Sotto Voce-Exuma, Bahamas, 2021, Oil in canvas, 27 x 35 inches.
Sotto Voce. Continually Moving in Life and Work.
by Rory Martin, September 14, 2022
“Sotto Voce,” Shuling Guo’s second solo show at Fou Gallery, New York, perfectly encapsulates her continual progression as an artist, thinker, and human being. As though she were a sailboat traveling amidst the vast expanse of the open ocean, Shuling navigates the ebbs and flows of life with grace, using her drawings and paintings as signifiers of the great distances that she has travelled physically, and mentally.
Lining the walls of Fou Gallery are 15 oil paintings on canvas and eight drawings on paper, providing a view into Shuling’s mind. The spacing of the works on the wall allude to the numerous views that can be observed through the portholes of a ship, not dissimilar from the boat Shuling spends the majority of her time on, “Selkie.”
Oil paintings range from a petit 16 x 16 inches to an engulfing 40 x 44 inches, accompanied by eight drawings each in a uniform 14 x 17 inches. The works involve gradient realms of muted pastel colors, covering the canvas from end to end. Some works, such as Sotto Voce-Swan Creek, MD are more explicit in having a form or object in their composition, directing the viewer toward one specific location on the canvas. Other works, like Sotto Voce-Luperon, Dominican Republic contain the whispers of figuration, but disallow the development of it, encouraging contemplation and deep observation in its place.
Shuling maintains the utmost respect for artmaking and the importance of a genuine craft when she works. It is important to note that she is in control of her whole process, all the way down to the stretching and mounting of the canvas. Thus, a genuine feeling of serenity can be achieved through the works’ flawless edges and clever use of matte paint. It is during this experience that we are allowed to share in Shuling’s approach to creation, attaining a glimpse into her instinctive actions for just a moment.
When preparing to create a work, Shuling sketches her surroundings or feelings at a point in time that she feels is particularly meaningful to her. This is not an instantaneous process but will happen over an elongated period during which she allows creativity to flow through her. An example of this lies within Sotto Voce-Annapolis, MD. Here, there is movement as well as stillness. A simultaneous see-sawing of the two properties floats amid a gradient backdrop, and this feat can only be achieved by Shuling through the sustained absorption of her atmosphere, culminating in a true replication of “feeling.” The object placed in the center, just as others of similar size are placed in the works Sotto Voce-Stocking Island, Bahamas or Sotto Voce-Rodney Bay, Saint Lucia, is a further representation of Shuling’s respect for nature and her personal relationship to it. She explained that when she looks back at the works retrospectively, she notices that the object is always centralized. She related this to religious imagery, where the object or person of worship is centralized within the composition. Therefore, the placement of the objects in her works can be interpreted as a similar worship of nature, and a fostering of her spiritual connection to it. Living at sea for an extended period aided in the development of this connection to nature. Shuling explained that living at sea is humbling, and results in significant personal growth, “When sailing, looking to dock in the correct weather window is difficult, sometimes it is windy, or the water is choppy and full of strong currents... ...you must lessen your ego and listen to nature in order to survive. This is very meditative."
Spending time in the presence of these works elicits a response close to the work of Rothko and Tanguy. One cannot help but reminisce on the stops Shuling made along her seafaring journey of roughly 2000 nautical miles. The paintings lining the wall of Fou are a visual diary of her experiences living at sea, only spending brief stints at ports and marinas to acquire the bare necessities to live. Ruminating on a cloud passing by, or an isolated flower near the shore, Shuling allows the natural world to inspire. When I spoke with her, she was specific in differentiating between the artist’s usual depiction of a subject in a painting, and her different, and unique approach to composition. She stated, “When I try to draw a cloud, I don’t think about it logically, it just comes.” She explained that the works in “Sotto Voce” depict her surroundings as an amalgamation, combining everything that she has seen and felt during a significant period in her journey. While some works appear to include a recognizable shape or figure, this form is nothing more than her hand acting off instinct. Although they were named after the general location in which her boat was travelling while they were created, the content of the work transcends any singularity in this regard. The decision to name them in such a way was purposeful, and the intent was met with the inevitable curiosity on the part of the viewer when attempting to draw a connection between the works name, and its visual presence.
Sotto Voce-Annapolis, MD, 2021, Oil on canvas, 16 x 16 inches.
Sotto Voce-Luperon, Dominican Republic, 2021, Oil on canvas, 48 x 44 inches.
Further, Shuling touches upon her gradual adaptation to living at sea, learning to communicate with her surroundings and observe the changes happening all around her. The gradation of colors transforming from blue to white, or pink to green, are representative of the passing of time and observable differences in landscape she took note of while travelling. With her spiritual nature held close, Shuling believes that change is inevitable, and meant to be embraced. A good example of this resides within Sotto Voce-Le Marin, Martinique, in addition to the works of the same name numbered #1 and #2. The subtleties of expression in a more traditional landscape composition pay homage to her previous works in the “5-6pm” series, while simultaneously exhibiting notable growth in her practice as she blends the foreground and background together into a seamless image. “Sotto Voce” is an admirable departure from Shuling’s previous series of work, proving that she lives in a constant state of change. Her ability to listen to the world around her and allow creativity to flow naturally has left us with beautiful paintings and drawings depicting both her past and future, each floating endlessly toward the next destination on her journey.