China-born, Taiwan-raised Jenny Chen has lived in the United States since the late 1980s, traveling frequently between the two countries. Primarily an abstract painter, she earned a BA from National Chengchi University in Taipei in 1968 and an MFA from Pratt Institute in New York in 1990, her aesthetic sensibility a mix of both cultures, the ratio of the blend extremely personal, based on her response to what she has seen, studied, experienced and embraced. She is a gifted calligrapher, her brushwork virtuosic. Chen’s rigorous training in traditional Chinese ink painting with its voids, solids, rhythmic marks and immediacy made her receptive to European and American modernism when she encountered it, to Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still whose works, in turn, were influenced by Asian painting and philosophies. When Chen came to New York, she was invigorated by the diversity and freedom of contemporary practice in downtown Manhattan, in SoHo, where she moved after graduating from Pratt. Post-Minimalism, Body and Process Art, Appropriation, Post-Conceptualism, Neo-Formalism and more, all the modernist, postmodernist and later strategies were in play, igniting creative sparks as they jostled each other, a heterogeneity and excitement about contemporary art that could not be found in Taiwan then.
Today, centers of contemporary art have proliferated and peripheries have been redefined. Artists are increasingly nomadic, their multi-lingual, hybridized existence no longer confined to one location, their endeavors the result of interaction and familiarity with several cultures. Chen’s abstractions, usually created in series and presented as immersive installations incorporating multiple media, are by now as much American and European abstractions—as much the consequence of current directions in contemporary global art—as they are Chinese paintings, their intertwined Chinese and American DNA impossible to disentangle. Chen, in any event, shies away from the narrowness of such categorization and generalizations. Orientalist clichés that ignore aesthetic self-determination and the singularity of the choices that comprise an artist’s vocabulary are no longer as prevalent. Reconciliation rather than division claims precedence as the new, more sophisticated model for our ever-shrinking world.
Chen is drawn to chance and its revelations, to flux and the ephemeral as existential metaphor, autobiography and process. Time, memory, psychic and phenomenal states are all frequent themes. One recent series from 2008-2009, “Fluid Exploration,” was begun in Shanghai. Executed in resin, it was a medium that she had never previously worked in and for that reason, wanted to try since she is always curious about new materials. It consists of 400 small resin squares that can be hung as a monumental grid on the wall or arranged on the floor as a kind of enormous landscape, seascape, or cloudscape, the imagery the result of the process, the resin poured like black, white, and umber ink, with beautiful bleeds as one sensuous form merges with another, as one color flows into the other, as gravity collaborates with the artist. Chen likes the concept of variations, of repetition and the ensuing differences that accompany it, a nod to Minimalist serializations that can, in turn, be correlated with the extended continuum of the traditional, rather cinematic scroll format of Chinese landscape paintings, a low-tech, elegant rendition of time and space. She often treats her work as modular units that are site-specific, re-configured to create alternative sequences, establishing shifting relationships between the parts and the exhibition space. She also made striking resin reliefs that are free-hanging, the lyrical patterns suggesting a cascade of water that has been temporarily stilled.
Another recent series is “Flowing,” begun in 2010 although some of the paintings in it have just been completed, made of poured acrylic and mixed media. After that, Chen goes back into them to build up the surfaces, to complicate the textures and increase the density, adding appliqués of paint as collage elements in addition to other materials, working on a number of pieces simultaneously. She composes intuitively, often to music but music that is “dark,” she says, with an emotional undertow, an echo of loss. The content is not cut-off at the edges of the support, the imagery seeming to fling itself out beyond the picture plane into the actual space of the gallery, fictive and real space contiguous, expanding the compass of the paintings. Her scale is usually generous—large enough to accommodate her process—and in “Flowing,” a topography is created that replicates a tempestuous, apocalyptic world in motion, coming together and flying apart, summoning visions of water, wind, clouds, whitened wintry scenes, crackled glaciers, black voids in crevasses of paint, both microcosm and macrocosm, both before and after time. Again, they are mostly monochromatic, whites and blacks, gradations of grays with a touch of color—a streak of coral, green or blue–to give scale to the expanse, to act as focal points. Her grisaille palette is remarkably rich without the distraction of color, at least for now, although she did make a red painting not too long ago; it surprised her.
Chen started using black and white after she went to Huang Shan (Yellow Mountain) in Anhui province in China, a site celebrated for its extraordinary panorama. It was an astonishing, transformative experience for her, “very profound, very pure” but difficult for her to describe, she said. Before her visit in 2004, Chen was a colorist, her paintings awash in brilliant hues. After it, however, overwhelmed by what she had seen, she changed to black and white. Black and white are abstract and permitted her a certain distance. They gave her a way to picture a memory that was always on the verge of slipping away and were more equivalent to her response since the colors that she saw there eluded her. By using black and white and adding just a touch of color, she was able to better express the myriad subtleties of the Huang Shan landscape, its changing light, its dissolving forms and countless, nuanced tonalities. Huang Shan was mysterious and for Chen, black and white matched the mystery of it, not color.
The newest series is “Variations of a Tone Poet,” wonderful large-scale, mixed-media black and white abstractions that are a continuation of “Flowing” and her other black and white projects. “Variations” are somewhat more lush, with greater areas of white, more effortlessly composed, or so it seems, although Chen has always strived for what appears to be effortless, for the rare state of grace that enables spontaneity, for what might be portraits of moments in time, the world imagined through a temperament. While one might quote Chinese poets as accompaniment to these paintings of the transient, one might also think of William Blake or T.S. Eliot, such as these lines from the latter’s Four Quartets:
For most of us, there is only the unattended Moment, the moment in and out of time, The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight, The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply That it is not heard at all, but you are the music While the music lasts.