Sean Chen was born on 9th October 1956 in Hangzhou City, China. His parents were teachers, and came from a wealthy family who could trace their origins back through many generations. There were several artists among his near relatives.
He did some drawing at primary school, but his education was rudely interrupted in 1967 by Chairman Mao’s cultural revolution. Fortunately, Chen was too young to become a red guard. The regime started burning books, so his parents moved their extensive library into a small building in the grounds of their large home, formerly occupied by servants.
His parents were evicted from their home, which was then occupied by several poor families. Being the son of a bourgeois family, Chen was not allowed to attend school. He moved into the little house full of books, and spent the next few years reading them all. He says that this period opened his mind to many things.
Chen did not have any institutional art training, but studied art at night classes during 1973. Apart from that, his extensive knowledge of western art styles has been acquired through reading and travelling.
Over the period 1978 to 1987 he worked as a professional artist for the Zhejiang television studios and the Art and Culture Institutes of Hangzhou city. This ‘hack’ work was pressurised and poorly funded, but it helped Chen develop a facility in paint handling that has stood him in good stead ever since.
In the years 1984-85 he participated in exhibitions of ‘social realist’ art, and in 1986 he became a member of the Artist Association of China and the Oil Painting Artists’ Association of Zhejiang. He has had no contact with any other serious contemporary Chinese artists, a great many of whom are now making their names in the West.
Having travelled extensively in China looking at landscapes and things cultural, Chen decided to leave the country of his birth and follow his studies to the West. He was able to do this because his family had extensive contacts with members who had emigrated years earlier.
He emigrated to Australia in 1986 and then on to New Zealand in 1988.
Chen quickly realised that there was no signwriting firm in Auckland catering especially to the large Chinese community there. He set one up, and it quickly prospered.
One early commission was to paint a massive soya sauce advertisement, running along the side of a building in Downtown’s Fanshawe Street. This consisted of nineteen metre high soya sauce bottles, extending 100 metres. Chen painted this entirely by himself.
Bemoaning the lack of public art in Auckland, in March 1997 New Zealand Herald columnist Tessa Laird gave the bottles her personal public art award, saying “this monstrous edifice, which looks as though it were dreamed up by a Chinese Andy Warhol, makes heading to the North Shore almost worthwhile”.
Supported by his business, Chen then spent two years travelling the world, further broadening his knowledge of different types of art and absorbing new influences. He visited Europe, Canada, North and South America, North and South Africa and Asia, visiting art galleries whenever he could.
On his return to Auckland, Chen began sketching and painting right away. His sauce bottles had earned him the reputation of a ‘landmark artist’. He decided to repay the city that had been so good to him by painting its landmarks. He became a member of the Auckland Society of Arts in 1992, and displayed his work in the members’ exhibitions.
At the time of writing, Chen has relinquished management of the signwriting business, and paints whenever he can.
After ten years, Chen felt confident enough in 1998 to seek out a commercial dealer gallery to exhibit his work. He approached Portfolio Gallery in Lorne Street, Auckland, of which the author happened to be the director.
The directors of contemporary galleries are regularly approached by unknown artists, and the outcomes of such meetings are often disappointing for both parties. Not so in this case. If I may be permitted some personal comment, I immediately discerned that Chen was not one of those much-derided Asian artists who have undoubted painting skills but absolutely no originality or imagination – the ‘junk painters’.
To the contrary, I was struck by how un-Asian Chen’s work appeared: how it looked more like the work of a European who had thoroughly assimilated modernism. But that was not the only surprise. Instead of warmed-over European subject matter, Chen was painting Auckland, and instead of doing so in a clichéd manner, he was doing it with wit and imagination. His chosen subject matter, well-known Auckland landmarks, could have been tedious and predictable, but it was not. Buildings were wonky, perspectives were skewed, colours were odd, compositions were unusual, but there was yet more. Instead of his work coming across as what I would describe as illustrative ‘telephone directory’ art, Chen’s paintings were tough enough to avoid that annoying, childlike look achieved, perhaps unconsciously, by many representational artists who think that they are being adventuresome and modern.
I decided that his work was interesting and well worth exhibiting.
