Chinese artist Guo Fengyi, who passed away in 2010, is not well known—to the point where a publication attached to a current show at Vancouver’s Contemporary Art Gallery is called Who Is Guo Fengyi? Guo’s lack of notoriety compels one to call her an outsider artist, an appellation with, arguably, decreasing stigma. (Guo, it should be noted, finally found recognition in 2002 with participation in the Long March Project, a multi-venue event in China for which she collaborated with Judy Chicago.)
“Outsider” successfully defines Guo because she not only produced outside sanctioned art circles for most of her career, but also dealt with subjects and themes not current to said circles. Like the British artist Madge Gill and the Czech artist Anna Zemánková—both of whose work Guo’s uncannily resembles—Guo seems out of time, dwelling in abstract-primitive, numinous realms. But it is precisely this disconnect, and its associated idiosyncrasies, that make her work so attractive today, when strength of vision, in combination with non-academic training, can seem as novel as the latest high-tech gadget.
The exhibition text for the CAG show tells us of the specificities of Guo’s references—well, at least of what is possible to understand through a cursory Western gaze. Falling ill, Guo explored qigong, a healing methodology involving, in part, meditation. (Notions of “qi” or “chi” as a life force worth tapping into are, of course, now popular worldwide.) While meditating, Guo had visions, reflected in the drawings; her subjects included Taoism, acupuncture energy maps and geomancy. Without depth of reference, however, one can still appreciate the drawings’ eerie beauty. Animism is evident: faces often emerge in the smallest detail. The colours and lines are also impressive: as with so many so-called outsiders, Guo’s miraculous achievement is her marriage of expressionism with a precise, yet inherently odd, representationalism.