Shen Chen: A Predisposition for Abstraction

Jonathan Goodman | 2014

Shen Chen has been making abstract paintings for many years now—he began in 1982, when he had just graduated with a B.F.A. from the Shanghai Academy of Theater. At the time his inspiration came from Chinese literati and ink paintings. While he had solo shows at the China National Museum of Art and Beijing Gallery, and during the 1980s participated in several underground movements and schools, Shen Chen still had not expanded his idiom to include influence from Western abstract painters—he simply did not have examples on hand. But then, in 1988, he received a fellowship from the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, which brought him to America. He also became an exchange student for the New York Studio School of Painting and Sculpture, after which he moved to Boston, where he finished his M.F.A. degree from Boston University in 1991. Once he got his master’s, Shen Chen decided to move to New York to continue his career in art.


In many ways, Shen Chen is no longer only Chinese or American; instead, like many artists from foreign countries who live and work in New York, he sees himself as part of the international community that has developed in the city. In fact, he has said, “Living in New York, I don’t feel I am a foreigner.” His current painting reflects the Asian and Western influences he has exposed himself to: he says, “My works reflect mixed cultures, both classical Chinese painting—literati painting in particular—and Western art.” At the same time, he is quick to exclude himself from contemporary Chinese painting and new Western art, largely because he feels any genuine or avant-garde art must be international and transcend particular cultures. His new paintings demonstrate a fineness of hand that in fact cannot be culturally placed, even when they suggest an esthetic grounded in Western practitioners of abstraction such as Mark Rothko and Agnes Martin. Working subtly, Shen Chen shows us how a contemporary Chinese artist can speak to historical developments in more than one culture, without submitting completely to the idioms introduced to him.


Perhaps it is easiest to categorize Shen Chen’s work as contemplative, an adjective that has been used in the description of art both from China and from the West. His misty, but highly disciplined canvases address the viewer as windows into the open mind of the artist, who is concerned with the boundaries of perception. This is very skillful art that reaches beyond itself to offer viewers visual phenomena of remarkable depth, despite the seeming simplicity of his compositions. Looking at several paintings over time allows us to gauge perception as a visual tool that fluctuates rather than staying true to a single point of view. In remarkably fine passages of painting, Shen Chen shows us not only how to look but also how to think—in ways that demand sophistication and intelligence. His evanescent art relies on a gaze that internalizes his sophisticated range of affects—from dark to light and back to dark again. Constantly surprising us with his skills, Shen Chen demonstrates a remarkable awareness of developments in painting, as well as the technical gift of his hand.