - that plays with cool and warm tones. It has been installed in numerous landscapes including Art Basel Miami and at the Venice Biennale.
“Open Wall,” 2009/2011 - an homage to the Great Wall of China - made one out of 2,200 glass bricks that correspond to the number of years it took to make the Great Wall of China. Measuring 20 m (60 feet) long 2 m (6 feet) and high 80 cm (2ft) deep, “Open Wall” was included in the 53rd Venice Biennale. The bricks are in various colors and the effect is positively stunning.
She is currently working on a new series called Elements - where she explores, light and reflection of natural wonders of China in abstract form. On the horizons, she has projects in China, urban sculptures and Bloom - again a consistent theme of reinterpreting her painting into a new work with glass as the medium.
“I think Public Art has the chance to become a part of every day life; it acts as a kind of ambassador and site of meaning for people, visitors, and locals alike. I love to be part of this exchange… ” Shan Shan Sheng
I find Public Art usually uplifting and I enjoy the experience of how it brings out my inner child to light. Installations like Jean Dubuffet at The Seagrams building in New York or Daniel Buren’s “Les Deux Plateau”, at the Palais Royal, Paris come to mind. For the commuter, Public Art takes out the ho hum out of one’s day, it can help create civic pride and become an attraction in itself. Public Art adds value to its environment and to the people who are engaged in it - even if the moment is fleeting. Our surroundings have a huge impact on us. Aesthetics add value to our lives and the community at large. Public Art should be planned at the conceptual phase of building, and yet it can still be added later to enhance a space. I look forward to seeing more of Shan Shan’s work in public spaces perhaps - at the new development at Hudson Yards in New York.