Curator’s Corner

Pride Month 2020, Part 3

By Karl Cole, posted on Jun 22, 2020

My Pride Month series celebrating and recognizing LGBTQI+ artists continues, acknowledging their accomplishments and contributions to the art world. Today’s post features the work of photographer Shen Wei.

Shen Wei (born 1977, China), Self-Portrait (Bubble), from the series I Miss You Already, from the Photography Portfolio, 2011.
Shen Wei (born 1977, China), Self-Portrait (Bubble), from the series I Miss You Already, from the Photography Portfolio, 2011. Pigment print on paper, 12" x 18" (30.5 x 45.7 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. Art © Shen Wei. (PMA-8195)


I Miss You Already is a series of nude self-portraits, which Wei uses as a place for self-discovery and contemplation on his sexuality, shared with the viewer. Each image captures a momentary experience that describes the coming together of person and place. Wei’s physical appearance as a fit, young Asian man plays an important part in how his work addresses desire in the context of his sexual identity, and bridges cultural and sexual barriers. 

Wei cites Diane Arbus (1923–1971) among his favorite photographers. Like portraits by Arbus, his self-portraits are unabashedly open to the viewer with no barriers. Unlike Arbus, his work does not highlight other people as portraits of irony or ridicule. Wei uses his series to push against Chinese cultural boundaries, but in image after image he also explores his own comfort level with expressing his sexuality. Throughout the series, we observe Wei trying on one environment and identity at a time. Although the photographs are constructed, his image appears true to what he was feeling at the moment, and that is often incorporated into the title. Wei asserts himself in front of the camera and claims his right to define himself and his sexuality. 

When Deng Xiaoping opened China to the West in 1978, Chinese artists eagerly experimented with Western modernism. Works of the 1970s and 80s cautiously questioned the values of the Communist Cultural Revolution. This political trend ended after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, although Chinese artists continued to find inspiration in Western trends. 

With the rapid economic boom in China during the 1990s, artists turned away from political context and experimented with traditional subjects and forms, often in a realist mode. Radical modernist experiment by contemporary Chinese artists is still easier to view in the West because few galleries in China are willing to mount edgy exhibitions. Sadly, most contemporary Chinese artists who depart from the orthodoxy of communist dogma find it easier to freely express their personal aesthetic by relocating to Western countries.

Wei was raised in Yangpu District of Shanghai. He began his art training at an early age at a local Children's Palace. He holds a BA from Shanghai Light Industry College, a BFA from Minneapolis College of Art and Design (where he discovered photography through a course about Diane Arbus), and an MFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. 

Wei was brought up strictly and conservatively. He found revelatory self-expression difficult, if not impossible, in his home country. His photographs react to this upbringing by exploring the ease with which Americans lay bare their emotions, as well as their bodies, for his camera. He now lives and works in New York.