The rest, as they say, is history. After a second exhibition at Portfolio Gallery in 1999 and a third at the Peters Muir Petford Gallery in 2000, Chen exhibited annually at The Flagstaff Gallery between 2002 and 2005. The word spread, and Chen now sells privately all the work that he can produce. This has meant that the wider public has missed out on seeing his most recent work. It has also caused a problem in the production of this book. Sell-outs of Chen’s earlier work has meant that some illustrations are less than perfect, the originals having gone overseas and not being available to be re-photographed. This is regrettable, but the images have been included for completeness.
Because Chen’s style is overtly Expressionist, it may be useful to look at the origins and attributes of that movement, and also to consider some other related modern styles. Expressionism, like most of the early modern movements, grew out of two preceding movements, Post-Impressionism and Cubism. Post-Impressionism had itself moved ahead from the loose, semi-realism of Impressionism into a more experimental area in which liberties were taken with form and colour. The most notable exponent of this style was Paul Gauguin. He introduced some simplification of forms and some unreal colours, but never went so far as to substantially distort reality. Edvard Munch’s famous 1885 painting The Scream was the most iconic early Expressionist painting, but it owed much of its power to the sinuous lines of Art Nouveau, rather than to Cubism, which had not yet been invented.
Cubism, developed in 1909, was a separate modern movement, but its willingness to see forms from more than one angle at once, to break them up into geometric elements and shuffle them around, gave an important tool to the Expressionists.
Cubism, and the more extreme experiments of the Post-Impressionists, enabled the Expressionists, from 1910 onwards, to paint pictures that were realist in subject-matter but were bursting with expressive power.
That power was manifested in heavily-applied paint, in bold, thick, or jagged, nervous lines, in raucous colour that implied a fevered brain, in fractured planes and in a loose, sketchy handling of the images.
The subjects were sometimes themselves of a violent or disturbing nature, but more often than not the feeling of tension, what the Germans call angst, emerged from the way the works were painted.
This angst, particularly among the German Expressionists, seemed like a premonition of the disasters and carnage of World War I. Houses by Night, a 1912 painting by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, shows a city street – but the spiky jagged lines and lurid colours make the whole picture vibrate with the threat of catastrophe.
It seemed like a bomb may have gone off nearby at that very instant. Similar effects are seen in the work of Kirchner, Jawlensky, Heckel, Marc, Feininger, Boccioni, Goncharova and others in the period 1911-1914.
The style was continued by those artists who survived the war. A good example of rocking buildings pre-figuring Chen’s style is The Synagogue, 1919, by Max Beckmann.
A sub-group of the Expressionists were the Fauvists, mainly French artists, who were dubbed ‘wild beasts’ by an art critic who saw their exhibition in 1950.
The Fauvists, while still figurative, non-abstract painters, exploited colour for its own sake. The actual colour of something was irrelevant – what mattered was how the various colours worked collectively.
After the Second World War, artists in America developed a new style called Abstract Expressionism. That is just what it was – it focused on the non-figurative, loose, brushy aspects found in Expressionist painting. This style exploded across the world. The artist whose individual style appears to have had the greatest influence on Chen is Willem de Kooning.
Abstract-Expressionism remained dominant for a decade, before fading in the late 1950s and being replaced by Pop Art. At the same time, in Paris, there was a last-ditch attempt by French artists to hang on to the role of the avant-garde that they had before the war.
This was the School of Paris style. It was really just Expressionism jazzed up to look more modern and extreme in a decorative sort of way.All of this background is essential to keep in mind when viewing Sean Chen’s paintings, but he does not fall neatly into any of the historical categories. To begin with, there is no angst in Chen’s work. To the contrary, he takes the elements of Expressionism and applies them to everyday subjects in a humorous way, mixed here and there with dollops of the School of Paris style (Plates 21 and 27) and generous helpings of Abstract-Expressionism. A like alignment with the Fauvists is evident in paintings such as Plates 8 and 22. In these one can see that Chen has indulged himself in an exploration of colour, with near total disregard for the original tones.
Generally, one feels that the artist enjoys playing fast and loose with a number of historical styles, just to show us that he can do it.
Chen’s use of Expressionism has several respected precedents in New Zealand painting. The first practitioner with first-hand experience overseas was Rudi Gopas, who came to New Zealand from Lithuania in 1949. Chen’s paintings easily stand comparison with Gopas’s best paintings, such as his Coast Landscape,1959. Gopas’s Chirstchurch students Philip Trusttum, Phil Clairmont and Tony Fomison, together with Auckland’s Nigel Brown, were the next generation, and took off in very different individual directions. Their use of the Expressionist style in the 1970s was so delayed (in relation to the heyday of the style in the early 1920s) that it can now be seen as Post-Modern. Chen is perhaps fortunate to be painting as he does at this time. The art world in 2008 is in a state of stylistic pluralism, where any and every style of the past can be used in any and every context and conjunction. Chen can use Expressionism and Abstract Expressionism without running the risk that his work will be decried as passé or derivative.
