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Breathing in Beijing at Wallace Gallery

The world of residencies is a curious thing. The old saying, a change is as good as a rest probably operates here, but it’s become, it seems, something more than that these days. It’s morphed into a career move, the must have for all aspiring artists making their convoluted way inside the mysterious arena of professional advancement in the art business.

China seems to have become the “it” place to be. One can speculate about why that is the case. Is it the attraction of the strange and slightly exotic, the challenge of that which is foreign, unorthodox, transgressive, the other? Or is it something to do with being on site of an emerging new world power and witnessing culture in major social ferment, change and flux?

Whatever it is, it has attracted a growing number of New Zealand artists in recent years, one of whom is Bevan Shaw, freshly returned from a residency near Beijing.

He was domiciled in a small town just out from the big city on the north-eastern outskirts, a place called, Feijiacun. A few decades earlier, this was a quiet rural backwater, home to local farmers, but now it has become a busy migrant community, taking in rural workers from all over China.

Caught in transition, like so much else in the country, between the old traditional ways of life unchanged for centuries and the new urban conglomerates, the place is a classic case of farming community meets shopping plaza. In a very short space of time, quiet country life has been transformed into bustling crowded noisy streets with all the attendant problems associated with rapid change.

A pervading sense of transience has become the norm in this now transit town as the old is torn down to be replaced by the new, which in turn is added to and amended. One of the consequences is that infrastructure has not kept pace with the change and pollution has become an issue.

Artist Bevan Shaw captures the quandary of some of this in a small series of large works – acrylics on canvas, that stylistically float somewhere between illustration and abstraction.

There is a soft fauve look to his use of colours which in a way belies the underlying social issues fermenting in the place. These are bright and cheerful paintings that say little about the social disjunction or environmental degradation taking place. Indeed the high-rises that hover ghostlike on the horizon in “North Gate”, painted in a golden yellow wash and sketched out in simple line drawings, could be mistaken for the heavenly city about to descend from the clouds.

The darker foreground conveys more dislocation where blocked paving stones become upended, splattered with various spillages in a place where dogs roam free through the streets. Trees that do exist in this urban setting are leafless, small and stunted, stuck in the pavement like add-ons.

Shaw has rendered his subject with both realistic precision and with a kind of impressionistic wash over a strict gridded format which remains visible, perhaps acting as a metaphor for the somewhat artificial constructed nature of the locale.

A video accompanies the exhibition which documents the painting process, recording the painterly additions and subtractions as the canvases were developed. In an interesting way, this mimics at another level the artist’s subject.

China. Gateway to a new utopia or ruthless destroyer of traditional communities? Shaw seems to come down somewhere in the middle on this, though in works like “Footbridge” and “Park”, he veers heavily toward a more idealized image of a Shangri-La. Modernism never looked so inviting.   

Peter Dornauf         

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