It is by now a commonplace of contemporary culture that the artist may pick and choose influences from any and all backgrounds and traditions. This means that the esthetic in New York, where Taiwanese-artist Jenny Chen works, is inevitably eclectic, given to the appropriation of different backgrounds and histories. It is important to recognize that the experience of art today is based in many ways on the by-now casual recognition that artists are free to take on whatever attributes that are available. Especially in New York, where the artists’ population is so international, artists’ eclecticism is taken in stride. At this point in art, appropriation is hardly mentioned; one assumes that a Western painter may assume stylistic qualities associated with Asian painting, as with Pat Steir, just as a Chinese painter may find dialogue with the exponents of abstract expressionism, as with Zao Wou-ki. The point is that traditional dogmatism in current times does not do justice to the particulars and complexities of our experience now. What began as appreciation, or an exercise in colonialism perhaps, in the West has now transformed itself into a new esthetic, in which eclecticism becomes a symbol of the national, ethnic, and racial profusions of life, especially in New York.
Of course there has been an American interest in things Eastern since the 1950s, when the Beats took up Zen Buddhism. It is good to remember that this interest was, then, more or less genuinely exotic. But that is not true of our lives now. We travel easily to the Far East; we are superficially comfortable with aspects of Asian culture, its food, its philosophies, its demeanor of quiet calm. And yet it is hard to say whether this acceptance of difference, the erotic call of the Other, carries with it a profound understanding of or insight into Oriental culture. We may be deeply attracted to what is not ourselves, but our attraction, even our attempts at empathy, are not the same as the comprehension of an esthetic and manner of life centuries in the making. It may be that our passion for difference does not recognize the truths of the other culture so much as it naively and sometimes willfully distorts the picture, so that it becomes less alien to our imagination. Of course, it would be easy to say that we are all alike and that we share the common interests of humanity; however, a universalizing tendency does not do justice to the genuine otherness inherent in a culture different from our own. The Western artist who sees a likeness between Chinese calligraphy and his own methods of the hand is placing a premium on the similarity and connectedness of two types of expression rooted in deeply diverging pasts. Again, I would argue that such a position does little to respect the points not shared in two remarkable, but inevitably unlike traditions.
This is not to deny those odd moments in painting when, for one reason or another, the dictates of style force a joining of differences Franz Kline’s painting do in fact look like huge calligraphic brushstrokes. But that does not mean necessarily that the impulse the inner compulsion is the same or is even influenced by someone else. The warm appeal of a shared vision is hard to deny, and in our eagerness to find a large connection with a culture at variance with our own, we somewhat disingenuously claim a philosophical similarity where there is none. As far as I can see, the importation of values that differs with our own ends results far more often in misunderstanding than actual understanding. This happens because so much nuance is lost in the translation; we cannot but suggest the life that exists outside our own. Most likely, such a misuse of difference has usually taken place in the West, whose hegemony over the rest of the world has resulted in a confident, casual appropriation of the things it knows little about. But, at the same time, we cannot rule out what has happened in the last 15 to 20 years, namely, the use of Western avant-garde methodologies by Asian artists, many of whom have changed their residence to New York City. One only has to look at the careers of Chinese artists Cai Guo-Qiang, Xu Bing, and Gu Wenda to see that there are stunningly creative artists who look to Marcel Duchamp as a patron saint.
We can reverse the question, then: Do Asian artists misrepresent Western strategies or not? Do they willfully misread techniques and points of view so as to be free of the damaging taint of influence? These are not trivial questions; the stakes are the same for Oriental artists. At the same time, the comparison becomes more complex for historical and technical reasons. In the first place, modernism is a Western construction, and Asian artists have been playing a game of catch-up for a while. Secondly, it is important to refine distinctions. We need to differentiate Chinese painters from the Chinese avant-garde because painting in China comprises a completely different orthodoxy, stylistically and conceptually, from Western art history. The problem changes in the face of new art: given the essentially impartial language of the avant-garde, now used internationally, we can say that postmodern art is a shared vernacular. This holds true not only for China and the rest of Asia, but also in Europe, South America, and so on. But interestingly, in the case of the three Chinese artists mentioned above, international ambition has been tempered by a resolve to remain Chinese in content and intention; therefore, we can ask, without irony, How Chinese is the art? We can also do the same with Chinese contemporary painting; however, we must invest our comparison with the decision to recognize, as particularly as possible, the extent to which tradition defines itself within artistic expression. Painting’s divide between cultures makes it imperative that the source of the artwork is understood not because it demonstrates otherness, but because style is a facet of intention, which may well be duly influenced by the past.
