Three aspects of the art of Shen Chen (b. 1955, Shanghai) immediately stand out. First is the fact that he does purely abstract painting, a relative rare choice for Chinese-born artists of his generation. Second, the work has a Western appearance but an Eastern soul, so to speak, combining expansive Color Field esthetics with timeless spiritual themes. Finally, the paintings manifest both refined facture and emotional subtlety—two concerns frequently neglected in progressive art today.
But are these works simply autonomous aesthetic objects, beautiful and entire unto themselves? Or are they emblems of circumstances beyond themselves, reflecting complexities of life from which they are only seemingly withdrawn?
For millennia, painting in China was almost exclusively imagistic in nature. Flowers, birds, distant mountains, trees, animals, rivers, human figures, dwellings that range from modest huts to gorgeous palaces—these were the staples of the Chinese pictorial imagination, conveyed from generation to generation through standardized modes of rendering, with an emphasis on essence over appearance. Then, at the turn of the 20th century, Western styles of representation—with a greater attention to perspective, modeling, perceived depth, and individual psychological—arrived forcefully in China. Chinese painters who went abroad to study, meanwhile, gravitated to the most famous Western academies, where verisimilitude still reigned supreme. Eventually, once the People’s Republic was founded in 1949, Soviet-type Socialist Realism became politically de rigueur.
Even with the great Reopening of the late 1970s and ’80s, abstraction continued to be viewed askance by Chinese officials, largely because its indecipherable “messages” were thought to be potentially disruptive. Thus in Shen’s days at the Shanghai Theater Academy, a Beijing museum show presenting foreign examples of nonrepresentational painting was a signal event, and students nearly had to declare a strike to win time and permission to attend. Even afterward, university exhibitions involving abstraction remained subject to preemptive closure. Only in very recent years, following the emergence of alarmingly rambunctious imagery in China’s avant-garde circles during the 1990s, has abstraction been increasingly tolerated—even warmly embraced—by China’s cultural ministries as an art form at once certifiably “modern” yet safely devoid of explicit sociopolitical critique.
Thus Shen, who has lived and worked in the United States since 1988, now faces a second struggle to gain true appreciation for his abstract work in his native land. He must clearly differentiate it from the merely decorative and often highly derivative type of abstraction that turns up in many public spaces in China today, a style that has no credibility among critically astute artists and observers. That Shen has succeeded in making this crucial distinction is beyond question, but to understand how he has done so requires close looking and a willingness to think through the process that has led to these stately, luminous pictures.
Shen has not chosen the easiest route to his goal, the realization of a personal vision that expresses both his current circumstances and his cultural lineage. Residing for 25 years in the U.S., he could simply have slipped into the dynamic mode of Western abstraction. (Some of his early ink works, featuring deconstructed calligraphy, approach this manner.) Echoing any number of precursors—Hofmann, Pollock, Still, Tobey, de Kooning—he might have opted for the contending shapes and gestural slashes that signify agon, or fundamental struggle. Such art portrays nature as a cauldron of titanic forces, society as a pluralistic mix of contending self-interests, and the self as an internal battleground of fears, drives, needs, and desires.
Instead, Shen has chosen a calmer, moodier form of abstraction that derives, in the West, from the atmospheric experiments of Turner, Monet, and Whistler, passes through Malevich, Newman, Rothko, and the postwar Color Field painters to Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman. As his hues modulate subtly from top to bottom, Shen’s paintings—created with multiple layers of pigment and medium—evoke the Luminism of the Hudson River School, suggesting the ultimate dissolution of nature in divine light (synonymous with knowledge and love)—a notion that goes back to Dante, the Church Fathers, Manichaeism, the Bible, and ultimately to sun-worship, sanctifying our most innate, joyful biochemical response to life-giving light.
Obviously, Shen works in much more secular era, one in which religious contention has been largely displaced (in the U.S. and Europe, though not in Africa or the Middle East) by a vague, generalized “spirituality,” inducing a mild frisson at the thought of the infinite but eschewing any passionate warfare between virtue and sin. Shen is, in a sense, a maverick heir of the late 1960s-’70s Light and Space movement, working on the East Coast with acrylic on canvas. But to see him solely as a Western Minimalist is myopic, eliding half his cultural heritage and half his artistic intent.
Despite their higher chromatic register, Shen’s tonalities recall the gray-scale interplay—its variations evoking color—in traditional Chinese ink painting. It is not hard to see an affinity with the waterfall effect of Pat Steir’s drip compositions and hence with ancient shan shui (mountain water) painting. Often, too, in Shen’s work, there is a horizontal band of greater darkness near the center of the canvas, suggesting a recession into space—a horizon, and thus a stylized landscape.
Chinese landscape painting, which modern Korean artists have notably translated into abstraction, is contrary in nearly every way to Western vitalism. Eastern panoramas—with their looming mountains, slow mists, winding rivers, scattered habitations and small human figures integrated into vast terrain—bespeak harmony and calm: nature as constant and repetitive, society as a stable Confucian patriarchy preserved from era to era, the individual as an integral component of the overall order, and time itself as cyclical, slow, and all-encompassing. Ever since Shen abandoned representation in 1982, these elements have been implicit in the not-so-empty blur of his paintings.
Thus the advent of distinctly colored, shape-defining edges in the artist’s recent work suggests a thematic departure. What are these emergent forms—softly bordered, growing separate, and potentially competitive—doing in Shen’s otherwise harmonious work? Do they foreshadow a radical change or a new synthesis? To ask such questions about artwork in an exhibition in Shanghai, arguably the most diverse, most changeable city in 21st–century China, is to acknowledge that Shen’s abstract paintings are, as they have always been, about much more than themselves.
a senior editor at <Art in America>, where he writes frequently on contemporary art in Asia and elsewhere, the author of the book <New China, New Art>. He holds a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Chicago and has served as editor-in-chief of the Chicago Review and of Dialogue: An Art Journal. He has taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the American Conservatory of Music, the University of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, the New School for Social Research, and New York University.