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Guo Hongwei: The Pre-existent Painting

The Pre-existent Painting is what Beijing artist Guo Hongwei calls ancient elements found in nature: minerals, crystals, stones and coral. Cognizant that such materials take a millennium to form, Guo studies their colors, surfaces and forms and recreates their beauty in the more ephemeral medium of watercolor. He is a master of this technique, able to create totally convincing, almost photographic renditions of intricate objects using the most delicate of methods.

For this exhibition, Guo Hongwei turned the main gallery of Chambers Fine Art in something of a hall of minerals found in a natural history museum. The heart of the show is Guo’s Illustrated Book of Natural Form, an on-going project currently comprised of more than seventy stunning paintings, each depicting a different mineral. Presented in a grid, the works invite viewers to make comparisons between the various rock formations and to spot the differences between quartz and malachite. At the same time, we grow to appreciate the artist’s acute eye and obsessive practice which capture the layers of these petrified patterns.

Less accessible but equally fascinating is Guo Hongwei’s study of what-he-calls “artificial natural form.”   According to the artist, these mineral-like objects are discards from a commercial painting plant where layers upon layers of spray paint accumulate on the wall and chip off in shards. It is a process of creative entropy, not dissimilar from the way sedimentary stone is created in nature, albeit, in a much shorter time period.   Here, samples of this material are displayed within a frame while watercolor studies hang nearby, like a geological report.

Guo Hongwei knows this mode of inquiry all too well, having grown up in Chengdu with a father who held an administrative position at a mining company. Exposed to geological material from an early age, he developed an intimate understanding of minerals and became fascinated with how such natural forms outshine even the most accomplished creative efforts. By introducing such irregular shapes and fractal patterns into his work, Guo adds a kind of spontaneity to his otherwise meticulous process.

Adding to the museum-like installation were a pair of vitrines in the center of the room. They held examples of natural coral, painted in highly unnatural hues with oil paint. These sculptures were titled Pre-existent Painting No. 1 and No. 3. (Another one, No. 2, hung on the wall.) Clearly the artist, looking at the intricate forms and fascinating coloration of coral when found in the ocean, deemed these creatures living works of art, preceding all human attempts to capture beauty.

The exhibition, The Pre-existent Painting, is but the first of two solo shows by this artist that will be held at this gallery this fall. On November 16, Chambers Fine Art will open Plastic Heaven, a series of new oil paintings that examine decidedly manmade objects, ranging from a magnified view of an apple hidden within webbed wrapping material to the multicolored door of a garish child’s playhouse.   In order to make these paintings, Guo experimented with a wide variety of materials and techniques, in order to create different textures. From a quick preview, I can already spot a winner in this collection: Transformed by the Setting Sun, 1917. In this painting, the object in question is covered by a purple blanket, mysterious and unidentifiable, against a dark black background.

The Pre-existent Painting by Guo Hongwei is an Asian Contemporary Art Week THINKING PROJECT, curated by ACAW director Leeza Ahmady. She paired the Chinese artist with New York based artist Judy Blum-Reddy’s whose imaginative pictograms of her trips to India were displayed in Chambers Fine Art’s front gallery.