Tradition and the Individual Talent
—— Lily Wei
Independent Curator, Writer, Journalist and Critic
They vary: some have broader bands, brushstrokes, some have narrower; some display a greater range of tonalities from dark to light and some are nearly black or very pale, their composition seemingly allover; some have tinges of color. My first thought was to call these paintings ephemeral. They seemed almost not there, like falls of water or rain or wisps of clouds and other similarly fleeting natural phenomena miraculously hovering just above the canvas. Yet they brimmed with intimations and a slowly emerging radiance, reverberating subtly, so subtly that you might think you imagined the shift in tonality, like the way light can come and go, lightening and darkening imperceptibly, appearing, disappearing. Looking more closely, you see that they are undergirded by a semblance of a grid made by the weave of the brushwork, seesawing between presence and void, or “emptiness and fullness,” as Shen Chen, the artist whose creations these are, likes to put it.
This grid, an image/structure closely identified with European and American modernism, signals a sensibility familiar with the art of East and West. That binary that has been operative for centuries, with upswings and downturns, as interaction gives way to disengagement, depending upon a host of geopolitical, economic and social factors. Certainly these days, the encounters between East and West has become far less exotic in our blended era of more or less matter-of-fact globalism, as cultures and countries have become increasingly proximate—in actuality and virtually—thanks to all manner of technological advances. This is true despite the unfortunate world-wide tilt toward less open borders and the concomitant rise in xenophobic policies and nationalist, nativist ideologies that have wakened us from the dream of a golden age of internationalism that seemed imminent only a few years ago.
Shen Chen is an abstract painter and, as such, his project is more open-ended and absorptive, keyed to countless influences across chronologies and cultures. As one of those influences, his works evoke landscapes inflected through a history of Chinese ink paintings, at least conceptually. He started out in a representational mode enamored of traditional Chinese paintings and early on discovered among other heroes the brilliant Liang Kai and Bada Shanren. Both were Buddhists, considered “mad” monks and both remain two of the painters he most admires. It was revelatory to him that they could convey so acutely the things of this world through the deftness of markmaking in which a few strokes can conjure a fish, a leaf, an entire panorama. He was born in Shanghai in 1955 and came of age during the Cultural Revolution. He spent his formative years in China immersed in ink painting but was also drawn to Western culture and has now lived in New York for almost three decades so it is not surprising that his practice is a marriage of East and West. He attended the Shanghai Academy of Theatre where he earned a BFA in 1982 and then went to Beijing, eager to discover ways to make art that reflected the present. The contemporary art scene barely existed then but was about to take off. Beijing was an epicenter, where young artists could meet, collaborate, challenge, and support each other. Change was in the air, as was the optimism and excitement so characteristic of beginnings. Opening a door to the outside world after decades of almost complete isolation heralded a more expansive order of things to come. But then came the tragic events of Tiananmen Square.
Not long before that, Shen Chen was given the opportunity to study in the United States and he seized it. He earned an MFA from Boston University in 1990 and attended a number of art schools in New York. He is completely Chinese, he often says when asked whether his work is American or Chinese. But his work is not defined by his origins in any strict or systematic way. Instead, it is derived from a range of works that have been meaningful to him and not by country or culture. It is the offspring, inevitably, of a particular artist’s singular imagination and experience. One reason that he was so intent on coming to the United States was to see art that he had been introduced to in China but only through inferior reproductions. Arriving in America, he dove headlong, hungrily into museums and galleries, feasting on their collections. He has spoken of his encounters with Mark Tobey and his fine, calligraphic-like markings; Jackson Pollack’s drip paintings and discovering that they were made on canvases laid flat on the floor (which is how Shen Chen works); Franz Kline’s fierce slashes of black, also reminiscent of calligraphy but blown up in scale; Rothko’s enigmatic and very moving color diaphanes; James Lee Byar’s gold-leafed environments and so many others. What was compelling was the kindred spirit he felt in these works that was based not on identity or formalism but on a transcendent spirituality, a kind of existential core that echoed that of Chan Buddhism.
His aesthetic lexicon has been gathered from multiple sources, sometimes apparent, sometimes not, a broad net that is one of his works’ great strengths. Perhaps one of the ways Shen Chen manifests his Chineseness is his embrace and acknowledgement of influences, unlike American artists bound to a cultural imperative of originality, afflicted by the “anxiety of influence,” in literary critic Harold Bloom’s memorable phrase. In fact, for Chinese artists such as Shen Chen, in whom cultural memory remains active, ineradicable, the anxiety might be the reverse, that of no influence. In a traditional Chinese or Asian world view, influence was cultivated. And why shouldn’t artists avail themselves of all that captivates their idiosyncratic imagination?—to be then filtered through their own interpretations.