Not having been born and bred in Auckland, Chen sees the landmarks of the city in a fresh way. Humour is an essential element in his art, giving it a special boost that sets it aside from the serious Expressionism of the past while, at the same time, preventing the landmarks becoming pretentious and boring. It is difficult to make good, serious, contemporary art that is amusing. In a way, it is a challenge to sustain a contradiction in terms.
In New Zealand, apart from Chen, artists who have succeeded in this endeavour include Dick Frizzell, Gavin Chilcott, Denys Watkins, Paul Hartigan and Judy Darragh. Humour supports paintings such as Plates 5, 9, 12, 22, 26, and 48.
The fun being poked at the revered locations and institutions, the architectural shake-up, deflates them and prevents them being just dull civic buildings that even postcard manufacturers would eschew. The staid, time-honoured structures bend and strain, as if they are trying to break free of their foundations and go off on a spree.
Chen takes liberties with colour, perspective and geography. In one case, obviously carefully chosen, Chen paints a building in a way that wittily tells us a lot about what it contains (Plate 18, Art Gallery). In some paintings Chen ‘s use of colour yanks the landmark out of context and throws it into a sort of limbo. So, in Plate 16 a grey city church could be a mosque in some parched Muslim country. Another example is Plate 14 (Auckland Grammar), where the foreground wall can be read as a dusty plain in Spain. Chen gives his buildings loveable personalities (he says “I love Auckland, I love New Zealand”) – but one cannot shake off the feeling that the artist is using the landmarks as an excuse to indulge his joy in the application of paint.
It will be noticed that there are no people in Chen’s paintings of Auckland. They would become the focus of attention and distract the eye from the abstract elements in tlhe paintings. They would also call for the sort of fiddling attention to detail that Chen tries hard to avoid.
The next quality of Chen’s work to be considered is what art critics call facture. This means the way the work is made – in the case of paintings, the way the paint is applied. A distinguishing feature of much amateur art is the thinness and tentativeness of the paint application. This no doubt stems from childhood ‘colouring-in’ exercises. Thin, flat paint can result in a thin, flat painting. There is nothing there to create a sense of the artist’s hand at work, to convey the artist’s character and identity. By contrast, a style that is fresh and generous, showing the marks of the brush and the beginning and end of each act of paint application, is called painterly. This term is used by artists and critics in praise of paint handling that is confident, professional and, most of all, effective.
One aspect of painterliness is that each application of paint should be considered, and that colour should not be over-mixed. The amateur artist tends to mix each colour on a palette and then apply it in a ‘paint by numbers’ fashion. A painterly colour should be conveyed by transparent overlays, adjoining discrete colours, or by several colours put on the brush at once and smeared together on the canvas in one clean action. The artists of the Abstract Expressionist movement were generally painterly in their approach, and de Kooning was the most painterly of them all.
Chen’s work is nothing if not painterly (see frontispiece, One Tree Hill, page 2). He makes what is in fact an extremely difficult process seem effortless. A feature of Chen’s paintings is his inclusion of ’empty’ areas of land, sea or sky. There are in fact far from empty – they are often little gems of Abstract Expressionism which would stand up quite well if cut out and presented as pure abstractions (Plates 33, 58). Nothing is muddy or overworked. Rather than being subjected to tedious analysis here, readers are directed to the Plates to see the painterly process for themselves.
Another important aspect of Chen’s art is his firm grasp of composition. Composition is much more than selecting a pleasant view – it refers to the way that a painting is constructed. Good composition gives a painting a strong, supportive skeleton that holds everything together. This can be achieved by drawing visible or invisible lines through the main elements of the painting, such as diagonals or verticals, or by balancing one area, colour or form against another. This process can be seen at work in the frontispiece on page 2.
