Jenny Chen’s current paintings negotiate the interstices between Western and Asian culture; painting black and white works effectively connects her language to both the great tradition of ink painting in China and the sublime feelings of the New York School. Chen, who has lived in New York for many years now, has always referenced her Chinese background, even when the paintings were communicating a highly expressionist emotion. Yet the artist is not divided between cultures so much as she is rendering a complex, eclectic vision in which the pursuit of the ideal is paramount. Chen has followed this language because she is heir to a double tradition, but it is not so much a matter of hybridity as it is her resolute determination to present an art that would incorporate differing influences. While it is the job of the artist to take the spirit of the time and render it new, this is an especially difficult undertaking when culture has made a fetish of invention, such that there is tremendous pressure to create for the sake of the unexpected. Chen knows, however, that the imagination is actually composed of a balance between the past, or what we know, and the future, or what is yet to be conceived.
Fine art has its own paradigms; it becomes possible to see, over time, how the history of painting has become essentially enamored of its own idiom–that is to say, it has become self-aware of its own tradition. Modernism, under whose influence we still labor today, comprised the development of a vernacular that was limited to the act of painting. No longer were artists telling stories about culture or making use of the particulars of history; instead, they were exploring the language of painting for its own sake. After modernism, contemporary art inherited a situation in which the subject matter of painting’s own limitations seemed finished as a theme. Yet in New York, after the Second World War, there was the vigor of the American moment; buoyed by its image as the conquerer of fascism, its reputation not yet tarnished by the Vietnam War, American culture produced the movement of abstract expressionism. This development underscored the importance of both abstraction and feeling; the romantic egotistical sublime became the method of a whole generation of ambitious artists, many of whom successfully painted a visionary world. While it is not exactly clear how major a movement abstract expressionism is in the annals of art history, it is surely true that artists such as Pollack, de Kooning, and Gorky created a new way of seeing, in which the emotional life of the painter held sway just as much as idealized form.
This last paragraph briefly explains the kind of atmosphere that New York was heir to; in America, the influence of abstract expressionism remains powerful to this day. For someone like Chen, who was born in Mainland China and who grew up in Taiwan, the art of the New York School remained open to painterly possibilities. The Western idiom, especially in a painter like Franz Kline, does seem to imitate Asian calligraphic styles; however, it might be more accurate to say that Kline created a vernacular that would parallel Chinese art without being beholden to it. It is important to remember the point because too much has been made of assimilations that do not really comprehend the visual language that has been appropriated–Kline’s art is very much within certain Western traditions and only superficially connects with Asian art. In a similar way, it may be argued that Chen’s use of a seemingly Western language only supports the deep ties her style has with Chinese painting; she may see her job as an artist as that of composing a work whose affinities lie well within the details of her art history as opposed to our own. In postmodern art, where pluralism is standard, Chen’s esthetic decisions come across as considered beliefs and actions rather than the passive imitation of a world she participates in but does not belong to.
Does the fact that Chen paints in acrylic indicate that she has changed her allegiance from Asian to Western methods? At first it would seem so. In fact, however, her art is a balance or, more accurately, a compilation of techniques and strategies that enable her to express her position as a Chinese person living in a major American city. A mature artist, Chen is closer to the verities of abstract painting than she is to the politics of identity and computerized imagery that is so much a part of New York’s artworld now. But that does not necessarily mean she is committed to a Western point of view alone. Instead, she has created a style that joins backgrounds in ways that significantly push her art toward an eclecticism of appearance and intent that is profoundly contemporary. It is not so much that Chen is unable to choose as it is that she refuses to choose. Such a decision tells us that being influenced does not always mean consent to a seemingly stronger culture. Rather, it signifies a sophisticated reading of how style interacts at different points with people of different heritages, contracting and expanding according to the decisions the artist makes in regard to the tools he or she uses. Chen’s style is a decision not to compromise but rather to amalgamate and order the possibilities that different ways of seeing suggest to us. Her art thus is best understood as a conscious refusal to do violence to any part of her past, no matter whether that past be American or Asian, or (in her case) both.
One of the strengths of Chen’s works is its informal roughness, a quality at some distance from the refinements of an ink-painting style. The surface of her canvases are raw with painted-over areas of black and white; deep patches of black gash their way into the surrounding white of the painting. These binary differences of color and texture create a visionary display of visual beauty; Chen’s paintings compel our sensibilities with their august transformations of various traditions. It is to the artist’s credit that we do not experience the works as mere appropriations of a style–she is too independent an artist simply to borrow influence as if she were purchasing a new set of clothes. That’s both the implicit and explicit point Chen is trying to make: style today can be separated from the inherited values that used to accompany them. This happens because we are living in a time when we come up against many different kinds of culture, but our ability to understand different backgrounds is often superficial. Chen chooses her path because she can do so without damaging her esthetic, and because she is able to invest her art with an authority almost entirely personal in its making. Contemporary art is today supple enough to entertain a purely personal interpretation of art history; the uses of the past give way to an intimate and ahistorical reading of culture.