In addition to materials—exchanging Chinese ink and paper for Western acrylic and canvas—process is the primary content of these works and the direct result of it. He has claimed that he values it more than the finished product. It includes a number of Chinese painting techniques, among them the method of application of brush marks and the selection of strokes, often canonical, as well as the brushes themselves, which are usually Chinese. He paints in layers, intuitively, each painting’s resolution determined by the uniqueness of that painting’s process. Shen Chen also envisions what he wants to paint in advance. It allows him to let the process take over, the qi, the energy, flowing from him to the brush to the support: “Every touch of the canvas becomes a point of inspiration.”
The painting is complete when he feels himself absorbed by it, when he feels he can walk into it, which can take weeks or even months. That encompassing, transformative moment when art becomes the greater reality, recalls Marguerite Yourcenar’s parable about a celebrated Chinese painter whom the Emperor ordered to make one last painting before he was executed. The artist, having no other choice, complied, painting a breathtaking landscape with a broad river, adding a boat to the scene as it neared completion. The artist then walked into the painting with his disciple, jumped into the boat and sailed off into painting’s depths to escape beyond the imperial reach, free from worldly power.
Shen Chen has always loved greys, a love instilled while studying and making ink paintings. After he came to America, he temporarily concentrated on color for several years. I have seen splendid instances of these works although their colorfulness might be a point of dispute since they remained limited in range, four colors or so his maximum. They are more expressions of his views on color and lack of color than they are about pursuing the effects of a full palette or about making a colorful painting for its own sake. His paintings are purposefully tonal and he soon returned to shades of grey, with color occasionally added. To him, grey and black are a color and offer infinite gradations of hues. Black also connects him to his beloved ink painting at the same time it forges ahead into personalized terrain and the present.
These refined, very elegant, very beautiful paintings focus the viewer on process and structure, made more visible through a monochromatic formulation. They are untitled for the same reason, to not distract, to not confine meaning, a convention borrowed from Western modernism. The structure, as noted above, is a grid created by layering brushstrokes. Depending on how the brushstrokes are applied, a darkening might result where the repetitions overlap. A white line might appear by leaving intervals of space between the repeating strokes. His markmaking also marks time, each stroke a kind of beat, introducing a space-time dimension into the work. The mysticism of Sung landscapes is distilled, transformed into an abstract painting that is a poetics of space grounded by a gossamer grid that prevents it from dissolving into nothingness.
These are slow paintings—slow to look at and slow to make, slow to find a way in and once in, slow to find a way out. For instance, they are made stroke by stroke, and necessitate a wait while each stroke dries. Only then can the next one be placed since it is brushed directly over the previous one. To do this successfully, the ratio of paint and medium must be precisely calibrated. There is no room for error, no way to correct, the artist explains. In essence, this destroys the layer beneath it. Shen Chen calls this “painting by destroying painting.” When the painting is finished, what remains are traces of the previous brush marks. Like an archeological stratigraphy, like ruins, these remnants are evidence of its history, documenting its coming into being.
It is evident that figuration is the dominant mode of representation in contemporary Chinese art but I was nonetheless surprised when Shen Chen said that his paintings are not well understood in China, that abstraction still does not have much of an audience there. Like so many others regarding it from an external perspective, I think of his work (and work similar to his) as entrenched in classic Chinese concepts such as a spareness that is equivalent to fullness, and the reconciliation of such oppositions. Since many Western—in particular modernist—artists have been indebted to Asian art history and culture, it seems natural that such work would be comprehended in China, since they stem from a common source. Shen Chen says that, at times in China, it was thought his paintings were made by a Westerner, while in America, it was thought they were very (too?) Chinese. But attitudes are shifting with the recent spike in interest in Western contemporary art in the East, as well as in contemporary Chinese art that includes abstraction.
To say these are paintings by a Chinese artist who lives in the United States may explain something. But they should also be recognized as paintings that exist in the expanded field that is contemporary art. As such, they should be discussed as part of a contemporary global discourse about current interpretations of minimalism, and current trends of hybridization and appropriation. As Shen Chen observes, an artist’s mission is to represent himself, not a particular people, country, or culture. “The artist should be an independent entity.” Concluding, he says, “my art is my own.”
Author: Lily Wei
Lilly Wei, a New York-based independent curator and critic who contributes to many publications in the United States and abroad. She has written regularly for Art in America since 1982 and is a contributing editor at ARTnews and Art Asia Pacific. Wei has also written for Asian Art News, Art Papers, Sculpture Magazine, Tema Celeste, Flash Art, Art Press and Art and Auction, among others. She also frequently reports on international biennials such as those of Sydney, Cairo, Athens and Reykjavik.