This means that the attributes of a particular style are both individual to the artist and general to the culture or cultures the artist belongs to or appropriates from. Style comprises the formally describable decisions made by the artist at work with materials; yet it is difficult to separate it from content, which we would attempt to do if we were to examine an artwork for its Chinese expression. This notion of an inherent quality that, like DNA, is responsible for a painting’s character and structure comes alarmingly close to a romanticization; yet it seems to me that part of the audience and critic’s job is to wrestle with the notion that cultural attributes adhere to expression no matter what the historical time or geographical place. The artist cannot but help record influences in the making of art; it is part of the mark itself in painting. In the work of an avant-garde artist, given to installation, performance art, or high-tech art, the language is essentially neutral, free of the defining aspect of a particular culture; but in painting the implications of the brushstroke carry with them the memory of a particular past. Tradition becomes important not as a hierarchical device but as a construct of style—one quotes to place oneself within a continuum, not to insist on the triumph of a particular manner of art.
Jenny Chen, a Taiwanese painter who first visited New York in 1985, studied at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and now lives in her studio in Soho, clearly illustrates the dual allegiances of someone who has come to the West from another culture. It is more accurate to say that she has moved to New York, which offers special circumstances as the result of its heavily international population of artists. What Chen calls ”a big melting pot” is central to the essentially catholic approach she takes to painting. She is concerned with an abstract style, which, she says, is intended ”to transfer my inner sensibility into the real world.” New York, in its rhetoric and practice of personal freedom, has enabled Chen to work out a practice of painting that would transcend the boundaries of a particular style. She has said in conversation, ”I do not intend to make a Chinese painting.” New York City has taught her a lot, and a major part of its lesson has been the freedom to associate with people and ideas that do not come from her individual set of circumstances. Inevitably, different values are assimilated and internalized; as Chen points out, ”I think we are more or less influenced by former masters. I am not an exception.” Interestingly, she does not quote specific influences; she has also commented, ”You have to find your own way.”Chen’s relationship to those masters of art is, in the best contemporary sense, independent. She prefers to go her own way.
And yet, and yet. Art necessarily bears the marks of its author; no one is free from the pleasures—and hazards—of style. Chen says of her paintings, “I only use the abstract vocabulary to transfer my inner sensibility to the real world.” She sees her art as a project of self-expression; the issue of influence is secondary to her drive to remain truthful to what she calls instinct: ”The important thing is to be honest. If you are yourself, you won’t get lost.” Chen’s creativity entails an unusual degree of openness, in which details tend to be sacrificed to the larger vision. Art becomes the transmitter of a greater, more spiritual truth: the purpose of image-making is to reify the intuitive perception that all work is demonstrative of the self, that all expression is inherently exemplary of sensibility. In a sense, then, the questions of style, or of a specific content, are marginal to Chen’s intentions. She would like to be seen as belonging to the international group of artists who live and work in New York; her identity is not specifically Chinese so much as it is generally artistic. In consequence, the style of her painting justifies no abstract identification with a particular tradition; it simply is, without exampling a specific creed.
