Jenny Chen has changed. Despite more than 20 years of steadfastly voicing her joys and sorrows through the language of abstraction, she no longer desires to pursue art within the limitations of the picture frame. Despite the distinctive personal style she has developed and the technical proficiency underlying it, the role of visual poet, producing odes of pure color, texture, and composition, no longer satisfies. If, as is said, art is a mirror, reflecting the artist’s spirit, perhaps only the artist who can step out of her own shadow can see clearly what is reflected within.
Leaving the canvas behind
Jenny Chen has always taken note of new applications of technology in art—through reading, viewing exhibitions, and gaining skill and sensitivity through her hands-on study of computers and software. Jenny said in an interview that “Ever since my first experience with computers, I’ve been searching for the right kind of creative application for this technological tool.” Finally, in 2004, her expectations for the medium came to fruition. Glimpsing the huge but primitive exhibition spaces of the Hua Shan Creative and Cultural Industry Center, Jenny was intensely aware of the mismatch between the venue’s display areas and the nature of her painted work. Could she create a completely new kind of work, moving beyond her long attachment to painting, that could take advantage of these spaces in the old Wu Mei Winery building? Setting herself that challenge resulted in the installation work, “Dawn, Dusk,” completed in late September 2004.
“Dawn, Dusk” is a confident video installation work in which Chen builds an octagonal “eight trigrams” structure making use of seven projection walls. Scenes of sunrise and sunset, filmed in the US and Taiwan, were processed to created seven film segments for projection. Finely controlled manipulation of time sequencing turns these familiar natural scenes from daily life into an artistic experience that Yang Zhi-fu describes as “a chance meeting of beauty and history… not unlike what we find behind the great Impressionist masters.” Achieving such mature expression in one’s first use of technological media implies unusual ability. Chen says that the most difficult challenge, and yet the most interesting in producing such a work, is the handling of space. In the past, that would have meant an exclusive focus on the flat space of the canvas, but in producing a video installation, an artist must bear two kinds of spatial considerations in mind simultaneously: on the one hand, the visual illusion created within the picture space will still be the main focus of the viewer’s attention, but the way the larger exhibition space is utilized will determine the viewer’s position within the environment, and is crucial in terms of atmospherics and helping viewers interpret what they see. It may seem as if such considerations are new, a result of the application of technology to art, but in fact three-dimensional thinking has always been central to the painting tradition. From the earliest cave paintings to the murals of Renaissance cathedrals, the ability of early painters to imagine the observer’s point of view and their desire to create a complete visual and artistic experience is evident in their attention to lines of movement, viewing angles, and the overall setting of a particular work. Considered from this point of view, Jenny’s Chen’s departure from the painting medium is in fact a return to the fundamental intertwining of visual art and its physical settings.
The Reconstruction and Representation of Experience
In her 2005 work, “Representation of Phenomenon: The Huang Shan Experience” Jenny Chen once again breaks through formal constraints. The IT Park exhibition space is transformed into a container packed with Chen’s memories of her experience Huang Shan (Yellow Mountain); those memories are embodied in a work that combines painting and new media, matching four acrylic paintings with two projection screens. In her new work, however, Jenny makes the surprising addition of representational images to her familiar abstract paintings, while juxtaposing the projected scenes with other images that de-emphasize their purely documentary aspects and add a stronger, more subjective interpretation. As the title reveals, the work intends to reconstruct the surprising and memorable impressions of the artist’s journey to Huang Shan, ignoring any concerns about any divergence from former styles, media, or from critical theory. Having eschewed pure abstract painting, Jenny’s work in the new media demands to be viewed from a new perspective; her new series of works can perhaps be best understood by studying the creative process behind them.
