Eleanor Heartney, 1994
I said : “ your garden has nothing in it.”
There is wind
There is rain
And winter’s sunlight caressing
Every stubborn fungus,” she answered quietly.
I said; “Your garden has nothing in it.”
There is sand
And night moving with the starts and the clear cries of cranes,” she answered darkly.
Western abstraction, like western philosophy and western thinking generally, is fundamentally a search for essences. By sweeping away the distractions posed by history society and day to day life, artists like Jackson Pollock and Willem Dekooning hoped to reach a level of experience that was raw and unmediated by outside influences. But the experience they sought was not necessarily universal. When Pollock cried, ”I am nature”, he was not celebrating a sense of the self dissolving into nature. Rather, he was expressing a vision in which nature is transformed into an extension of the self. His cry reflects and expansion of the ego to encompass the entire world.
Compare this to the strivings of Asian art and philosophy toward a sense of oneness with nature. Describing the origins of things, the Tao says,
There is a thing confusedly formed.
Born before heaven and earth.
Silent and void
It stands alone and does not change,
Goes round and does not weary
While the west privileges egotism and essence, and seeks the fundamental being of things, the east privileges Nothingness. The difference in attitude can be sensed in poems of Taiwanese poets like Chan Hsui-ya’s meditation above in which the emptiness of nature is the source of its Plentitude. The difference also appears in the contrast between the western mark, laid across the canvas as an assertion of the artist’s existence through the manipulation of matter, and the Chinese brush stroke, which serves simply to make the void, which surrounds it, more palpable.
The work of Jenny Chen exists in the nebulous area between these two philosophies. Born and raised in Taiwan, she moved to New York in 1987, where she earned an MFA from Pratt. Her life literally straddles Asia and American as she commutes between New York, where she continues to live and work, and Taiwan, where her husband is based.
Artistically as well, she oscillates between East and West. Chen has made a close study of Abstract Expressionism and one can be echoes of the paintings of Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Barnett Newman and Helen Frankenthaler in her work. However, closer examination illuminates subtle differences in her use of the apparently familiar languages of expressionism. One notes, for instance, the vaporous layers of translucent color which from luminous fields in a recent series of paintings entitled “Psychic Space”. Isolated strokes of paint drift through these expanses like bits of half discovered, rather than imposed, these marks speak less of the western assertion of ego than of a more Asian merging of self and world.
In another parallel with traditional Chinese printing, these paintings draw on nature and landscape as a means of expressing and interior state of mind. Sometimes the reference to landscape is very rudimentary – nothing more than a horizontal line floating in a vaporous field. In other paintings it becomes explicit, with suggestions of land formations, celestial bodies, clouds and lakes.
Landscape references are particularly striking in “Psychic Space 94 #4”, a set of four smaller paintings on masonite set in a tight grid. The lower third of section painting in this group is streaked with a stroke of red paint which demarcates a horizon line. Though they are very abstract, one can read other elements as allusions to landscape as well. A red disc floating in the left hand corner of one of these sections suggests a fiery sun, while also recalling the later paintings of Adolph Gottlieb. Below the disc and hugging the top and bottom of horizon line is an undulating black shape which could be the contour of a mountain and it’s reflection.
In the adjoining painting the disc seems to have metamorphosed into re whiplash of a shooting star or flaming meteor. In the other two section of this work, flame – like blurs of red seem to engulf the horizon. Read on one level, in “Psychic Space 94 #4”, suggests matter’s emergence from or dissolution into primordial chaos. On another hand , it evokes a state of emotional turbulence.
Extremely different in mood is work entitled “As Steady as Mountain, as Elegant as Water.” Painted in a panoply of natural hues – shades of silvery gray, off white, gold and pale ocher – the composition anchors a central peaked from to a meandering skein of white lines. By contrasting the stability and permanence of the mountain with the fluidity and transience of water, the work can be read as a visual poem which expresses the oppositions, which are the essence of the Tao. In Chen’s hands, the conjoining of these two conflicting principles leads to a sense of reconciliation and harmony.
This theme is pushed even further in “The Ideal peace of Mind”, a work in which four black circles are lined up within a band of red which hovers at the top of the painting. Below, against a golden ground, a few delicate strokes of black print skip delicately over the surface of the painting. The calligraphic black marks, in their desultory movement, become emblems of freedom balanced against the iconic stasis of the four circles.
Another of Chen’s more abstract works, “Silence is in course of Nature”, reiterates the notion of different realms of experience and existence. A textured gray band lies across the lower half of the canvas while a black finger – shaped from floats like a black cloud or ominous presence above. The black finger is overlaid with a flattened red halo which seems to exist in another order of reality altogether from the shadowy forms below it. One feels a balance between heaven and earth, sky and land, inside and outside, spirit and matter.
If the sense of metaphor conjured by these works seem to point to Chen’s Chinese roots, other aspects of her practice are clearly western. For example, her interest in experimenting with unusual materials and techniques seems to be a legacy of her western training. In order to create a sense of multilayered space, she has begun to over lay fields of paint with areas of encaustic wax, which build up texture and at times, lie slick and shiny on top of the canvas. Other innovations enhance the almost sculptural quality of the surfaces. Some works are painted on masonite or sheets of rusty metal whose discolorations become important elements in the composition. Occasionally, Chen collages patches of burlap on the paintings. More often she drags or lifts the burlap off thick areas of paint to create tactile surface patterns.
One work which uses a number of these techniques is “Reminiscent 94#2”. Here the dull red, earthy crust of rusted metal forms and airy ground over which Chen has floated thick encaustic passages of brought red and pure white. Separating the bands of red and white is a scrap of burlap, which has been soaked in dull red paint so that it takes on the quality of dried blood. Together these elements fuse to create a work, which suggests a commonality between earth, body and cosmos.
The result of Chen’s technical innovations is to give the painting a sense of weight and materiality that is clearly more Western than Eastern. At the same time, her interest in metaphor and formlessness link these paintings to her Asian roots. By combining two such supposedly antithetical forms of vision into such a seamless whole, Chen suggests the possibility of a bridge between the aesthetic sensibilities of East and West.
At the same time she speaks with a voice that is very distinctly her own. These works speak of an interior world, which revels in the pleasures of the void and acknowledges the palpability of nothingness. They are indeed “Psychic Spaces” which exist at once nowhere and everywhere. In one of his most evocative poems, Wallace Stevens spoke of “Nothing that is not there, and the Nothing that is.” Chen’s paintings give that experience a tangible visual form.