The notion of integrity–of remaining whole–in the face of a quickly changing society is deeply important at a time and in a culture (American) in which we are lost to imperial impulse and, at the same time, are disinclined to investigate legacies other than our own. Our pertinence as individuals must result from the recognition that painting is no longer in the center of contemporary art practice; the result is often a superficiality based upon a momentary, as opposed to continued, involvement with the little heritage we are part of. Chen’s binary oppositions of black and white pigments, which are not really colors per se, may be defined as a radical departure from postmodern art practice. The artist speaks to a historical awareness of both Chinese and American art that many contemporary artists might see as unnecessary. Yet, because of her integrity, Chen has modeled for her audience a genuine perception, in which the entire issue of influence or hybrid identification falls away, subsumed by the energies of her esthetic alone. In some ways, moving beyond the practitioners of the New York School, Chen has become a painter of truth as opposed to effect. Her accomplished sense of the causes of things enables her to take part in traditions that she may or may not belong to. Her struggle is to gather various possibilities together and meld them into a particular way of working, enablingsuperficial
Chen to comment and even make use of stylistic effects she may not have internalized. Because postmodernism is so eclectic, Chen’s strategies are truly interesting, for her choices contemplate style at least as much as they do the historical structures that support that style. In a strange way, then, Chen champions isolation–or rather independence–from the extremes of both her backgrounds, in the hope that she will do justice to the complexity of her position.
The artist’s paintings run in series, calling out to the postmodern penchant for groups of artworks whose themes and stylistic decisions are closely similar. Patches of dark color are defined by white and liberated from themselves. Floating Weeds (#4) (2006) consists of whites tumbling freely onto the canvas; there is also a series of gray patches in which swathes of black and white overlap, creating a sense of movement in addition to the general sense of foreboding–this series is not about pleasure alone (the surface can remind Chen’s audience of the scored, excoriated textures of the Spanish artist Tapies). The surface we encounter is fundamental to Chen’s art; without it, we would only experience the show as graphically resonant, which is part of the works’ charm but does not add meaningfulness in our experience of Chen’s work. The exterior of Floating Weeds #4 demands our respect for the artist as an independent mind, without which we could only comment on the effect rather than the intent of the imagery.
Chen intends to install a video monitor in a separate gallery room. It will show her performing ballroom dancing with her dancing teacher. Just as she weaves black and white together in her paintings, so she will weave in and out of a dance as a shadow in the video. The paintings are elemental exercises in dichotomies, their dialectis the result of Chen’s emotions and skill. In what we might most accurately call a shadow dance, the artist participates in a series of skilled movements, in which she makes contact with a reality that is not material, that reveals the essential nature of things. Chen’s artwork moves from opposing components toward a higher resolution that resolves conflict but remains taut in its intentions. But the point is not so much to achieve resolution as to be aware of the spiritual possibilities of art, no matter where you come from or what culture you are invested in. Chen belongs to a Chinese generation that saw the takeover of Mainland China by communist powers; it is a generation uncommonly aware of its political legacies. Yet she has chosen to create in what can best be described as a universalist language, one that eschews political leaning in favor of the sublime. As a language, her abstraction commits itself to the expressiveness that underlies deeply felt issues but does not seek an answer so much as a process or way.
Coming at a time when American culture appears to have lost its center, Chen’s art offers a solace based upon emotional exploration. Her metaphors are directly joined to experience; she sees her work as a comment on the fleeting beauty of the world. In this way her art attains a strength and bravery, enabling her to produce a vocabulary enlivened by her willingness to engage in praise. Underlying the binary codes of her paintings and video is the recognition that we are, each of us, all inheritors of all traditions; Chen’s embrace of the physical realities of art leads her to metaphysical correspondences not only among cultures but between media–her video is no less important than her paintings. Indeed, her use of video is one of the most attractive parts of the show, for it shows that she remains open to possibilities that keep her sensibility contemporary and aware. As I have said, the fact that she incorporates both Asian and Western effects into her art makes her even more of an investigator of the purely human. It is a pleasure to see her develop into more and more open possibilities of being, in art that emphasizes the connectedness of human endeavor. As a result of her studies and expressiveness, she achieves her goal of awareness–in her audience as well as in her art. We are richer for the experience.