Walking through Guo Fengyi’s solo show at Vancouver’s Contemporary Art Gallery is a disorienting experience. Disorienting because the show itself seems to offer a badly needed counterpoint to the mindset in Vancouver – a mindset that places value on the rational over the spiritual, the scientific over the metaphysical, the organized over the messy. An artist who deals with the body in such a physical way is an oddity in this city where Marxist ideology in conceptual art has resulted in a distancing of artists from dealing the with body in a visceral fashion.
The show, a series of large-scale drawings on rice paper, is displayed without adornment, simply a series of rice paper scrolls attached to the walls with tacks – an ideal choice for an artist who never saw herself as such, and is still considered to be a member of ‘Outsider Art’ despite her acceptance into the Contemporary Art Galleries in Asia, Europe, and now, North America. Though she has no formal training, her drawings present an impressive consistency, both in form and in the registration of energy through the thin, repeating lines of colour.
The content of the imagery, often derived from her practice of healing through drawing, is decidedly metaphysical. In pieces such as “Energy Channel Decomposition Diagram, 1989” and “Shennong God, 1997”, Guo’s sincere desire to translate the cosmic to the paper is evident. The work seems to be lacking a certain self-awareness that is traditionally present in the metaphysical systems work of other, more traditionally trained artists such as Alfred Jensen. Her work was never planned out in advance; rather it functioned as an act of divination where the hand works to communicate one level of awareness to another and in the process articulating something that was not previously understood.
She does not adhere to traditional styles of representation, she does not aim to separate the head from the body as one often finds in figure drawing, nor does she seem to concern herself with the formal aspects of presentation as sheets of rice paper were stuck together to make a longer scroll, some showing signs of wear or stains. Despite all this, her work is intricate, complex, and very much alive. It is expressive and engaging, as one can spend hours winding their way through the intricate web of marks that Guo has created.
Combining the metaphysical, the cultural and the artistic is a massive undertaking, one which is rarely done well and even more rarely accepted by the contemporary art community, but Guo’s show is evidence that it is possible for an outsider, sincere in their desire to share a history and experience, to find a home in a world that is often cynical and excessively intellectual. The Contemporary Art Gallery is offering something truly unique, and is giving Vancouverites a chance to remember that art can be messy, uneducated, unpopular… and terribly refreshing.