Void But Complete, Full Yet Empty: A Reading of Recent Works by Shen Chen

Zhijian Qian 2008

It could well be puzzling to many viewers and readers when we make a connection between the abstract painting by Shen Chen and the ink work by Mu Xi, a Chan Buddhist painter from late Song and early Yuan China. Some may think such an association ridiculous because the two artists seem to be incomparable whether in their historical and social backgrounds or in their art language, method, medium and concept, and thus do not have anything in common. To clarify our point, we must start with specific works by Shen Chen. Untitled, No. 60602-08, for example, is a recent work from Shen Chen’s abstract painting series. Appearing to be a piece of canvas filled with unevenly applied gray color of various tonalities, the work upon close inspection turns out to be a picture rich in acrylic marks of gray that the artist delicately repeated on the canvas with the same brush. Subtle effects of brushwork are seen in the vertical stripes formed by numerous overlays of gray on the picture surface, which introduces a complex connection between the lines, shapes and colors. A dynamic interactive relationship is activated among these pictorial elements through mutual overlapping, pushing, squeezing and yielding. The ostensibly simple relationship is thus turned into a complicated one that moves beyond comprehension in endless repetition and overlapping. In Six Persimmons by Mu Xi, by comparison, six persimmons that vary in size, shape and tone appear to be casually arranged within a picture that has no apparent indication of a background. The persimmons are painted in minimal brushstrokes of ink, but the relationship between the persimmons is by no means as simple as it appears to be. The complexity of the relationship lies in the positioning of each persimmon in the composition and their formal elements, which forms the kernel part of the painting. This is where Shen Chen meets Mu Xi: superficially they have nothing to do with each other, but spiritually they are closely connected.


What Shen Chen differs himself from Mu Xi, however, is that his representation of Chan Buddhist concept of void does not rely on the large space unexecuted with brushstroke. But rather, he fills his picture surface with subtle colors. Again in Untitled, No. 60602-08, the picture is filled with a variety of gray color in between every fiber of the canvas. But such filling does not mean overall covering of the canvas. Instead, the whole picture is painted in rich colors that change in tone as they run spontaneously from top to bottom of the canvas. When inspecting the painting at different distances, a viewer can notice the change of the picture surface, whose visual effects of illusion and even mysteriousness invites him to imagine walking into a world that exists in between being and nothingness. However, Shen’s effective control of the picture surface as a whole gives the viewer the experience of walking freely back and forth. The coloring of the picture surface is marked by the fact that color gradually changes from light to dark as it moves from the top and the bottom to the center, which results in a horizon-like line slightly above the central section of the picture. This creates a visual uncertainty that gives the viewer a strange feeling of being far from the painting while standing close and yet being close enough while standing far. This further provides the viewer a unique visual experience that makes one feel like thousands of mountains and waters will appear within one step forward, yet everything will disappear into void when you take one step backward. Extreme completeness leads to void, and extreme void could turn into completeness. The interchangeable relationship between completeness and void visualized in Shen Chen’s painting is the very effects that such Chan Buddhist painter as Mu Xi was searching for.


But Shen Chen’s art language came less from Chan painting but more from abstract art that he had been trained with while studying in America and his independent study of Minimalist art. Shen’s concept of “void but complete” shares a lot with the Minimalist principle of “less is more”. It makes a lot of sense when critics discuss Shen’s painting with reference to Minimalist artists such as Agnes Martin. Shen’s connection with the Minimalist artists could be observed in his using basic formal elements in expressing his emotions and metaphysical concepts. Besides Agnes Martin, we could also see in his painting influences of Robert Ryman and Brice Marden. But Shen Chen has no intention to simply repeat what others have done. As a matter of fact, a comparison between Shen Chen and Brice Marden can reveal that they move in nearly opposite directions. Marden’s early painting tends to be simple and minimal, but his more recent works have developed a writing dynamic characteristic of Eastern calligraphy. In his early years, Shen Chen was more interested in creating a visual dynamic by heavily relying on calligraphic strokes and interplay of rich ink effects. This has been replaced in his recent works by his exploration of abstract visual effects with a focus on the paradoxical relationship between being and nothingness. Yet, Shen and Marden do have something in common, that is, they believe in developing an approach to painting by borrowing from the tradition of other cultures.


