Shi Zhiying

 Being and Nothingness: the painting practice of Shi Zhiying

Shi Zhiying in her studio, Shanghai April 2011, photograph Luise Guest reproduced with permission of the artist

“My painting is like meditation; a slow and peaceful process that takes a long time to develop."

Shi Zhiying, 'Ocean', 2011, oil on canvas, photograph Luise Guest reproduced courtesy of the artist

Shi Zhiying was born in 1979 in Shanghai. She lives and works in Shanghai and is represented in China by James Cohan Gallery in Shanghai and White Space in Beijing.  She has shown her works at the 2011 Hong Kong Art Fair, the 2012 Shanghai Biennale and Art Tapei. Her work has been exhibited in Germany, and she is represented in the White Rabbit Collection in Sydney.

Watch this video to hear Shi Zhiying speak about what inspires her: How Deep is Your Truth?

Shi Zhiying, 'Sea Sutra' installation view at White Space Beijing

This work reveals Shi Zhiying’s restrained control of her medium. Stripped of all colour, reduced to monochrome, her intention is to show the vastness as well as the unity of the world. When her husband was studying in America, she traversed the Pacific Ocean many times and once, on holidays at a lighthouse, looking down at the ocean below, she experienced a strong sensation that she herself vanished. This strange but not unpleasant sensation prompted her to study Buddhist scriptures and to look for subjects in her painting that would reveal essential truths about the nature of the world. In the blades of grass, grains of rice, or shifting patterns of wind and water created with Shi Zhiying’s spare use of thin washes of oil paint, reminiscent of traditional ink painting, lies a hidden narrative about the diversity, complexity and connectedness of the universe and all it contains.

Read the three extracts of critical analysis and answer the questions.

Critical Analysis #1

"Wuwei is the Taoist doctrine of non-action, or acting in a spontaneous way without thought and expectation...Shi Zhiying paints dark greenish-grey oceans that contain secrets yet to be revealed. She calls her paintings 'sea sutras'. The repetition of her brush strokes echoes the recitation of the sutras over the ages. Like the pathways of one's life, the brush strokes can be seen, although their ultimate destination remains unknown."
Xing Zhao

Critical Analysis #2

“I am drawn to a painting of a bowl of rice on a patterned tablecloth, where she intends to paint every individual grain, just as she paints every detailed wavelet on the ocean, and every facet on her current series of diamonds, in slow, measured layers of thin paint built up to create works of great detail and visual complexity. This work was inspired when she was stuck for a subject and finding painting difficult, and went out to dinner with her husband. There she saw the bowl of rice on the restaurant table and realised that it contained all the elements she was seeking to explore in her work. I ask her to tell me about a small painting of a pair of Chinese cloth shoes, and she explains it is a wedding present for a close friend, a painting of her favourite pair of shoes. Her works are both small and large scale, and focus on the small details of everyday life - a bowl of rice, a bra, a window, a pair of shoes – as well as on the enormity and vastness of the ocean. In her view, these things are not different; they make up the pieces of a whole existence in the world.”  

Shi Zhiying, 'Rice', oil on canvas, image courtesy of the artist

Shi Zhiying, 'Cloth Shoes', oil on canvas, image courtesy of the artist

Critical Analysis #3

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” 
- Antoine de Saint Exupéry, The Little Prince
Shi Zhiying, 'High Seas', 2008, oil on canvas, image reproduced courtesy of the artist and White Rabbit Gallery
At the distance of the elevator exit on level two at White Rabbit Gallery High Seas by Shi Zhiying is an unremarkable fuzzy patch of grey in our periphery partially obscured by a wall. On cornering the wall and encountering the work is its hulking entirety (2mx8m), conversation gives way to a deep inhale and your legs rivet to the floor as you stand awed by the apparent contradiction of a photo-realistic impression of a boundless ocean with a painterly texture, and for a moment you are transfixed.
To render a viewer transfixed is perhaps harder today than ever. In a culture awash with visual stimuli we are constantly scanning, our focus flitting across the surface of things seldom fully coming to rest incase we miss something. For the most part advertising vies for our attention but, generally speaking, in the context of a gallery, the larger the collection the faster we move through the space and the less time we give to each work. This cursory mode of viewing suggests contemporary viewers, fattened on a surfeit of visual stimuli, have forged a new modus for experiencing visual culture and arguably the world.
We live in a culture where advertising falsely empowers us to think we are the center of the universe. Lulled into acceptance of this false agency we assume a terrifying responsibility for our path in life with consumer goods acting as the correctives if ever things don’t seem to be running to plan. In this way, gazing out into the nothingness depicted in High Seas transports the viewer away from the messiness of life. With no central focal point just boundless ocean, High Seas envelops the viewer and to be made to feel small, insignificant even, is a distinctly refreshing experience – albeit only for so long.
For an ocean vista with a seemingly infinite reach, utterly bereft of life, High Seas paradoxically induces a sense of intense claustrophobia. The painting came into being from a photograph the artist took of the Pacific Ocean in San Francisco. From the shoreline we can look out to sea with the pulsating city in safe reach behind us – on an impulse, when the austerity of the ocean grows eerie, we can turn on our heel and retreat back into the city. Similarly, in the gallery we can move on to the next work. But in order to fully appreciate High Seas one needs to engage with it beyond this pithy threshold. Held captive in the work’s embrace for a moment too long and the experience shifts from instant calm to wonderment to discomfort to anxiety. There comes a point when solitude sours to loneliness.
Marcus Costello, writing in Das
Shi Zhiying explains her work in her Shanghai studio, December 2012, photograph Luise Guest reproduced with permission of the artist

