The Metaphysics of the Brush

Robert C. Morgan 2017

While looking at the paintings of Shen Chen, it soon becomes clear that the term “abstract” has a different meaning for the Chinese than it does for artists working in Europe and the United States. Having said this, I am reasonably convinced that Shen would approach this argument from another point of view, largely because many Western viewers have understood his paintings as being abstract. Even so, the complexities in coming to terms with what constitutes abstraction in China and what most Westerners are willing to accept as abstract are not exactly the same.  Although the notion of spirituality is historically and aesthetically tied to both, the cultural signifiers that separate the way Chinese painters working with ink on paper understand “What is abstract?” in comparison with how Western artists working with oil and acrylic on canvas might address this idea would seem to move in alternative, if not contrasting directions.


The Western concept, which is now a little more than a century old, is still relatively new to the Chinese. This is especially true when compared with the heightened impact of ink brush painting and calligraphy on Chinese culture over centuries of time. Few Westerners are capable of gasping or understanding how alien contemporary abstract art from New York first appeared to the Chinese in the late 1970s. We might look at this phenomenon from the following historical perspective.


Throughout the twentieth century, European and American artists embraced the “abstract” idea in two fundamental ways. Either it would be concrete, geometric painting without the appearance of any exterior subject matter, or gestural in the sense that the brushwork or the mark would suggest a natural, organic flow of paint, equally removed from the external visual world. Whereas the use of geometric forms in the first approach was considered more intellectual, the latter appeared more spontaneous, and therefore, more emotional, what some Westerners would eventually learn to call “expressionism.”


However, from a Chinese point of view this kind of dualistic separation is less likely to exist.  For example, the manner in which Shen Chen paints his pictures could be seen as intellectual, largely because his highly controlled brushwork depends on astute accuracy, concentration, and precision. Yet the results shown in the paintings of Shen Chen on the occasion of his current exhibition at NanHai reveal an extraordinary, if not deeply felt emotional sensibility. For the Chinese-born painter, the two approaches are not separate; rather they merge as one and the same. What appears geometric or predetermined at the outset ends up becoming sensual or even romantic in the eyes of the beholder.


The Chinese “metaphysical” approach to painting, which is fundamentally a Confucian idea that has impressed many brush painters and critics in China from the Six Dynasties to the late Ming Dynasty, is the term that most scholars have adopted as being roughly parallel to the Western notion of the “abstract.”  However, “metaphysical” is not a direct translation of “abstract” due to the vast cultural differences connected to each. One cannot easily discount the historical and philosophical premises that support the long history of “metaphysical” painting in China or make these premises conform to the recent Western idea. Moreover, it would be difficult for Western artists and theorists to assume that despite the spiritual premonitions of abstract painting in Europe, especially in the early period from 1909 - 1914, this point of view has continued into the present. Most would argue, at least from a postmodern perspective, that much of the abstract painting being done in New York and Berlin today has been secularized in ways that are foreign to the context of Chinese metaphysics, which is still, essentially a Confucian idea.


In contrast, Shen Chen’s point of reference has emerged differently. Having grown up in Shanghai, he was educated as a southern Chinese ink painter. Upon moving to the United States in 1988, he quickly became acculturated to Western influences. In New York, he allowed himself to become exposed to all forms of contemporary art.  Chen discovered, at that time, the West Chelsea galleries were less predisposed to showing abstract painting than figurative expressionist painting. This did not dissuade him.  Rather he sought out abstract painters, such as David Reed and Guy Goodwin, to engage in a creative dialogue related to issues in abstract painting he believed were important. Much of this accounts for Shen’s ongoing focus, commitment, and maturity

in searching out a fusion between Eastern and Western approaches in his work.  This has continued to grow and evolve into the present, which gives the aura of his paintings their startling and brilliant presence.


Given his training as a student (1978 – 1982), Chen was already thinking of himself as an avatar and forerunner to abstract ink painting, specifically from the perspective of literati painting during the Sung and Yuan Dynasties as a source for abstract painting. By working in New York, as many other Chinese artists had chosen to do, he felt his prospects for moving the tradition of ink painting into a new modernist territory would eventually happen, but it would take time. The problem, of course, would be in convincing his Chinese colleagues to recognize and to credit his innovation in applying the tradition and techniques of ink painting to other materials. Chen chose to take was he had learned from working with ink and paper and to apply it as a method to acrylic on canvas. The possibilities were infinite. In New York he was free to transform the history of Chinese ink painting and to evolve a new direction through adaptation to more contemporary materials. Through the appropriate use of these materials, another chapter in Chinese painting would soon commence focused on abstraction.


The importance of the brush is essential to Chinese painting as one goes back in time through the dynasties well over two millennia.  For the Chinese, the brush has a life of its own.  Over time, significant artists and calligraphers have expressed that they are simply the medium for the brush, rather than the other way around. Occasionally, this point of view is paradoxically reversed wherein the artist empowers the brush with a kind of mind/body systemic attribute. To this effect, I found a curious statement from a transcribed interview with Shen Chen printed in the catalog accompanying his exhibition at the Today Museum in Beijing (2008):  “Each brushstroke is an artist’s personal narrative. Within time, he has a system before and after, from beginning to end. Within space, he has the before and after of the brushstrokes’ layers and links.” 


For this statement to make sense requires some familiarity with the way  the artist works. In Shen’s case, he works with a canvas placed flat on the floor. Once in place, the artist focuses entirely on pulling a wide flat brush evenly saturated with water-thinned acrylic paint from one side of the canvas to the other, thus leaving the mark of the stroke exactly where it belong sin relation to the previous stroke(s). He always begins on the same side where he pulls the paint at evenly spaced intervals toward the farther end  of the canvas. One layer succeeds another. His intention is directed toward accuracy rather than accident. His process will often alternates contrary hues – is what creates the painting, but only if the artist is totally concentrated on the direction and unremitting pull of the brush.  The repetition of this steady action is endemic to the work. In time and through time, the layered surface becomes what it is. I recall the artist’s comment that by working this way, he no longer thinks of the canvas as having a top and a bottom. Rather he displaces any thought of its eventual position on the wall in order to focus entirely on the maneuvering of the brush.


While there is little doubt that the well-known seventeenth century Dutch artists, who painted portraits for the guilds in Amsterdam, gave much attention to the size and shape of their brushes, they were finally understood as tools by which the painter worked.  They carried no symbolic or spiritual significance other than that. They did not dictate the manner in which an artist painted. But in the post-World War II, late Modernist period in New York and Paris, the point of view concerning the brush went to another extreme. For the Abstract Expressionists, the brush might appear out of control – less contemplation as one may find in the work of Zen calligraphers in Japan – than as a means to provoke an “action” given to a particular effect on canvas. With Shen Chen, the perspective of the brush returns to the artist as a metaphysical conduit of energy. What happens on the surface of the painting is only as enlightened as what happens stroke by stoke over time.

The complexity by which Shen determines the linear or spatial direction of the brushwork  in his paintings cannot be forecast in advance; therefore, the finished painting is always a surprise, a visual experience beyond the obvious, a global, yet intimate advance in the current history of abstraction.





Robert C. Morgan is an Adjunct Professor in Fine Arts at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York.  He is the author of many books, monographs, and essays in many languages. In 2011, he was inducted into the European Academy of Sciences and Arts in Salzburg. His book, Reflections on the Condition of Recent Chinese Art, is translated into Chinese and published by Hebei Educational Publishers, Beijing, 2013. He is the New York Editor for Asian Art News.