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Written by Zhu Qi
Shen Chen was one of the pioneering artists of experimental ink painting during the 1980s. His contribution, however, had been largely overlooked in the 20 years that followed. Modernism of ink art began in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and among Asian Americans in the US during the 1950s and 1960s, whereas China started the process of modernism in the late 1970s.
In the 1980s, Shen Chen had already entered into a more thorough exploration of abstract ink art. Although information was scarce at that time, his talented creative energy quickly closed the language gap with Asian modern ink painting. When the '85 New Wave was surging in China, Shen Chen came to the US in 1988 to begin his 30 years exploration of pure abstraction. At that time, Western abstract art had already come to an end.
In the 1990s, postmodernism had declined in the West; abstract art was considered to be at a dead end with the exception ofAgnes Martin and perhaps Cy Twombley, who were exploring in their own niche. Shen Chen, however, persisted in the almost impossible experiment of abstraction. In the end, he forged a personal path between Eastern and Western art and created a surprising new abstract vocabulary.
Shen Chen selected the brush strokes and the color gray from his early ink painting instead of Western painting as his starting point for modernizing brushwork and color. Completely breaking away from his former exploration of modern abstract ink painting, Shen Chen started with the intrinsic properties of ink brush and color gray, then progressed onto a pure abstract experimentation that was derived from ink yet went beyond ink. This transformation was accomplished by new medium and new tools, particularly water-based acrylic and improved row brushes.
The change from ink to acrylic is not a break from Chinese tradition after turning to the West. Rather, it is an abstract approach leading to universal modernity, a turn to painting concepts away from the cultural perspective of aesthetics as the basis for the experiments on intrinsic brush attributes and colors. This goes beyond the unrealized modernism of Chinese and Western paintings. Shen Chen not only transcends the previous boundaries of ink modernism, but he also transcends the abstract boundaries of Western modernism to enter into a visual field of perceptual abstraction. Indeed, not many Western painters are able to create such liminality and language experience.
Shen Chen has created a unique abstract experience, especially in the fields of composite gray and gradients of composite color gamut. In this abstract format, the essential elements of painting in both Chinese and Western systems are recombined together into a pure visual field of profound depths.