Shi Zhiying, 'Zen Garden 2' oil on canvase, image courtesy of the artist


  1. What are the most significant elements of Shi Zhiying's material practice?
  2. Explain the processes and procedures that she applies in order to create her works.
  3. How does the artist convey her own subjective experiences and states of mind to the audience?
  4. Analyse and explain the symbolism and visual codes in her work
Read this discussion of her practice then select from the "Extended Response" questions:
Shi Zhiying has developed a unique practice,  informed by her awareness of ink painting techniques. Working on a very large scale, using thinned down washes of monochrome oil paint to create images of vastness – the ocean, endless fields of grass, Zen Gardens – she reveals a restrained control of her medium. As a child she learned calligraphy, but later as an art student she decided that ink painting was an old, irrelevant relic of the past, preferring to immerse herself in the work of modern masters such as Cezanne and Gauguin. After she had graduated and was trying to develop her own visual language she realised she had been wrong. Previously she has been quoted as linking her painting practice to the practice of meditation, “a slow and peaceful process that takes a long time to develop”. In conversation in her Shanghai studio last month, she clarified this. Whilst her Buddhist beliefs are an essential part of who she is, and a profound influence on her work, she says, “Painting is not meditation. Painting is painting. But it can be like meditation because I do it carefully, honestly and truthfully.”

She came to her signature technique, stripped of all inessential elements such as colour, almost by accident. For a long time after she graduated from university she felt that she had “lost herself” as an artist. She had been overwhelmed by so many influences that believed she no longer knew how to paint. She tells the story of how she regained her confidence. At this time her husband was studying in America, and she went to meet him there. On a trip to the west coast, visiting a lighthouse, she looked down at the vast ocean below and experienced the overwhelming sensation that she had vanished from the world and had ceased to exist as an individual. This uncomfortable but not unpleasant experience prompted her to study Buddhist scriptures, and to look for subjects in her painting that would reveal essential truths about the nature of the world. She started by taking photographs of the ocean and removing the colour. When she went back to the landscape itself, she says, the blue of the ocean and the sky seemed fake. By removing the colour she believed she could find a greater truthfulness. Later, she saw Hiroshi Sugimoto’s series of black and white seascapes and realised that his notion that looking at the ocean is a “voyage of seeing” akin to visiting one’s ancestral home was not unlike her own feelings about the subject.
In the blades of grass, grains of rice, or shifting patterns of wind and water that she creates with her spare use of thin washes of oil paint is a hidden narrative about the complexity and connectedness of the universe and all it contains. Buddhist scripture advises eliminating all that is inessential in order to distil the essence. “Simplicity is reality” she says. Other works include paintings of simple everyday objects such as a pair of cloth shoes, or a bowl of rice. They are beautifully observed and their lack of colour gives them a stillness and gravitas that makes us see them anew. She has been influenced by the monochrome paintings of Yan Pei-ming, most famous for his enormous black or red portraits of Mao Zedong, and Zhang Enli who focuses on objects of the everyday, finding in the works of these Shanghainese painters a spirit akin to her own.
Recently she has been experimenting with ink and watercolour on paper, drawing more directly on traditional methods and techniques, exhibiting a body of work based on Italo Calvino’s novel Mr Palomar in a show entitled ‘The Infinite Lawn’ at James Cohan Gallery in Shanghai. The protagonist of the novel is seeking “reason and disorder in a disorderly world” says Ivy Zhou in her catalogue essay ‘The Universe as Mirror’, likening this quest to Shi Zhiying’s painterly exploration of the relationship between the self and the world.
Shi Zhiying,, 'The Infinite Lawn', image courtesy of the artist
Luise Guest, from 'Constancy and Change:some new approaches to ink painting in contemporary Chinese art' in Artspace China

Extended Response Questions

  • Evaluate the ways in which Shi Zhiying is reflecting aspects of her world - the world of ancient Chinese traditions and art conventions and also the modern world in which she lives.