That may work well with the artist’s intentions. But what if her audience, who, taken with the sweeping structures of Chen’s large paintings, finds meaningfulness in the discussion of her bias? Chen says that instinct cannot be changed. Does that mean we are to pass by such concepts as the expression of an essential sensibility, leaving the definition of a core self up to the artist herself? It might even be asked whether such a question is useful, in the sense that the elucidation of the interior of an artist is inevitably a speculation, a game played with darkened mirrors. Yet we continue to be curious about such matters, which fascinate because they support the inquisitive mind’s wish to categorize and differentiate. The notion of a style remains key to our undertaking, for style reveals the choices made by the artist, who reveals her motivations by deciding how to proceed. We would expect Chen’s affiliations to be hybrid since her circumstances are complex in exactly that way; she is a Chinese artist living in New York. As she comments herself, ”Fortunately New York is a big melting pot, not just one culture.” The variety of New York’s cultural identifications allows Chen to find out who she is as an artist; there are no preconceived ideas that restrict her experiment.
Chen has spoken of Chinese philosophy as ”a kind of metaphorical esthetics.” Its methods are subtle: ”It always presents clues and leaves you a space for the answer. You have to figure out the meaning of the hint.” Chen likens her own work to the meandering path of Chinese thought, asserting that ”likewise, my work has something more to say behind the painting.” Her art is process oriented, that is to say that it is based upon discovery. In a sense, painting becomes a tool, a vehicle for the exploration of self: ”Not only does art intrigue me in many ways, it enables me to see my life from a different point of view.” So it is Chen’s sense of self that primarily occupies her; painting presents her with the opportunity to document the twists and turns of her interior life. Her art obviously belongs to abstract expression, which may, or may not, reference her Chinese background; as Chen says, ”What I try to offer is a reality. I don’t know whether my paintings refer to Chinese landscape because I do not set out intentionally to make a Chinese painting.”
The artist creates large, expressly beautiful, colorful paintings filled with graphic, abstract shapes vivid with color. For the Western viewer, her acrylic canvases look like an Asian interpretation of abstract-expressionist art; there is a similar concern with gesture as demonstrative of inner force. Still, it remains unclear just how consciously Chen has mimicked the visual language of a foreign culture; it could be said that her art develops along lines of Chinese tradition that superficially resemble abstract expressionism. The point is that the pursuit of influence is inevitably made more intricate by our interpretation of style as something deliberately conceived of. In fact, in the intuitive manner of Chen’s abstraction, form becomes nearly accidental, distinguished by its lack of a deliberate esthetic. When Chen claims that she does not set out intentionally to make a Chinese painting, she is not denying her origins, only that the problem of a traceable style is not something she devotes her awareness to. The shapes are unconsciously stated; we cannot ascribe conscious intentions to Chen’s colors and forms.
So it happens that we must read Chen’s paintings as statements of a style that does not assert a particular preference for either Chinese or Western culture. Her abstraction revolves around an essentially personal idiom that is individualist in nature. This means that she is free, in the postmodern sense, to make of her experience anything that seems right in visual terms. Inevitably, the manner of her art reflects her training and stay in America, just as it mirrors her Chinese background. The conflation of a double idiom asserts a complexity of motive that animates Chen’s colorful abstractions, which, despite the seemingly culture-free internationalism of their idiom, may be read as inclining toward a Chinese sense of both harmonious design and unfettered graphic action. At the same time, Chen paints in the large, gestural manner of the New York School, whose appetite for dramatic statement is negotiated, via color and bold forms, in her art. The point to be made here is that Chen has taken on attributes from both cultures and melded them into a seamless, organic style whose personal flourish is not idiosyncratic so much as it is capacious in its ability to contain elements of different traditions.
One would expect that the design of the paintings might be effectively categorized by ascribing Chen’s components of painting to a particular civilization. But that is exactly what cannot happen in the contemporary reach of her art. The implications of a style that manages to be both foreign and indigenous are essentially free of classification; the personal overrides the affiliations of expression. In the large acrylic-on-canvas painting called Representation of Phenomenon 2002-01 (2002), the dominant hue is pink, which can range from a near red to hot pink. Three splashes of green-gold, set in the middle ranges of the diptych, accentuate the highly organized shapes and drips and spills that characterize the painting. The cohesiveness of the whole design is based upon Chen’s inherent sense of structure, the balancing off of opposing weights of shape and pitches of tone. On the lower left of the painting there is a sizable patch of a dark, nearly purple pink; the color is repeated on the upper right, in two vertically aligned lozenges. A small square of hot pink takes up residence in the bottom right; it effectively contrasts with the green-gold patches above it. We can see from this painting that Chen is most interested in an abstract play of forms; she has set together a series of shapes that pull the eye across the canvas. The painting closely resembles neither the work of the New York School nor a contemporary example of Chinese landscape, yet manages, in the fullness of its efflorescence, to call to mind both kinds of art.
