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This artist's work encompasses centuries of art history and his own feelings, energy


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: He's not a magician, but artist Shen Wei is very good at disappearing, losing himself as he creates, conjuring ethereal lands and reimagining the human body.

His work is now on view at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston through June 20.

Special correspondent Jared Bowen of PBS station GBH Boston has the story for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jared Bowen: On the facade of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a woman in red. She is a figure of passion, her writhing traced on the ground beneath. Inside the museum, we see her on film, a spirit gliding through galleries.

Peggy Fogelman: There's something kind of surreal about many of his films.

Jared Bowen: He is Shen Wei, a Chinese artist who mesmerized an international audience of four billion people in 2008 with his choreography at the Beijing Olympics' opening ceremony.

Peggy Fogelman: That's about as public as you can get. And he's celebrated worldwide. He's a cultural icon in China.

Jared Bowen: But in all the time he has been creating dance and films for public audiences, Shen Wei has been very quietly creating work for himself, these paintings, some on view for the first time at the Gardner Museum, where Peggy Fogelman is the director.

Peggy Fogelman: You can see that he was thinking about cosmic forces, right? And so many of these paintings in this -- in this series, because there's no horizon line, you feel like you're thrown into maybe rushing water or a cloudscape, and you're kind of floating above it or in it.

Shen Wei: A lot of times, I felt all the paintings I -- is more like a journal.

Jared Bowen: We spoke with Shen Wei from his parents' home in Hunan Province, China, where he's settled during the pandemic. He says his towering paintings in the museum are less about what he's painting than what he's feeling, although that never stops people from finding figures, landscapes and stories in his work, especially in this piece titled Untitled Number 8.

Shen Wei: When I paint that one, I really didn't think I was trying to paint a human figure in the middle. People think it is a human figure riding a lion, flying, crossing a mountain or flying in the air.

When I paint, I didn't think that at all. I was just thinking that I want to use the black paint to develop, more like energy.

Jared Bowen: One that consumes him. Shen Wei insists on being alone when he paints, sometimes for months on end. Sometimes, even he is not entirely present.

Shen Wei: The large piece, I faint down twice. I wake up in the middle. I didn't even know when I -- how long I slept in the middle. I -- I because I forgot to eat when I paint.

Pieranna Cavalchini: He's like in a form of meditation, deep meditation. And so it takes him a while to get back on the ground. And that was very interesting to see.

Jared Bowen: Curator Pieranna Cavalchini invited Shen Wei to be an artist-in-residence at the Gardner in 2018, a stay that led to the inspiration for his film "Passion Spirit."

It, along with his choreography and painting, have an ethereal quality, born, the curator says, of his desire to connect to greater things.

Pieranna Cavalchini: He has developed this technique, which is where you have this energy in your body, your heart, your blood, this idea of being connected to the universe. And it's a very strong spiritual element, really, in his work.

Jared Bowen: Shen Wei has been a working artist since the age of nine, when he entered opera school in China. And as these early notebooks reveal, he was charting choreography by age 14.

Pieranna Cavalchini: I thought, oh, this is something all the children do at school and the teacher makes them do it. No, this is something he invented, and for himself.

Shen Wei: I was just thinking, oh, my God, if I forget all of these things teacher taught me, what am I going to do? I love so much, but then I start to find a way to write down, to make puppets and drawings to write down all the movements.

Jared Bowen: Some 30 years on, he still maps out his dance and films. But in his paintings, he hearkens back to centuries of art history, from the ancient storied scrolls of the Song dynasty to the dark, roiling images conjured by Dante's Inferno, to 20th century American abstract expressionism.

Peggy Fogelman: He says: I am made of Eastern and Western ingredients.

And he also talks about, we are all solitary and alone, but we breathe together. And it's a beautiful kind of coalescence of different influences, different techniques, different art forms. But then, truly, he's forged his own style.

Jared Bowen: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jared Bowen in Boston, Massachusetts.

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