Sean Chen’s first exhibition in 1998, his Auckland paintings proved very popular and sold readily. He has since moved on to paint landmarks in Wellington, Christchurch and elsewhere, and these are the subject matter of this book.
Not covered here are Chen’s sculptures in stainless steel, copper and stone. Because it is a landmark, an illustration is provided of his very large installation 56 Totems in the forecourt of the Chinatown retail centre in Pakuranga, Auckland, made of large diameter pipes 7 metres high and evoking ancient Chinese architectural forms.
Because Chen’s style is overtly Expressionist, it may be useful to look at the origins and attributes of that movement, and 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.
The experimentations of those pioneering artists 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, nervous, thick or jagged lines, in raucous colour that implied a fevered brain, in fractured planes, blocky forms and in a loose, sketchy handling of the images.
The subjects of the pictures 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 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 seems like a bomb may have just gone off nearby. Similar effects are seen in the work of Kirchner, Jawlensky, Heckel, Marc, Feininger, Boccioni, Munch, Goncharova and others in the period 1911-1914. The style was continued by those artists who survived the first world war.
A good example of rocking buildings pre-figuring Chen’s style is The Synagogue, 1919, by Max Beckmann.
A group preceding the Expressionists was the Fauvists, mainly French artists, who were dubbed ‘wild beasts’ by an art critic who saw their exhibition in 1905. While still figurative, non-abstract painters, they 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, and Abstract-Expressionism remained dominant for a decade before fading in the late 1950s.
The artist of this school whose individual style appears to have had the greatest influence on Chen is Willem de Kooning. At the same time, in Paris, there was a last-ditch attempt by French artists to hang on to the avant-garde role that they had had before the war. This ‘School of Paris’ style was really just Expressionism jazzed up to look more modern and extreme, in a decorative sort of way.
Chen’s use of Expressionism also 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 best paintings easily stand comparison with those of Gopas. Gopas’s Christchurch students Philip Trusttum, Phil Clairmont and Tony Fomison, together with Nigel Brown, were the next generation, and took off in very different individual directions. Their use of the Expressionist style in New Zealand the 1970s was so delayed (in relation to the heyday of the style in the early 1920s) that it can now be seen as having been Post-Modern.
This background must be kept in mind when viewing Sean Chen’s paintings, but he does not fall neatly into any of the historical categories. To begin with, except for his Christchurch paintings, there is no Expressionist angst in Chen’s work.
To the contrary, he takes the elements of Expressionism and applies them to everyday subjects in a light-hearted way, mixed here and there with dollops of the School of Paris style (Plates 2 and 3) and generous helpings of Abstract-Expressionism (Plates 15 and 47). A strong link with the Fauvists is evident in paintings such as Plates 39 and 43. In these one can see that Chen has indulged himself in an exploration of colour, with near total disregard for the original tones. However, he is capable of refined and restrained use of colour, as in Plates 51 and 55. One feels that the artist enjoys playing fast and loose with a number of historical styles, just to show that he can do it. He is perhaps fortunate to be painting at a time when the art world 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 without incurring accusations of unoriginality.
Not having been born and bred in New Zealand, Chen sees its landmarks in a fresh way. Humour is an essential element in much of his art, setting it aside from the serious Expressionism of the past while, at the same time, preventing the landmarks becoming pretentious and boring. Those who know the artist will affirm that he is seldom seen without a beaming smile. Humour supports paintings such as Plates 2, 4, 11 and 17. The fun being poked at the revered locations and institutions, the architectural shake-up, deflates them and prevents them being just dull civic buildings. 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 developed this style well before the Christchurch earthquakes of 2010-11, which have placed a quite unplanned emphasis upon this aspect of his work).
Chen gives his buildings loveable personalities – but one cannot shake off the feeling that the artist is using the landmarks mainly 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. They would become the focus of attention and distract the eye from the abstract elements. They would also call for the sort of fiddling attention to detail that Chen tries hard to avoid. In the same vein, Chen takes liberties with the colour, perspective and geography of some of our most revered (some may say clichéd) landscape views.
Chen’s use of colour yanks the landmarks out of context and throws them into a sort of limbo. So, in Plate 15, we see the volcano erupting, but it is erupting pigments rather than ash and lava. Another example is Plate 23, where coastal headlands, increasing in scale, take on the aspect of advertising billboards.
The next quality of Chen’s work to be considered is the way that the paint is applied. A distinguishing feature of much amateur art is the thinness and tentativeness of the paint application. Thin, flat paint can result in a thin, flat painting, with nothing to create a sense of the artist’s hand at work or to reveal 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.
The originators of the Expressionist movement were generally painterly in their approach. One aspect of this style is that each application of paint should be considered, and that colours 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, by discrete adjoining colours or by several colours put onto the brush at once and smeared together on the canvas in one clean action.
Chen’s work is nothing if not painterly (see Plates 25 and 33). 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. In fact, these are far from empty. No parts are muddy or overworked; they are often little gems of Abstract Expressionism that would stand up well if cut out and presented as pure abstractions (Plates 33 and 55).
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 diagonalsor verticals, or by balancing one area, colour or form against another. This process can clearly be seen at work in Plates 6, 25, 39 and 44. The artist has a fondness for a strong vertical line, and landmarks such as obelisks, masts, spires, pillars, towers and chimneys provide these verticals automatically. He uses verticals to articulate and divide up a scene. In his recent big paintings the composition is physically divided into separate sections. A noticeable development in Chen’s work over the past three years has been an increase in the height and, particularly, the width of his paintings (his widest work to date is 5 metres). In this book there are, for obvious reasons, a number of wide, sweeping landscapes, often with mountains, than were not to be found in AucklandLandmarks.
One of Chen’s compositional trademarks is the inclusion of bare areas balanced with more complex areas. As noted above, Chen treats empty areas as arenas in which he can demonstrate his painterly, Abstract-Expressionist skills (see Pages 2 and 6). Consequently, the bare areas are far from uninteresting – sometimes they are the best things in the painting (Plates 35 and 51). In some works (Plates 10, 17 and 46) Chen distils the forms into a collection of blocks.
Spires, spiky forms and chevrons are also often used, particularly noticeable in Plates 2 and 42. Other examples of compositional devices used with subtlety and a touch of humour are the frontispiece on page 2 and Plates 33 and 46. A few paintings, such as Plate 58, are atmospheric landscapes with simple, allover composition. These contrast with ones that are packed with imagery (Plates 5 and 12).
Chen takes photographs to remind him of the main elements of the landmarks that he proposes to paint, but once he has a composition settled he works from memory and does not refer to the photographs again. Many scenes are amalgams of different viewpoints in the same area (Plates 37 and 42). As Monet did before him, Chen will occasionally do multiple versions of the one subject, such as the Christchurch cathedral (Plates 44 and 45). His Christchurch works have taken on a special poignancy since the disastrous earthquakes in the city. To sum up, Chen is a committed, vigorous painter with a clear agenda, now in the prime of his career. He has drawn on some of the most dynamic modern styles and melded them together with freshness, skill and wit.
Having traveled widely, he has settled upon New Zealand as his home and source of inspiration. His style has matured and he has developed a strong following. In works in which the subject matter may be nothing more than a stretch of water or a few boats, Chen’s odd colours, active brushwork, lively paint surfaces and grasp of composition result in pictures with staying power. While his views may not appeal to Tourism New Zealand, for those of us who live in the country they are a reminder that we should not take ourselves too seriously. To all of us, Chen’s paintings say that both art and life can be fun.
The references to all the plates above are all located in ‘Sean Chen New Zealand landmarks’ art book by Warwick Brown which can be located in New Zealand libraries.