The stunning colors of 2002-02 (2002), in which broad stripes of a sky blue stand in a row against a mostly deep-red background, entrance the eye. Some sort of luminescence comes through from underneath the blue columns, while drips of paint underscore Chen’s painting process here and there. Chen deals with the charged mass of color, energizing it by pitting it against the heft of other colors, so that the painting is filled with tension. Riding up against and often abutting each other, the blue poles surge with emotional intensity. The feeling in Chen’s paintings is generally at a high pitch, but never to the point where the viewer feels a loss of painterliness. In a way these paintings demonstrate process even as they hint at meditational depth; the art is about its own making. As such, it reflects the way Chen thinks about her art, enabling her to capture, in mid-moment, the trajectory of her brush. In the painting 2002-03 (2002), the colors are more various; purples, pinks, blues, and olive greens roughly mirror each other in the diptych. Chen comes close to decoration in the exquisite juxtaposition of hue; however, her sense of formal structure ensures that the painting does not descend into mere loveliness. The boldness of her patterns is duplicated, so that the panels appear to echo each other. Chen’s language of blots and smears, drips and spatters is recognizably her own; her imagery is filled with motion—it is painting as action, physical activity.
There are Western abstract expressionist painters who do come to mind on the viewing of Chen’s art. Sometimes the paintings echo the sweep of Clyfford Still, sometimes the organic forms, if not the marks themselves, recall the expressive power of Robert Motherwell. Inevitably, the work also reminds viewers of passages in Chinese art, in which forms taken from nature lean toward abstraction in the exquisite detail of their rendering. Chen’s shapes are not sharply precise; however, the flow between them, the dialogue in which patches of color are repeated, has something of Chinese art. Decoration is approached but not succumbed to. The colors of Chen’s paintings subtly complement each other: reds and purples take their places next to blues and green or splotches of near white, underscoring the ineffable presence color may take on alone. In 2002-06 (2002), a triptych, a basic arrangement is presented three times: splotches of cream tend to congregate in the middle of each panel, highlighted by deep reddish pinksand patches of purple. The forms and colors balance one another in a floating world; the rounded shapes and sometimes smeared paint fall into rhythmic transport, building an organic structure. Each panel is of course different from the other, yet the similarity of language ensures that the painting reads as a three-part song.
The work 2002-07 (2002), another triptych, is a marvelously active painting, forms dropping from the top of the work and swinging in unison across the composition. Blacks, light and dark blues, deep, dark pinks crowd each other, overlapping in many places. The light pink ground contrasts heavily with the mostly darker colors above; a single patch of a dark, purplish pink over light blue rises up like a column on the bottom far left of the painting. As occurs in much of her art, there is a rough surface texture, created by the inclusion of tiny wax and glass beads. Chen’s visual decisions admit influences of several kinds, yet merge them into a single vocabulary that internalizes traditions in favor of a deeply personal style. The distinctiveness of her art is based upon an awareness of current painting as free of boundaries—limits based upon geographical place or historical style. Now more than ever our interpretation of art is accompanied by the belief that imagery in painting is essentially one’s own choice. Chen has evidenced an imagery that in its lyric eloquence approaches song. Her work argues for a vision that neither repudiates nor appropriates, for its own sake, the precise details of either culture she has been part of. In this way, she pushes forward, like many contemporary artists, the notion that painting now has its own rules, specific to its own recent history, which are available to all practitioners, regardless of their esthetic origins.