Shen Shaomin’s Illusionistic Paintings Unpack Art as a Commodity
You’d be forgiven for doing a double take upon your first glimpse of the work in Shen Shaomin’s latest exhibition. But there’s no mistake here; the gallery doesn’t have the wrong artist and the art handlers haven’t taken the day off. And yes, the installation is finished.
This uncertainty is exactly what the conceptual artist is going for in the exhibition, “Shen Shaomin: Handle With Care” at New York’s Klein Sun Gallery. The more than 20 oil paintings in the show each reference familiar pop art iconography, including Andy Warhol’s famous interpretations of Campbell’s soup cans, Marilyn Monroe, and Mao Zedong. The details of each piece, however, are obscured beneath what looks to be bubble wrap, as though the show’s installation is still in progress.
It’s all an illusion, however. Shen paints these semi-transparent layers of veneer over each work to mimic the look of paintings wrapped for transport, adding details down to the type on the packing tape. The pieces are presented leaning against the wall, adding to the effect of a show in the midst of being installed, while also cunningly reminding the viewer that art is in fact a commodity—those precious pieces you see in galleries are products that are wrapped up after the show, sold, and shipped around the world.
By referencing how the proverbial art-world sausage is made, Shen questions ideas of artistic originality (through his appropriation of Warhol) and traditional or ideal modes of viewing art (through the installation of the work). The viewer is seemingly given access to something that usually goes unseen, the backroom workings of the gallery, and may be tempted to try to tear away that trompe l’oeil bubble wrap to reveal—or even free—the famous paintings underneath.
Aesthetically, the show may seem like a departure for the artist, who is best known for his sculptures incorporating bones sourced from slaughterhouses—and who plans to use his own bones in an artwork after his death. Yet while his previous exhibitions have used animal imagery to look at the destruction caused by human consumerism and greed, here he tackles the same theme from a different angle, by confronting the viewer with art as an object of desire and commerce. The implications may be serious, but Shen still fills the gallery with his offbeat sense of humor and surprise—right on down to that painted packing tape.
“Shen Shaomin: Handle With Care” is on view at Klein Sun Gallery, New York, Mar. 7–May 2, 2015.