View of “The Uncertain, or the Shelved . . . ,” 2016.

View of “The Uncertain, or the Shelved . . . ,” 2016.

“The Uncertain, or the Shelved . . .”

ShanghART Gallery | 香格纳画廊

View of “The Uncertain, or the Shelved . . . ,” 2016.

Gallery group shows, especially big, sprawling affairs, can often be disjointed, totally hit or miss, leaving the viewer feeling unsure of the curatorial intention beyond shrewd or blatant commercial motivations. This definitely wasn’t the case with “The Uncertain, or the Shelved . . . ”. Conceived and curated by the Chinese Conceptual and installation artist Shi Yong, with considerable input from the participating artists, this exhibition posed the question of what artists might do when nobody is looking—that is, when experimentation and uncertainty drive the process and become the essential ingredients for a mysterious stew not yet ready for public consumption.

Presented in the gallery’s main space and continuing in its mammoth H-Space a few doors away, the show was made by foraging through the studios of thirty-seven artists. Almost all of the more than eighty works—paintings, sculptures, videos, photographs, installations, and manuscripts—deviated from their makers’ usual practices in some way, at times even radically so, as in a piece by veteran painter Ding Yi, long known for his exacting, Minimalist-style paintings and drawings of crosses and plus signs. Ding’s Throwing Mud, 2016, consists of forty-nine cast-copper clumps of mud that appear to have been flung randomly against a wall. The shit-brown patina on each of these crude castings might, of course, also bring to mind an immediate scatological association—one that is totally divergent from the precision and purity more readily associated with Ding’s fastidious grids and decisive use of color.

Each work was accompanied by a personal narrative that conveyed the intimate mind-set of its maker and helped make sense of what one was unexpectedly seeing. Commenting on Throwing Mud, Ding explained that while preparing for a major exhibition at Shanghai’s Long Museum in 2015, he considered all the hard work and concentration it would demand. “This is what occurred to me: Why not make something totally opposite? Something relaxing.”Zhang Enli’s Untitled, 2003, a modest-size oil on canvas, is composed solely of Chinese calligraphy and bears only the slightest resemblance to what we’ve come to recognize as this artist’s work. Created at a time when Zhang was thinking about applying Chinese characters to his paintings, he began to paint random extracts and clippings from daily newspapers. During this period, Zhang was obsessed with the idea of painting specific everyday objects such as buckets, electrical sockets, and light switches. While the work’s thin-stain-painting technique and coloration feel familiar, Zhang points out that the painting is the only one he’s ever made using an allover field of written characters. He says the style of writing, however, has been his reference for his own signature in most of his later works. To make his single-channel video Easy Come, Easy Go, 2014, Ji Wenyu filmed a beam of sunlight raking slowly across his empty studio floor during the time he was moving out. The video, not made for any specific exhibition, was an attempt to create a casual work that addressed notions of time and departure. “I always turn into a forked road while I am making art, trying to develop those unexpected ideas,” Ji says, “and often it becomes a mess in the end and is totally different from my attempt.”

The unfinished, abandoned, or merely forgotten made this a highly compelling exhibition. The artists’ names, customarily noted beside each work, were intentionally omitted, creating a further sense of uncertainty and encouraging the viewer to play a kind of guessing game. A checklist, however, was available as a helpful guide or cheat sheet. Returning to ideas once forgotten or shelved can sometimes remind us of how our apparent flaws and failures are too easily dismissed or devalued. Uncertainty and irresolution, too, are often underrated for the crucial role they can play in leading us toward the truly unexpected.

Arthur Solway