The Seductiveness of Black and White

Black and white, defined in chromatic terms, are a part of the neutral, or achromatic, spectrum of grays. In photographic work, the use of black and white negatives eliminates the interference of extraneous color and lends the medium a more purely documentary feel; in the cinema, the black-and-white silent films of the Charlie Chaplin era have always captivated audiences with their jocular parables of life's woeful comedy. Psychologically, black and white represent opposite extremes. Their sharp clarity leaves no room for haziness, the distance between them is almost infinite, and they represent a style that endures beyond any temporary fad. But black and white represent nostalgia, too, in memories whose colors fade with the passage of time. For artist Jenny Chen, the impulse to work in a black/white monochrome grew from a seed, planted deep in her psyche, by her experiences at China's Huang Shan (Yellow Mountain).

The scenery of China's Yellow Mountain amazes and intoxicates with its beauty, its clouds and mists that wind, dreamlike, through glittering peaks and waters. What kind of color, what kind of form, could allow an artist communicate impressions of such moving scenes? Gaudy color, like cosmetics tastelessly applied on classicly elegant face, would veil the deep spiritual energy of the scenery at Huang Shan. After reflection, the artist felt that only black, white and gray could convey the truly lasting impression she sought, and that some freedom of form was needed to move past conventional representations and capture the full breadth of the Huang Shan experience. Painting and video, a mix of media she has gradually begun to employ in other work and which has become her signature style, were the forms she chose to embody her realization of Huang Shan's meanings.

Music's Kinetic Energy in Art

Russian artist Kandinsky, listening to Wagner, had a realization of the mysterious relationship between music and the lines and colors of painting, which led him to create an abstract art with highly musical rhythms and energies. Music is intimately related in just the same way to the creativity of Jenny Chen, who finds a natural release for her moods in the listening experience. Wagner's operas let her steep in the experience of music's vast creative power, pulsating from deep within the world of pure feeling; Mahler's symphonies give voice to life's philosophical issues, the experience of humankind within nature and the universe—humanity's happiness and suffering, in their original, conflicting, yet intertwined relationships. A symphony, like a world, must carry within its embrace all such dichotomies—simplicity and complexity; elegance and coarseness; reason's restraint and the free play of emotion—and manifest them in its nature.

Jenny Chen's painting is abstract expressionist in style: She emphasizes intuition, her technique is instinctive and automatic, and she boldly challenges set notions of style. Chen has absorbed the best elements of some earlier artists such as Jackson Pollock, who expanded stylistic boundaries with his dots and lines of dripped paint, and Willem DeKooning, who vented his passion for life in brash, insolent brushwork. To those elements she adds abstract planes of color reminiscent of those of Rothko, but in place of the placidity and reserve of Rothko's flat, abstract spaces, Chen's color blocks are expansive, with the tension of the swelling surface of a slowly flowing pool of water. She borrows the intrinsic properties of materials—from her early use of melted wax and acrylic pigments that would either mix with or be rejected by water, to her more recent direct use of mixed acrylic media—to create special underpainting effects, adding layer upon layer of color to build a thickly layered depth. The process of building up these layers, for Chen, means that the passage of time itself is bound up within each layer; more than just a painting game to her, these layers record the moods that are generated out of her life experience. Chen's recent Floating Weeds series reflects just these kinds of passing sentiments about life and the artist's sense of its fleeting impermanency. Jenny Chen herself, physically roving between New York and Taiwan, has come to enjoy ample stylistic freedom, but with it, perhaps, a corresponding and permanent sense of impermanency.

The Pulse of Life at its Source

Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung (1875-1961) believed that humans had turned their back on the intuitive and set themselves against their original natures; thus had their consciousness of self arisen in the course of time. The original self thus is natural, and it seeks to perpetuate nature; nature either seeks culture or destroys culture. He felt that even if, as Rousseau would have wished, we could return to nature, we have long since already civilized nature, yet as long as we steep ourselves in nature, we are still in our original, preconscious state of mind. . . (†)

Chen's Voices of Nature series displays her imaginative handling of natural images. Its departures from realistic presentation are not casual or arbitrary: The artist let the idea and intent of realism fill her mind, and the spirit of natural objects were then expressed through her in splashes of paint that echo the natural surges of weather, wind, and cloud with their incisiveness and imposing energy. This is the artist listening to the inner voice of the earth and probing, with her heart, for its source. It shares a common point with a technique used in traditional hand-carved Chinese screens, in which the natural veins of thin granite sheets seem to depict rows of mountain peaks and misty rains like a poetic ink-wash painting. Jenny Chen's abstraction and the natural veining of stone both bring us close to the reality of natural scenes, but by different means; both arise from the imaginative spaces of the subconscious in its reaction to nature, and both sometimes seem more real themselves than the real world of nature.

In addition to her painted work for this project, Chen also undertook creative work and studies in relation to video installations, in which her original flat painted spaces are converted into three-dimensional experiences. Dancers silhouetted in black, moving and sweeping ceaselessly across a virtual stage, take the place of the paintbrush in the artist's exploration of spatial dance in a kinetic energy field of grey. When it comes to anything new, the ever-curious Jenny Chen studies, experiments, and takes on new challenges, as she has here in response to her enthusiasm for dance and involvement with dance. The interests of this artist are thoroughly integrated into her life and creativity, and her work itself is the most natural outgrowth of her concern for nature.

(†) Carl Jung, "Modern Man in Search of a Soul." Chih Wen Publishing Co., Ltd.; Chinese translation: Huang Chi-ming.