Three Chinese Artists Navigate “Boundaries of the Spirit” at San Francisco’s NanHai Art

Boundaries of the Spirit,” a new show at NanHai Art in San Francisco, brings together three Chinese artists concerned with the strains of living in contemporary culture. Using traditional material, they search for spiritual qualia in a modern world that often seems disinterested in transcendence.

In the practice of Lin Yan, folds of paper are transformed into crumbling detritus. Lin works with xuan paper, a material traditionally used in Chinese calligraphic painting. In her hands, however, this delicate and airy paper takes on the appearance of brick walls and other architectural features. Each piece looks like a chunk of demolished building that found its way into the gallery. The sense of ruin and destruction is only underscored by Lin’s use of ink to turn parts of her paper charcoal black, bringing to mind charred remains.

A similar tension between heavy and light is at play in Zhou He’s ink drawings. The delicate scenes are caught between presence and absence; the images seem as if they might fade away into the blankness of paper. Some of these scenes, like Flow NO.1 (2011), are purely abstract, with energetic curving lines and dotted patches dancing across the work. In Drift Away NO.7 (2005), the washes of ink resolve into the forms of fish swimming through a body of water.

Zhang Yanzi’s drawing series, “Waiting in the Hospital,” consists of minimal renderings of the objects one might see during a hospital stay. A sense of dread emanates from many. In one, piles of pitch-black pills are surrounded by grayish clouds, recalling smog or smoke. Others show an ominously empty and stained test tube or a heap of discarded scalpels.

However, in one of Zhang’s drawings, a growing plant emerges from a single test tube, as if intruding on the sterile world of scientific experiments. It’s a hopeful note, one that resonates across the exhibition as each artist responds to pain, absence, and persistence, and the balance between them.


—A. Wagner


Boundaries of the Spirit” is on view at NanHai Art, San Francisco, Jun. 18–Jul. 23, 2016.

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