  • Select TWO artworks by Shi Zhiying and compare and contrast them with the work of another contemporary painter, accounting for the differences and similarities.

  • Select ONE artwork by Shi Zhiying and ONE artwork by each of the influential artists that she mentions in Critical Analysis #3 (Hiroshi Sugimoto, Yan Pei-ming, Zhang Enli). Imagine that you are Shi Zhiying and you are being interviewed for a TV program about your practice. How will you explain these influences on your own practice?

Critical Analysis #4

“When your mind is narrow, small things easily agitate you. Make your mind an ocean.” —Lama Thubten Yeshe
Looking at the sea makes Shi Zhiying feel calm and peaceful. The unbroken horizon and vast sweeps of water and sky suggest infinite space. She seeks a similar feeling of calm, and a similar sense of expansion, in meditation—and in painting oceanscapes, which she calls sea sutras. Buddhist teachings liken the mind to a sea that arises from, and ultimately merges with, the ocean of universal Mind. After painting High Seas (2008), Shi Zhiying read Italo Calvino’s novel Mr Palomar, which opens with the title character on the beach, trying to isolate “just one individual wave”. She was startled by the resemblance of that story to one she’d had in mind while completing the work: “Someone asks the Buddha how to preserve a drop of water. He replies: Keep it in the sea.” Shi Zhiying’s decision to paint the Pacific in shades of grey was also inspired by the Buddhist idea that egotism and attention-seeking block our view of reality. And “I heard that newborn babies are very sensitive to black and white but not other colours”, she says. “What the baby perceives is the truest thing.”

An artist's practice continues to evolve and develop.

Shi Zhiying created a whole body of work in response to Italo Calvino's novel 'Mr Palomar', whilst continuing to work on her large canvases representing Zen Gardens, vast oceans and lawns in which she paints every blade of grass. Why 'Mr Palomar'?
In 27 short chapters, arranged in a 3 × 3 × 3 pattern, the title character makes philosophical observations about the world around him. Calvino shows us a man on a quest to quantify complex phenomena in a search for fundamental truths on the nature of being.
The first section is concerned chiefly with visual experience; the second with anthropological and cultural themes; the third with speculations about larger questions such as the cosmos, time, and infinity. This thematic triad is mirrored in the three subsections of each section, and the three chapters in each subsection.
For example, chapter 1.2.3, "The infinite lawn" ("Il prato infinito") has elements of all three themes, and shows the progress of the book in miniature. It encompasses very detailed observations of the various plants growing in Mr Palomar's lawn, an investigation of the symbolism of the lawn as a marker ofculture versus nature, the problem of categorizing weeds, the problem of the actual extent of the lawn, the problem of how we perceive elements and collections of those elements ... These thoughts and others run seamlessly together, so by the end of the chapter we find Mr Palomar extending his mind far beyond his garden, and contemplating the nature of the universe itself." (source: Wikipedia)

Look closely at the 4 works below, all from Shi Zhiying's 'Mr Palomar' series of ink and watercolour works on paper, and then answer the questions. 


  1. Explain her processes and procedures in making these works
  2. Find a traditional Chinese ink painting, by an artist such as Ba Da or Qi Baishi. Explain how Shi Zhiying's works incorporate an influence from the traditional works, and how they differ.

Shi Zhiying is currently ( in 2013) working on a new series of paintings based on Buddhist reliquaries (a reliquary is a container for holy relics or objects associated with saints or holy people such as bones, fragments of clothing or scriptures). She works from photographs and makes drawings, then small studies in ink and wash, before beginning a series of small paintings on canvas using thinned down washes of oil paint. These are experiments, where she works out any problems and makes decisions about composition and tonal relationships before she works on a much larger scale.
Shi Zhiying, work in progress, study for Buddhist reliquary, oil on canvas,
photograph Luise Guest reproduced with permission of the artist
Shi Zhiying, work in progress, study for Buddhist reliquary, oil on canvas,
photograph Luise Guest reproduced with permission of the artist
Critical Response

Imagine that you are an art critic writing a review of Shi Zhiying's latest exhibition. You need to start with a general explanation of her particular practice and her background, and then select up to three specific works to describe, analyse and interpret.

"What if?"

  • What if Shi Zhiying's next series of ink-on-paper works were to be inspired by your most significant objects? What would they be, and how would she paint them?
  • What if you decided to make a series of artworks inspired by your favourite book? What book would it be, and what kinds of images would you produce?