The other aspect that Shen Chen shares with the Minimalists is their common investigation of visual possibilities to express the eternity of the immaterial world of the inner mind as expressed in Chan Buddhism. While many artists explore the possibilities through fabricating pictorial effects, Shen Chen emphasizes his experience of Chan practice during the very process of painting. A number of his works were executed with brushes that he holds against large canvases laid flat on the floor of his studio. These brushes, varied in size, were made by the artist himself. During painting, Shen holds a brush bound onto a wooden stick taller than himself which he dips in acrylic colors and lays down onto the canvas on the floor where rich and subtle lines, shapes and colors are created through his painstaking repetition. This performative action of painting is instantly reminiscent of the daily activities of the Zen Buddhist monks at the Ryoanji temple in Kyoto of Japan, where they repeat the same practice day after day, that is, raking the pebbles in the temple courtyard into abstract forms imitating river, lake and sea. The process of such boring and tedious practice is the very approach for the monks to realize the very truth of Zen or Chan.


It is interesting to note that critics who write mainly in English often do not hesitate to point out that there are elements of traditional Chinese culture in Shen Chen’s painting. This is, as far as I understand it, partly due to the fact that they know before they write that Shen had an art education background in China back in the 1980s, and partly because cross-cultural method is still popular in art criticism in America. But Shen Chen is different from many of the Chinese artists living and working in America, and New York in particular. In his recent works, Shen makes invisible pictorial elements immediately reminiscent of traditional Chinese painting so that they do not have the potential to become formal parts that are superficially Eastern and visually pleasing to an audience eager to search in his painting anything Chinese. He has no interest in emphasizing what he learned from traditional Chinese culture, or in raising issues of cultural identity. In fact, if the true identity of the author of this Untitled series is kept unknown, the audience will have no idea whether the artist has a background in Chinese art and culture. This said, it is undeniable that Shen’s experience and memory of ink painting still plays a role in his recent works. This could be seen in his delicate control of rich ink effects, the fluidity of his brushstrokes, and such techniques as feibai, or flying white, from Chinese calligraphy. But Shen Chen intelligently incorporates his experience into his concept of painting. What the artist has hidden behind the visual effects of ink is his manipulation and execution of color, brushwork, texture of canvas, movement of brush over picture surface, as well as the relationship of pushing and yielding among the lines and strokes. What Shen emphasizes is not simply the elements of traditional Chinese painting, but rather his effort in synthesizing concept of contemporary art and the spirit of Chinese art.




Zhijian Qian


an art historian, critic and curator. He is currently a full-time faculty member at Parsons the New School for Design, where he teaches modern and contemporary Chinese and Asian art, and history of world art and design. Since the 1980s, Mr. Qian has published a large number of translations on modern and contemporary Western art, including History of Modern Art, 1980s. Throughout the 1990s, he was one of the few young art critics and curators who promoted contemporary art in China, and he has published numerous essays on Chinese contemporary art since then. From 1991 to 1997, he was an editor of Art Monthly, an art journal of China Artists’ Association. Mr. Qian received his M.A. degree in art history at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1991. He is currently expecting his doctoral degree in art history at New York University. Since 2004, Mr. Qian has been teaching Chinese and Asian art at William Paterson University, Drew University, Kean University and Fashion Institute of Technology. His recent curatorial works include “Travelers Between Cultures” (2006), “Transplanted” (2006) and “Here and Now: Chinese Artists in New York” (2009). He is a contributor of Art Journal, Art AsiaPacific, and Jin Yishu (Art Today), Hualang (Art Gallery), and Huakan (Art Pictorial). His research interest lies in art and politics, art and visual culture, and art and urban culture.