Qiu Shihua: Untitled, 2005, oil on canvas, 44½ by 91¾ inches; at Luis Campaña.

From a distance, they look like white monochromes—if anything at all. Quite often, they suggest raw canvas, without even a layer of gesso. When you get a bit closer, however, and allow your eyes to rest upon them for half a minute, a full minute, longer, suddenly entire landscapes appear before you—worlds half-known and half-dreamed, much as in classical Chinese landscape paintings. 

How does he do it? This is the inherent mystery of Qiu Shihua’s paintings. Even on close inspection the shapes of trees, forests and suns on the canvases seem to have been rendered almost accidentally, resembling light coatings of amassed dust. What’s more, the difficulty of discussing Qiu’s paintings in a critical context (namely, the fact that they are almost impossible to reproduce) is exacerbated by his choice not to title them, which is perhaps partly why so few people have written about his work.

Qiu’s recent exhibition at Luis Campaña consisted of six paintings of varying sizes, and was thus fairly compact—fittingly so, considering the amount of concentration each canvas requires. One of the smallest works in the show, dated 2014 and measuring around 16 by 20 inches, is centered with a full moon—or could it be an overripe sun? It shines above a round hollow, which we take to be a lake or a pond, surrounded by land. In the foreground, a tree stands proud, naked with its barren autumn branches outstretched like monster claws in an expressionist film. 

A larger canvas, about 45 by 94 inches, dated 2006, utilizes the barest discernible inferences of green to infer the movements of the sea—or is that a bed of clouds? Looked at from another angle, it could also be a conference of mountains or rolling hills, seen from above. 

We often don’t know, and sometimes two viewers might disagree on just what it is they are seeing. That is the mystery, the value of Qiu’s painting. Images are hidden in snow or smog, or, to use an analogy to the mind’s processes, it is as though they are shrouded in the mists of memory: you have to go somewhere in order to locate them. Such probing always leads back to the self: what am I doing here and why? A horizon conceals as much as it shows; there is always a certain amount of deception in such instances of blatant nakedness. 

Qiu’s project remains steadfast and unrelenting as the years go by and the canvases pile up. Nature is our friend; it is also, inevitably, our end. Qiu is painting the void we are all well aware of, and that some of us may even wish to enter permanently.