Returning to her New York studio, Jenny chose a simple black-and-white palette for a series of four abstract paintings (all 122cm in height, ranging in width from 183 to 366cm) depicting her impressions of Huang Shan. Though basically a continuation of her work over the past 20 years, Jenny found this kind of presentation too restrictive and hoped to break through the associations they might have due to their similarity with traditional Chinese landscape painting. The result was a decision to add representational flower images to the abstract paintings. Not entirely realistic depictions in formal terms, a closer examination shows that the flowers, having no shadows, are not intended to create the false impression of being stuck on the canvas, but are instead an experiment in combining different painting vocabularies to enhance the sense of visual movement. For the artist, the Chinese style of these flowers is an exclamation point that lends extra energy to the composition. Or, from another point of view, they represent the artist injecting a further subjective, personal meaning through the use of symbolic materials.
Initially, Jenny thought to continue her experiments in “Dawn, Dusk” by presenting the Huang Shan video segments with the same simple editing of temporal sequencing. Further reflection on the link between video and paintings, however, brought a decisive shift in favor of extra processing through the use of AfterEffect. The flowers from the paintings, and even shots of Jenny herself at work in the studio, reappear in the projected segments as animated video clips. Thus Huang Shan, as it appears in real life and under the brush of the artist, is brought together with the artist’s process of reconstructing her experience, and all are presented to the viewer as an organic whole.
Remaining Visually Oriented
Understandably, from the perspective of modern painting, Jenny emphasizes that her work continues to be visually oriented. From the 1980s on, the growth and realizations she achieved in her art, philosophy, and the various aspects of her life were expressed through color, texture, brushwork, and composition—which is to say that these elements were tools for her expression of feeling. But translating these creative approaches into the realm of tech-art, which currently focuses largely on conceptual approaches, is a tough challenge. Leaving aside for the moment the craftiness of high-technology art, many artists during the period from 1920 through 1970 applied the latest technology to the creation of pure art, including Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, and Robert Rauschenberg. After the 70s, artists making similar attempts with the rapidly spreading video technology included Nam June Paik, Douglas Davis, and Vito Acconci; outstanding recent proponents of video installation art have been Mathew Barney, Paul Pfeiffer, and Tony Oursler. These names in particular reveal that the role of modern audio-visual technology in the realm of art has been both a conceptual and a subversive one. These artists emphasize a rational, dialectical approach over subjective and emotional appeals, and the fact that for them, visual presentation is a process or a means rather than an end in itself may be why many find technological art rather cold.
Jenny Chen, on the other hand, takes an individual, emotional, “soft” approach, using video technology in the service of visual beauty. Her expectations for and demands on the medium in this regard are clearly closer to those of Bill Viola and Leighton Pierce. This is no easy road to walk: first, many viewers have well-defined expectations about the conceptual nature of tech-art; beyond that, working with the visual elements in a video segment can done only through technological manipulation, making it difficult to transfer the artist’s feeling directly to the new medium. Similarly, viewers experience the work only through the medium of the computer monitor or the projector, and the interposition of all that hardware in the process can interfere with the sincerity, directness, and intimacy of the artist’s presentation. Beyond these factors, there is the omnipresence of audio-visual technologies in TV, movies, and on the Internet, which means that any expression of genuine aesthetics or visual poetry in video, if that expression is to distinguish itself, escape convention, and retain its essential artistry, must be highly original. These are the challenges Jenny Chen has taken upon herself.
Still Seeking New Opportunities . . .
It would seem as if the transformation of Jenny Chen has been a thorough one—entering the new realm of tech-art while abandoning the tenacious commitment she has maintained to abstract art over the last 20-odd years. Jenny once described her art by saying, “I just use the vocabulary of abstraction to translate my inner feelings for viewers in the real world. Honesty is the important thing. If you stay true to yourself, you won’t get lost.” If we remove “vocabulary of abstraction” from that quote, we realize that this artist is still following her original intent—translating her feelings into forms viewers will appreciate. All creative artists know how difficult it can be to set aside their prejudices and change their creative approaches. It is gratifying to see an artist such as this, who, having already forged a distinct personal style, can still face the changes in herself and in the times in which she lives, courageously seeking new creative opportunities in the quest for her next artistic triumph.