To begin with nature as the subject of art is the beginning of a sensibility, a way of developing a perception in relation to nature. The evocation of nature in one’s art is, in fact, “second nature” to most Chinese painters. When Westerners use the colloquialism “second nature,” they mean that something is done “without thought” – or better – “without forethought.” To use nature in one’s art is not something you think about. It just happens. Nature is the subject of landscape painting, which begins to appear in the fourth and fifth centuries, during the Han Dynasty. By the tenth century, during the Northern Sung Dynasty, the painting of majestic had developed as an established genre. During this period the great painters Li’ Ch’eng and Guo Xi began to see the possibility of creating obverse perspective through the use of marks and gestures (shin, gyo, and so). They developed superb technical capabilities through the application of the brush. Each painter assimilated a remarkable facility in giving painterly surfaces the illusion of high mountain cliffs, clouds, bending trees, and rivers. Their expert use of black against white (yin-yang) in relation to brush on paper would induce the feeling of color. Subtle shades of the ink could make the viewer believe that he or she was perceiving color, even though very little, if any color minerals were actually applied. This remarkable history continues through the Yuan Dynasty, as the famous Chinese literati became the outsiders moving against the elegant taste of the Chinese artisans of the later Ming and Qing Dynasties.
I mention this overview in relation to Jenny Chen, whose has absorbed much of this history into her own work, because I believe it is relevant to her current practice. At the same time, she has brought this tradition to a new level, where it begins to intercede with Western painting, particularly the advanced abstract expressionist painter of the forties and fifties in New York. Beyond this, Chen has moved Chinese landscape painting into sculpture, video, and other related three-dimensional modular forms as made evident in her recent work, including her current exhibition at the Taipei Cultural Center. Whereas Chen began as a painter, with a graduate degree from Pratt Institute, her evolution has continued to move in a direction where simulation of nature is a central pivot in her work. The work ‘pivot’ is not an inappropriate word given the artist’s curious relationship to the history of Chinese landscape painting accompanied by her intense interest in Western style ballroom dancing. Indeed, to perfect this form of dancing, the pivot is an important step. One cannot traverse through time and space as a dancer without the pivot, the point in a movement where the foot bends slightly in order to take the body seamlessly in another direction. The pivot is a kind of invisible step. It should not be noticed. The pivot is a secret, nearly invisible passage from one direct to another. These ideas are precisely, metaphorically, and elegantly displayed in Chen’s video, entitled Weaving Across Black and White (2006), from her previous exhibition at the Providence University Art Center in Taichung (Taiwan).
Before moving into a critical discussion of the artist’s current exhibition, we might consider the evolution and the various pivots that Chen has made in her work as a painter over the past five years. I am thinking specifically of her use of color in painting, which is not exactly what I understand to be Western color, but more closely connected with the syntax of Chinese color, the kind of traditional festive, ornamental pigments, such as red oxide, pink, green, umbers and related earth tones, as seen in several paintings included in her Representation of Phenomenon series (2003). Two years later, Chen moves from an extravagant display of directly applied color to her majestic six-panel landscape, Huang Shan Experience #3, in which color is more subdued in its evocation, and more ancillary to the dominant black and white abstract motifs that undulate like a huge wave of light and dark across the distance space of this so-called “yellow mountain.” The rhythmic punctuation of color in the pinkish lotus flowers brilliantly holds the resounding blackness intact, giving the painting an amazing equilibrium that soars through time into the void of nature’s emptiness.
