“Shen Wei: Painting in Motion” blooms into life at Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum's new tropical Courtyard with over 300 freshly-installed potted plants. Photo by Nancy Jiang/BU News Service

By Nancy Jiang
Boston University News Service

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum reopened to the public Friday, Feb. 5, showcasing the newly installed, critically-acclaimed “Shen Wei: Painting in Motion” exhibition and the museum’s tropical Courtyard, boasting more than 300 freshly-installed potted plants. 

The three-part Shen Wei exhibition combines western and eastern elements, such as Chinese Song Dynasty associated shapes, colors, and natural features like mountains, flowers, and birds to present the multi-disciplinary skills of Shen Wei, a Chinese-American dancer, choreographer, painter and director. Internationally renowned, Shen has won numerous awards and distinctions for his work, including a MacArthur Fellowship (2007) and the opportunity to choreograph the opening ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. 

Pieranna Cavalchini, art curator of the museum for almost 20 years, witnessed the dancer’s performance and choreography for the first time at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Center more than a decade ago, and later found out from the museum director that he was also a painter.

Cavalchini said she is impressed by Shen’s variety of talents. 

“He’s like a polymath, and anything he picks up, he does amazingly well,” Cavalchini said. “He’s a great choreographer, but he also has a really great understanding of painting and film. He [also] tries many different tools and accomplishes incredible things.”

The exhibition showcases Shen’s most recent works in the museum’s Hostetter Gallery, including two pieces, which were created during Shen’s month-long residency at the Gardner Museum in 2018, as well as letters, sketches, and notebooks that document the process behind his films and choreography.

The exhibition features three of Shen’s films in the museum’s Calderwood Hall, “April” (1998), “Inner Shadow of Movement” (2016), and a commission for the Gardner Museum, “Passion Spirit” (2020). 

Shen described “April” as “more experimental.” The black and white, 16 mm film was conceived in New York City with two NYU film students’ help and featured a passionate dance performance by Shen himself. 

“Inner Shadow of Movement” (2016) began when Shen was invited by an architect friend to see an opera house he had built in China. Inspired by what he saw, the two based the second project on “movement, lines and colors.” 

For Shen, “Passion Spirit” (2020) was a project with a larger scope in terms of the increased number of hands-on deck and communication needed between his team and other outside factors. Shen and his crew took about a month to plan the shots for the film, over two weeks to shoot and three months to edit the film. 

Shen said the process of putting together a film is different from the process of creating a painting.

“You have to communicate with the cinema photographer, the dancers, the actors and the production people,” Shen said in an interview. “It’s not like doing a painting by yourself, [where] you can control it. It was a long process and much more complicated than making a painting.” 

Despite the large time gap between the releases of the three films, Pieranna noted that Shen suggested a relationship between the three films through stylistic choices.

“There are certain parallels in these three films, like a single dancer moving through space and time in a building,” Cavalchini said.

Shen’s films are an opportunity for him to delve deeply into his own spiritual journey. 

“When you are alone, you are kind of completely back to who you are because you don’t have anyone else around you to communicate with,” Shen said. “For me, [when I’m alone], it’s not lonely. For me, it’s the real human journey. It’s the time to feel and analyze your journey by yourself.”

Cavalchini recruited the help of Peggy Fogelman, Norma Jean Calderwood Director at the Gardner museum, in putting together the exhibition in a rare opportunity for directors to participate in curatorship. 

Out of all the pieces on display, Cavalchini’s favorite body of work is new: Reflecting Elements (2020). 

“He used this golden color that reminds me a little bit of Song Dynasty paintings of Northern China,” Cavalchini said. “It has nothing to do with those, but that color somehow makes me think of that. There’s also that sense of a kind of landscape that you can walk through it.”

Shen cannot choose a favorite piece, as he feels connected to each piece on display.

“Each one has a unique life and journey with me,” Shen said. “They’re like my babies. I spent so much time making them come to life. They record different situations of myself — of [cycles of] thinking.”

The Shen Wei: Painting in Motion exhibition at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum will be open for display to the public until June 20, 2021. 

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