Whether Hilda Shen’s work centers around Manhattan’s urban skies, geological vastness, the idiosyncrasies of Chinese scholar rocks, or the waters of Maine, her imagery flows between monumental and sensual landscapes, between the enormity of the human footprint and the desire to feel simply at ease with our perceived and hidden surroundings.
Shen works with simple materials, such as paper, glue, ink, Xeroxes, and even rubber stamps. She layers these materials with careful attention and historical sensitivity: from her wall installations to sculptures, paintings, and prints, her pieces feel deeply spatial although sometimes displayed in a single plane. In engaging the layering process, Shen creates both dynamic and contemplative pieces and reflects her desire to explore how layers of human touch and intention have been interleaved into the natural world.
Shen’s relief sculpture Yosemite is a tribute to an American geological monument. It is constructed of torn, heavy paper seeped through with black ink and then encased and hardened in beeswax. The abstract minutiae of the land, shapes of rock formations, and dramatic vistas were all created from Shen’s own memory of her experience navigating the landscape. Shen’s wonderfully astute recollections of the place intimately texture the physical peaks and canyons of Yosemite. Recurrent River, originally installed in the historic home of Wave Hill in the Bronx, traverses another ecological panorama: the Hudson River. Shen meticulously affixes her wax-coated, inky pieces of paper onto a wall of the Wave Hill mansion, creating a wintry vision of the Hudson River that reflects the rich record of its recent human history.
In the two site-specific works Keep In/Keep Out and The Lost Ones, Shen pursues ideas about a man-made landmark, the Great Wall in China. In addition to its historical importance, Shen attaches fingerprint images (photocopied, laser-printed, or stamped onto the surface of the wall) to reference the anonymous hands exploited to erect this monumental construction. While the fingerprints are oversized and unidentified, they imply the lasting imprint those individuals had in the historical narrative.
Shen shifts the content of her work towards her New York City habitat and the idea of landscape as a point of self-reflection in Sky Climb and the more recent piece, SkySquare. Again, meticulously built-up surfaces suggest either light imprints of human touch or bruises deeply embedded.
Shen successfully incorporates Song dynasty aesthetics into her developed artistic practice through her rare “paper sculptures.” Strewn with the dark, familiar waves of fingerprints, Shen’s paper is frozen into shape with a polymer product and connected through sewing. The final products—amorphous and anthropomorphic—are reminiscent of Chinese scholar rocks, dramatically shaped by natural forces and coveted for their meditational aura.
Shen has also adapted her artistic values to printmaking. Following a fellowship with the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop in 2008, she began experimenting with imparting her physical presence into monotypes. Each print is consumed by what seem to be tick marks of a well-sharpened pencil, swirls of ink, and swabs of erasure. Instead, the ink is moved and removed by Shen’s own palms, fingers, fingernails, and elbows as she uses them to apply patterns and pressure, create tonality and evoke intimacy.
Shen most recently has taken particular things in a landscape as items to be examined and manipulated as discrete objects. Using clay as the primary medium, she fashions a mountain, a wall, a brick, or a rock. Once again the imprint of the human is carved into the surface and the sense of time, growth, and decay are strongly defined.
Shen continues to make work that delves into the understanding of how she experiences moving through nature, space, and time—how memories are accrued and how history is perceived—and by extension, seeks to make visible what is only intermittently detectable.