Deena Gu works in watercolor on silk, using time-honored techniques and incorporating images and conventions from the deepest roots of Chinese painting.

In China, painters traditionally learn their craft by studying and copying treasured artworks from the past under the guidance of a master teacher. As the last student of Cheng Shifa, one of China’s great figurative painters, Deena Gu was encouraged to copy his technique but also to “become who you are.” This lesson has continued to inform her choices of both subject and media, making her work at once respectful of the past and yet very much her own. Early Works, Early Scrolls features pieces created during Ms. Gu’s studies with Cheng Shifa before she left China for the United States. In the early 1980s, the scroll ceased to be a part of her oeuvre. While a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the rectangular shapes of Western art became her preferred format. 

At the core of this exhibition are scrolls being seen for the first time in the United States. Preferred for their portability, scrolls are traditionally displayed only on special occasions or for personal enjoyment and then stored away. The highlight of Early Work, Early Scrolls is 87 Mortals—a thirty-foot handscroll that is a copy of a scroll from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.). The horizontal handscroll isthe preferred method when a painting involves a complex narrative sequence, while vertical scrolls are more appropriate for figurative themes involving symbolism. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the silk canvas on which the artist paints, whether a horizontal handscroll or a vertical scroll, is unforgiving. In Early Works, Early Scrolls, Ms. Gu’s flawless renderings have created a body of work that represents the singular ideas of a student while revealing a special reverence for a master teacher.