A week ago I was invited to a rare viewing of reclusive Chan (Zen) Buddhist Master Shen-Long’s temporary studio near Dallas. The contemporary Chinese artist is nomadic and never stays in one place for very long. As Master Shen-Long does not sell his pieces, exposure to his work is limited, making me all the more excited to visit him.
When I arrived at his humble studio, I was expecting relatively small artworks that could fit comfortably on the average gallery wall that in one way or another would be reflective of what we understand as being of the Chan (Zen) Buddhist tradition. Chan Buddhist art seeks to draw a connection between the seen and unseen world often through the medium of ink landscape painting. Surreal mountainous regions are generally depicted immersed in fog, the suggestion being of ambiguity as to whether the depicted scene is of physical reality or some higher plane.
Chan Buddhist art seeks to draw a connection between the seen and unseen world often through the medium of ink landscape painting.
Master Shen-Long’s art takes on these concepts through the depiction of subjects in traditional Chinese and Buddhist painting in a new way. The expression of such ideas concerning the permeable nature of reality was for thousands of years generally rather subtle. While traditional Chan/Zen landscapes may have seemed otherworldly through their use of mist and also indicative of the porous nature of existence through the use of loose brushwork, these depictions always remained somewhat grounded in reality due to their figural nature.
Much of Master Shen-Long’s work is often completely abstract in his pursuit to express these ancient concepts. This is in tandem with his busy, frantic brushwork that results in depictions lacking distinct borders, the suggestion being that the boundaries where an entity begins and ends is amorphous. I witnessed this in the first alcove of the studio in the work with the work Pure Land Within Our Soul (2008). Here we see the indication of a figure but they appear to literally be coming apart at the seams amongst the waves of undulating, abstract brushwork. Even in the more clearly figural work of a woman hung across from Pure Land Within Our Soul, Buddha Nature (1981), the idea of her existing in an ever-changing void is evident. Her more clearly defined borders could at any moment be brushed away in the red mist surrounding her. Another of Shen-Long’s works, Awakened Dragon Spirits (2008), in comparison to these two works, is entirely abstract, indicative of the variance and range of the master’s style.
In the second room of the studio was a mountain landscape more closely similar to traditional Chan/Zen Buddhist art. Sprouting from Zen’s Joy (2007) appears more reminiscent of traditional art due to its more clearly figural method of depiction and the relatively subtle permeability of its various bordering. We also see the dense fog of traditional landscape painting swirling about the work. However, Sprouting from Zen’s Joy is still more exaggerated in its execution of these motifs than art of the past and features entirely new concepts.
Looking more closely at the various cliffs and rocks one can make out the abundance of bodily imagery such as the prevalence of surreal eyes embedded in the stone. In one area of the painting at the top of rising spires of rock are depictions of faces as if “sprouting” from the stone. Such novel methods of depicting Chan/Zen concepts through painting poignantly enhances the desire to express the permeable nature of reality and invokes an otherworldly feeling through landscape. Beholding the work truly instills a unique feeling.
I figured it would be difficult to transport anything large scale since he travels so often. It did not cross my mind he had the room to do large-scale works on site. Surely enough, from my initial glances upon entering the studio, the artworks were relatively in line with my expectations. This is not to say they did not surprise me or that I did not appreciate them, just that the works were of a comparatively small scale to some of Master Shen-Long’s work I saw online. However, before I could really look over anything in depth, I was asked to come to the back of the studio. Expecting just another regular room, I had no idea something incredibly profound was about to happen.
About the Author: Devon Hersch is currently the McDermott Curatorial Intern of Asian Art at the Dallas Museum of Art. He received his Bachelor of the Arts Degree last year from New York University, graduating summa cum laude with high honors in Art History. His honors thesis on Postmodern Japanese Art won multiple awards, such as the Douglas F. Maxwell award for excellence in the study of Art History. The award included a generous stipend for travel abroad to view culture and art which Devon used to travel to East Asia.
 Better known as Zen in the West, Chan Buddhism is a tradition that formed within China that was transmitted to Japan via cultural exchange. This initially started in Japan via Chan Buddhist monks that visited Honshu and other islands to spread their message where it became known locally as Zen. The reverse process would also start to become the case with many Japanese monks interested in Zen visiting the mainland to acquire further knowledge and perhaps bring some of their own to the process. Each tradition has various distinct qualities but also shares many with its counterpart so that in many ways they seem nearly the same or at least intensely similar.
 Kanazawa, Hiroshi and Helmut Brinker. Zen Masters of Meditation in Images and Writings. Trans. Andreas Leisinger. Zurich: Artibus Asiae Publishers, Supplementum 40 (1996), 143-148,196-197.