A useful test of composition is to cover up (and imagine the absence of) portions of a painting and see what effect that has on the rest of the image. In a well-composed piece each element plays a role, and the most important elements are crucial to the success or failure of the work. Remove one of these elements and everything can collapse. For those readers who are interested, this exercise can be performed by following the instructions below:
Plate 2 – cover the tree and monument
Plate 3 – cover solid black cloud
Plate 4 – cover the small red rectangle
Plate 13 – cover any one of the red or big yellow buildings, or the clouds.
In each of these cases the removal of the covered element immediately makes the rest of the painting far less dynamic and interesting.
A particular compositional trademark of Chen’s in the use of the divided canvas. This is evident in Plate 9. Here the compositional device is quite blatant and turns the painting into something like a flag with a device on it. A variant on this is the inclusion of large ‘bare’ areas, which are balanced with more complex areas.
As noted above, Chen treats these empty areas as arenas in which he can demonstrate his painterly, Abstract-Expressionist skill (see Plates 7 and 30). Consequently, the bare area are far from uninteresting – sometimes they are the best things in the painting (Plate 58). In some works (Plates 47 and 49) Chen divides the canvas up into rectangles, at least one of which makes a convincing, smaller, minimalist painting in its own right. Other examples of compositional devices used with subtlety and touches of humour are Plate 2 and Plate 15. A few paintings, such as Plates 2 and 34, are atmospheric landscapes with simple, all over composition.
The unconventional Painting One Tree Hill I, 1995, Plate 2, shows Chen’s command of paint handling, subtle colour and composition. The work has only three simple zones. Two thirds of the work is minimal and almost abstract. This forces the eye to the top, to where the content is found, in tree, monument and cloudy sky. The objects on the summit are greatly enlarged, but this is necessary to balance the rest of the painting. The artist’s ever-present sense of humour is seen by the way the top of the monument just touches the top of the painting.
Chen divides his work of the last ten years into three periods – Harmonious, Dark and Colourful, each of which has a defined beginning and end. The Harmonious is his first body of work, in which his mature style developed (up to Plate 30). The Dark period paintings (Plates 31 to 40) were done at a time when the artist was depressed by business reversals, and they ended when things picked up again. Chen then felt a strong desire to use and explore colour to the fullest extent, hence the name of the most recent period.
As to the subject matter of these landmarks paintings, apart from stating the obvious, there are a few comments that can be made. Chen has a fondness for a strong vertical line, and landmarks such as obelisks, masts, spires, pillars, towers and chimneys provide these verticals automatically. As noted in tlhe discussion about composition, the artist uses verticals to articulate and divide up a scene.
Chen’s selection of landmarks is expansive, ranging from humble dinghies and sheds, to the mighty Sky Tower. When we survey this collection, we must admit that Auckland’s built landmarks are not very impressive in international terms. Indeed, a book of representational paintings of even the most important ones could be something of an embarrassment. However, Chen’s personal vision transcends banality.
The Museum, Chen’s first and most repeated subject, assumes a paternal role in his work. Situated on an eminence overlooking the city, the Neo-Grecian edifice is the very symbol of all that is valuable – history, honour and sacrifice. It represents what the city aspires to, the first step in building a great Athenian City of Enlightenment, as do similar buildings in America. Chen always treats the Museum with respect, even when he allows it a little mobility and freedom.
Chen takes photographs to remind him of the main elements of the landmarks that he proposes to paint, but once he has a composition worked out he works from memory and does not refer to the photographs again. Not to be overlooked in this survey of Chen’s work are his sketches (see pages 12,15,16, 20 and 21). As sketches should, they stand in marked contrast to the artist’s finished paintings, which are often quite solid and dense. The sketches are a delight, catching even better than the paintings Chen’s free and easy approach to his subject matter. The sketches are economical, but express each idea perfectly and render it with just enough detail of line and colour to make it recognisable.
To sum up, Chen is a committed, vigorous painter with a clear agenda. He has travelled widely and settled upon Auckland as his home and source of inspiration. In works in which the subject may be nothing more than a few yachts, dinghies or sheds, Chen’s odd colours, active brushwork and lively paint surfaces result in pictures with staying power. His grasp of composition makes his pictures strong. The artist has drawn on some of the most dynamic modern styles and melded them together with freshness, skill and wit. While his views of Auckland may not appeal to Tourism New Zealand, for those of us who live in the city they are a reminder that we should not take ourselves too seriously. To all of us, the paintings say that both art and life can be fun.
The references to all the plates above are all located in ‘Sean Chen Auckland landmarks’ art book by Warwick Brown which can be located in New Zealand libraries.