"When I look at the sea, I see a selfless state that makes me aware of more and greater worlds."
- Shi Zhiying
Shi Zhiying graduated with a Master’s Degree from the Shanghai University College of Fine Arts Oil Painting Department in 2005. She enjoyed early success at 22, winning first prize at the Shanghai Youth Biennale, and by 2009 had already held her first solo show at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. While her career seemed to be developing smoothly, inevitable trials and tribulations followed, but they enabled the sorting out of her now familiar and well-honed artistic vocabulary. Through that vocabulary she combines observations of the outer world and the mind's inner landscapes, and it has brought the forms and expressive capabilities of her painting to a high pitch of development.
Shi began her repeated explorations of the ocean theme in 2009; it is a theme that represents how she looks at the world and that became a significant turning point in her career. As her husband pursued advanced studies in the US, she often made transpacific flights that brought her views of the great ocean, whose breadth and peacefulness lodged itself in her heart. Once, in 2006, she ascended a lighthouse above San Francisco Bay and gazed endlessly from her bird's-eye view over the boundless, expansive sea below, as if experiencing a kind of enlightenment. A path had been opened from her soul to the great sea and from the sea returning back to her soul. Shi's series of works, from Reading Sea (2009), to From the Pacific Ocean to the High Seas (begun in 2009), to The Sand Ocean (2012), have all been attempts to capture the ocean's external appearance, its inner meanings, and even the character of its thoughts, in mediums varying from oil painting to sketches and even audio-visual installations.
Standing before the 2-meter by 2-meter canvas of Shi's Sea II, a viewer may feel the gentle touch of a sea breeze as their minds become clear. It is a moving experience that puts them in touch with the artist's tranquil attitude toward the world. In the background of Shi has applied an even though not transparent layer of oil pigments, a layer of flawless white that extends effortlessly to the top of the canvas like a doorway allowing easy entry by the viewer. With all color removed and refined into black and white, monochromatic waves meet us in gradually changing tones that even more directly convey the subtle warming and cooling of the ocean and the rich emotional depths of the artist's feeling for it. But in her depiction of the sea, with its ample empty spaces, rendering of perspective, and grey-scale tonalities, Shi Zhiying at the same time gives us an entirely new and contemporary mode of expression in the oil medium. This mode of expression recalls the admonition from Zen Buddhism that "the five colors blind the eyes," and pushes her toward the simpler, more succinct traditions of expression in painting and calligraphy. "I have heard that newborn babies in their first two months are very sensitive to black and white, but not to other colors," she says. "What the babies perceive may be the truest thing." Truth, for many artists, represents the highest achievement in art, as well as the ultimate in what we are capable of feeling and perceiving.
Among its formal components, the principal guiding element in Shi's Sea II is its lines, which trace out images of the waves and ripples moving across its surface. In some areas of the painting Shi's manner recalls the freehand, lyrical approach of the ancient Chinese literati ink-wash paintings, as she sets out the distant waves, gradually fading toward the white background, in freely spontaneous brushstrokes. The wave patterns of the foreground advance in gradually deepening color as Shi plays the tip of her brush across the canvas in fine, gracefully turning lines, while occasionally gravity exerts its pull and rivulets of pigment run downward. Shi produces repeated rows of crescent and meniscus shaped lines in a calligraphic style, varying the pressure of her strokes to express the particular pulse and feel of each shape, or perhaps to metaphorically suggest the turbulence of times once experienced and lived through. Finding the deepest level of lyricism and power in her lines, she transforms them into moodily subjective expressive elements in a way that links them with the spirit of Chinese ink-wash painting. The form that Shi's lines take in Sea II shows the transformation in her personal aesthetics, which have moved from the realistic tendencies of her younger years toward a more expressive manner, and from grand sweeps of feeling toward a calm, magnanimous air, a trend that would influence and guide her in her continuing creative efforts.