This work is followed by the remarkable exhibition in Taichung in 2006 in which Chen exhibited three groups of black, white, and grey paintings, in which the color had been virtually extracted except for an occasional smudge or incidental earth tone. The three series were titled: Floating Weeds, Voices of Nature, and Grey Area (2005-06). The first two series, Floating Weeds and Voices of Nature, were done using acrylic paint, using thick black and white gestures, while Grey Area series was done entirely as a surface, using only a mixture of grey. The dance-video film, Weaving Across Black and White, included in this exhibit, was entirely based on the gestural black and white paintings. In the film, Ms. Chen dances with her instructor, as if elevated in space without a ground. Their moving images are accompanied by transparent images of the paintings that float in front and behind them. There is a persistent sense of motion. Through the camera’s lens we observe details of the dancers – heads, hands, arms, legs, and feet – integrated with the various black and white shapes. Here the artist improvises with nature, showing ways in which the static art of painting can enrich our visual and emotional sensibilities by allowing us into a perpetually moving field where the paintings and dancers share an equal space. As viewers, we are given a purely kinesthetic experience, a heightened sense of aesthetic involvement that is as much temporal as it is spatial. We enter into the field of the paintings. We become part of the music and the dance takes hold of our senses. There is no contradiction between the landscape as the source of these paintings and the video transparent effect.
The romantic spirit in Asian painting has been inextricably bound to the spirit of the Chinese landscape going back for centuries. This is something that westerners may not easily understand. The power of the landscape is the Tao. It passes through the mist and over the mountain cliffs into the river below. For the Chinese, the Tao is the way or the path, the journey that we take in relation to nature, where nature and the human soul connect, where there are no real differences, no distinctions, only the way of nature revealing itself in all actions, perpetually striving to find balance in the universe and within the human soul. This idea, founded by the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu in the sixth century before the Christian era, has also played an important part in Chinese painting over the centuries, including he present century. Jenny Chen is connected to this idea as revealed in all aspects of her work. Therefore, the facile connection to Western art is perhaps more an affinity than a real influence. The fact that we can see in her work the gestures and marks of abstract expressionism does not mean that he work is a simulation. Instead I would argue for the originality in the paintings of Jenny Chen, especially in terms of where she has taken these ideas in the current exhibition.
For the Taipei Cultural Center, the artist began thinking in terms of casting. The use of transparent overlays in the video film inspired this concept to some degree. Initially Chen started working with small rectilinear blocks in which the fields of grey, black, and white were layered and overlaid differently with each casting. These blocks or modules are generally equal in size so that when they were placed side by side the textural depth of each interior form became explicit in the same way that it might appear on paper after making a calligraphic brushstroke. The major difference, of course, between paper and resin is the liquidity of the material and the precise timing that is necessary in order for the form to evolve before the next layer is applied. Given that the use of epoxy requires the artist to wear a mask for respiratory protection, there is some limitation in terms of physical mobility that is not the same as using a brush on paper. The experience of doing the work and remaining alert to the kind of precision and intuition necessary to allow the form to evolve requires a subtle shift in thinking through the process of the work.
There is a kind of intuition involved in the realization of these liquid forms, an intuition that is never exactly predictable. Even so, a trained calligrapher and painter, such as Ms. Chen, can use these accidental effects to her advantage. Limitations in one’s material or work process do not necessarily imply inhibition. It is quite the opposite. As Taoist masters understand, the recognition of one’s limitations can become a source of great energy. We cannot assume to know everything consciously as we engage in the process of art. Much of what happens will happen because desire is put aside, and we awake to the energy that is truly within us. In the West what we may call “accidental” is not at all accidental to the Chinese painter. What happens in the process of painting, regardless of the medium – ink on painter or oil on resin – has its own logic, a logic that relates directly to the process of nature. The Taoist scholar Chang Chung-yuan describes it in this way: “When the artist reveals the reality concealed in things, he sets it free and, in turn, he liberates and purifies himself. This invisible process, fundamental to Chinese art, is the action of Tao.” (New York: Harper and Row, 1963)
In an Anglicized translation from the Tao Te Ching (trans. James Legge, 1891), a group of ancient writings that appeared a century after Lao-tzu, a similar idea is put forth:
Simplicity with a name
Is free from all external aim.
With no desire, at rest and still,
All things go right as of their will.
