Shen Chen’s latest exhibition at Matthew Liu Fine Arts begins with work from the mid-1980s, then fast-forwards to the mid-90s in a kind of time-lapse. It’s an introduction that gives us a snapshot of the artist’s pivot from the ink paintings on paper of his early period to acrylic on canvas, catalyzed in large part by his move to the United States. The remainder of the paintings on view span the early 2000s through this year. A retrospective of sorts, the carefully selected body of work succinctly, compellingly presents the artist’s evolution during the past two decades, offering an engrossing review of his accomplishments to date.
Shen Chen was born in 1955 in Shanghai, where he earned a BFA from the Shanghai Academy of Theatre in 1982. In 1987, Shen was left to attend the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, the New York Studio School in Lower Manhattan, and then to Massachusetts where he completed his MFA at Boston University in 1990. Since then, he has lived in New York City. Shen was deeply influenced by traditional Chinese ink painting, especially landscape painting. Two of the artists he most revered in those formative years were the legendary Liang Kai and Bada Shanren, both Buddhist monks. He said that what most intrigued him about their works was the vitality of the brushwork and the assurance of execution. He was especially fascinated by how the strokes of ink were simultaneously abstract and descriptive, becoming a leaf, a rock, or a fish with a deft twist of the brush. As an observation about the intertwined nature of abstraction and representation, of form and content, it remained with him.
Making some of the most accomplished and refined paintings of his nearly four-decade career, these past eight years have been especially productive for him and works from this period constitute the heart of this exhibition. Some of the surfaces in this group of paintings seem uniform until you look more closely. When you do, a fine horizontal and vertical crosshatch that resembles the weave of textiles, becomes visible. These ventures are gorgeously modulated in warm and cool colors—a teal that slips into rosy orange, a rich red purple that washes into gold, or a deep black that also flames into incandescence, and multiple shadings of grey, among other combinations. It’s not easy to pin down these elusive, composite hues. Especially in some of his works, the weave is immediately apparent, the striations more assertive, reverberant. But whether reticent or blunt, the grid--arguably the most exemplary of modernist images—has become his indispensable structural foundation for now.
Shen's paintings come into being slowly and reveal themselves slowly. Their dazzle is softened into the glow and afterglow of dawn, dusk, or night, their transitions of color, light, and space so subtle that the changes are nearly imperceptible at first. There is poignancy in the shifts of light indicating a passage of time that takes place, as it does, in the actual world as well as in Shen Chen’s painted, illusionistic world. They exist between something and nothing, presence and void, “emptiness and fullness”.
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