Meet Shen Wei, the Chinese artist who explores the world with no clothes

Story highlights

  • Shanghai-born artist Shen Wei is known for mixing nature and nudity in his work
  • His dream-like photos are not intended to provoke or shock
  • Instead, he sees them as personal explorations of his own identity

(CNN)Shen Wei's photographs aren't ordinary portraits -- they're dreams.

In one entrancing image after another, the Shanghai-born, New York-based artist appears unclothed, delicately pressed against an ethereal world. Lotus ponds, dusty roads, unmade sheets become a stage for Shen's muscled, arcing body.
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His eyes are soft, or closed in a moment of perfect calm.
    There's a painterly quality to his work: Shen goads emotions out of a palette of rich reds, lush greens, and pale gold. Avoiding harsh light, he prefers the glint of a quiet lake or the softness of a cloudy day.
    It's a vision that's made him one of the most prominent Chinese photo artists of his generation, with works included in the permanent collections of museums like the MoMA, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Getty Museum and, just recently, the YIA Art Fair in Paris.
    For Shen, it's been a long journey of finding himself.

    Culture shock

    Originally a decorative art and design student in Shanghai, Shen Wei moved to Minnesota over a decade ago to pursue a graduate degree. It was there that he became inspired to create pictures of people nude.
    Shen Wei, from 'Almost Naked'
    "I had just arrived in the States, I had culture shock. I was not brave enough to explore myself, so I explored myself through other people," he tells CNN.
    The resulting work became "Almost Naked", a series of tender portraits of Americans in different states of undress.
    For Shen, it was also a way to overcome his own conservative upbringing in China.
    "It was a statement for me to break through this stereotyped image of Chinese men being not sensitive, not emotional, but that's just a small part of it," he says. "I wanted my project to have a more universal statement, not focus on obvious things."
    That led to "Chinese Sentiment", a photo story about returning to one's past. After having spent years in the US, Shen traveled home and felt disoriented by the changes in himself and in China. He wandered the forgotten corners of smaller cities and towns, discovering emotion in ordinary scenes.
    It was around this time that Shen began to turn the lens upon himself, producing a series of achingly sentimental nude self-portraits.
    Shen Wei, from 'I Miss You Already'
    Called "I Miss You Already", the series reveals the artist at his most visceral, private moments. We're invited to share Shen's sensations -- skin against grass, the caress of a lover, the warmth of a flame -- stepping between the real and imagined as he explores the possibilities of his own body.

    Beautiful or vulgar?

    What's most interesting, says Shen, are the different interpretations of his work.
    "I've read a lot of things about 'I Miss You Already', and it's often related to Chinese males, or gay themes, or sometimes in the Western art world it seems very exotic because you don't see Asian male nudes that often," he says. "I'm fine with that; how viewers perceive the work is not up to me."
    Chinese audiences have their own take as well.
    "I get comments on Weibo -- Chinese social media. A lot of people think it's beautiful, it's brave; other people think it's vulgar. The most difficult side is my family. My parents are born in the 1940s. They are quite conservative, and it was much harder to have them accept the project than the audience."
    Shen Wei, from 'I Miss You Already'
    Because of the full-frontal nudity, Shen Wei's self-portrait series has only been shown once in China. "It was not a traditional show," he says. "We did a slideshow instead of hanging pictures. That defused a bit of the awkwardness because each picture only stayed 10 seconds on the wall."
    Censorship, Shen acknowledges, remains a problem for Chinese artists. Despite the rapid growth of the country's contemporary photography scene, Shen says he can't imagine moving back.
    "The most important thing is the complete freedom to do my work."

    'Liberation'

    In his newest series, "Between Blossoms," Shen turns to the emotional lives of trees and plants, what he calls the "unfamiliar and fantastical."
    Shen Wei, from 'Between Blossoms'
    It began with a walk through Beijing's Temple of Heaven, when he saw flowers lying on the ground -- something that was "beautiful and sad at the same time."
    From those fallen blossoms sprang the inspiration for the new project -- a search for a melancholy present in nature itself.
    It's a change for the artist, who feels he's graduated from his more inwardly-focused works. "I understand myself much better than 10 years ago. I was very happy about that exploration, so I want to move on to see what else I can do and explore as an artist."
    "This will be the most conceptually abstract series I've done; it's just about a mood and a sentiment. I'm interested in how a liberation from self-discovery can help me see other things."