Lao-tzu further suggests that the creative process is matters of leaving things alone or of letting things happen of their own accord without applying force and without imposition. Therefore, there are no coincidences. Once the energy moves through the body, desire is “at rest and still,” the creative act(ion) begins, and the form is recognized by the trained artist upon completion. This coincides with the emptiness of nature. In nature, nothing is forced to grow. It becomes what it is. From the perspective of the Tao – literally, the way – nature forms itself. For centuries in China, artists have been striving to discover this principle in their work. To paint nature is to become part of it. In theory, the work of Jenny Chen would appear to move in a similar way.
On the occasion of her installation in New York, she chose to place her layered resin drawings on a light table for viewers to study in sequential relationship to one another.
This means that we see these transparent blocks individually within the context of the whole. Like a great Chinese landscape – a long horizontal scroll — we see a journey through nature. Each block is a unique drawing, a single aspect of the journey. As viewers we are participating in a journey for the eye and mind. It is an intellectual journey, but also an emotional one, even a romantic one, as landscape paintings tend to be. In China, there is little separation between the intellect and the emotions, another difference that Westerners may have trouble in understanding. If we view these luminous resin forms as incidents in nature – as natural occurrences in time and space – then we have found something true, that is, true to the process of the work, and, in some sense, true to the intentions of the artist herself.
Not all of the resin drawings by Chen are rectilinear blocks. Some are tondos, which refer to round paintings in a circular frame, an innovation that was introduced during the Italian Renaissance. Others are quadrilateral forms with four equal sides. Some works are thin, transparent, and encased in large steel frames, while others are thick, such as the simulated boulders that sit directly on the floor. As with any important artist, Chen is interested in extending the limits of her art without becoming too obvious. This often results in some of her best work. Here I would include the artist’s large resin works that hang from the ceiling without frames. These works are neither blocks, nor tondos, nor squares. They are organic shapes and calligraphic swirls derived from the process of pouring the paint.
I find these resin paintings interesting in three ways: one, in their scale and suspension; two, in the way the structure of the poured paint defines the exterior shape; and three, in the way these hybrid paintings re-define the tradition of seeing the Chinese landscape. This is the first group of paintings that one confronts upon entering into the lobby of the Taipei Cultural Center. Although the space can be daunting in its awkward scale, Ms. Chen has succeeded in making them fit. In a humorous vein, one might interpret these forms as oysters on the half shell. On a more serious level, I see them as opening a new possibility in which to explore the landscape not merely through romantic mysticism, as it has been regarded in the past, but as a more direct phenomenon of nature. In this case, the human scale of these abstract forms implies that landscape is as much in the mind as it is in our way of seeing. They equivocate between certainty and ambiguity as a very real part of human perception. One may conclude from looking at Jenny Chen’s black and white gestural paintings that nature has again taken it own course through the subtle guidance of the artist. Art is the mind of nature, and what we are seeing in these works is the vibration of a moment in time, a moment whereby we return to ourselves. By returning to ourselves we come into the space of existence through the art of meditation.
About the Author:
An International art critic, Robert C. Morgan has written literally hundreds of essays and reviews on the work of significant contemporary artists. His writings have been translated into seventeen languages. In 1999, he was given the prestigious Arcale award for art criticism in Salamanca (Spain). He is the author of Art into Ideas: Essays on Conceptual Art (Cambridge University Press, 1996) and The End of the Art World (Allworth, 1998). In addition he has edited important books on Gary Hill and Bruce Nauman (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000 and 2002). He serves as an Editorial Consultant for The Brooklyn Rail and a Contributing Editor to Sculpture Magazine. He holds both a Master of Fine Arts degree in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Contemporary Art History. Professor Morgan writes on painting, sculpture, video, installation, and conceptual art. In recent years, he has spent considerable time in East Asia and the Middle East, where, in addition to his aesthetic evaluations of art, he writes on topical issues of marketing and the media. He lives in New York and is an Adjunct Professor at Pratt Institute and at the School of Visual Arts.