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The Post-Modern Art of T.F. Chen -
Images of A Global Humanity written by Thomas McEvilley
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Image of A Global Humanity

Tsing-fang Chen's work bears on issues of global importance today.  He is an artist whom history has invited into a more complex and composite role than the traditional Modernist role of the master esthetician.  Like certain others of this moment, he sees the work of the artist in a broader sense than that, overlapping with the activities of the philosopher, the social scientist, the historian, and the cultural theorist.  The present moment in history needs the mediation of cultural pastiche to facilitate the emergence of a global art awareness that may prepare the way for a global sense of human identity.  This type of mediation happen frequently in Chen's paintings.  In his conceptual combinations of elements from different traditions and periods he collapses the polarities East/West and past/future.   West incorporates elements of East, North of South, and so on; the demands of the past come to incorporate the invitations of the future.  Each element, rather than defending its selfhood against the claims of the other, relaxes its boundaries sufficiently to accommodate the other. It is this process that many westerners are currently calling post-Modernism, a redefinition of the sense of history that, though it is happening primarily in the West, is of global significance since it signals a change in western attitudes toward other cultures as well.

Modernism is now viewed in much of the West as a period that has passed.  It was a phenomenon that affected primarily the culture of Europe and America and was not a matter of having advanced technology and so on, but of a certain ideology.  Specifically, it was a puristic mood in which European culture protected its essence and rejected, like an organism rejecting an unsuccessful transplant, any insinuation of the other into its domain.  Colonialism and imperialism were expressions of this mood.  Spurred on by its history of foreign conquest, the West felt itself to be a universal norm which had the responsibility of enforcing itself on the rest of the world.  The belief was ingrained in western culture that this was an expression of the inner order of nature and the hidden agenda of history.  The spread of western cultural norms at the expense of others seemed inevitable, on the order of providence.  Behind it lay the philosopher Hegel's idea of a future historical stream that would blend all cultures into one.  The problem with Hegel's prophecy, in part, was that the oneness to come was to be based exclusively on western cultural dominance; indeed, Hegel thought that the Prussian society of his own day might be that culminating historical moment!

Post-Modernism is a deeply revised attitude toward history that attempts to separate it form the concept of providence, denies any claims of inevitability, and aims at a multi-cultural solution to the problem of history, rather than an imperialistic one.  Coming at the end of the fascinating but terrifying 20th century, post-Modernism proposes to Modernist essentialism is ontological compromise.   The other is to be incorporated into the self; opposed cultural forces are to be conflated into self; opposed cultural forces are to be conflated into a union, however awkward it seems at first.  The Modernist tyranny of sameness, as the modern French philosopher Emmanuel Livinas called it, is to be counteracted by the post-Modern affirmation of difference.  This affirmation is to be acted out through the principle of pastiche, which brings differing cultural entities together without subordinating one to the other.  It is this post-Modern mission to which Chen's work as an artist contributes on the visual level.

Chen is a Taiwanese artist by origin who has long lived in Paris and New York and has been an American citizen since 1983.  He grew up in the midst of the ambiguous and layered Taiwanese heritage, which involves aboriginal peoples, a Chinese overlay on them cultures, a Japanese overlay on that, and a variety of westernizing forces going back to the Dutch occupation in 1624 and involving a westernized educational system adopted by Japan following the Meiji Restoration in 1864 and brought into Taiwan with the Japanese conquest in 1895.  In Chen's youth the cultural signposts in his environment pointed a variety of possible directions for his development.   His education was multicultural, involving classical Chinese literature and tradition and the eclectic Japanese-Western curriculum.  The history studied was both Chinese and western.  Western orchestral music was played in the lunchroom of his high school.  Reproductions of western paintings hung in the classrooms.

At the same time as he entered this westernized educational environment, at age 14, Chen encountered a small library of about 50 Japanese books on western art, mostly Impressionist.  His sense of recognition was immediate: he wanted to be a participant in that tradition.  His first response is telling: in a private sketch book he began a series of pencil and pastel self-portraits, painting his own serious young bespectacled face as viewed in a mirror.  The self-portrait is not a conventional genre in Asian art, and the fact of doing it pointed it pointed already toward western ideas of the self as an individual whose destiny is to be realized through commitment to expressing itself.  While not of course denying that self-expression is involved in Asian art, it is noteworthy that the primary emphasis there is not on the self but on the world of nature and on communal tradition.  The self portrait, prominent in the West from Rembrandt to David to Delacroix to Van Gogh, is a quintessential focus of the cult of the individual self which underlies most modern western art.  It became an important element in Chen's vocabulary of shifting self-hood, from his early straightforward self-portraits to his later appropriation of the self-portraits of Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Ingres, and others, and the recombining of them with images of himself.

The adolescent series of a hundred or so self-portraits involving western styles of representation was followed by a period of intensive copying of western masterworks from books.  Utrillo, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Gauguin, Miro, and others were copied into Chen's notebooks in relative secrecy at night in his family's dwelling in the village of Kweizen, some ten kilometers from Tainan.  The youth experienced what he calls a "spiritual nostalgia" for modern western art.   He felt an intuition that seemed like a revelation, a feeling like uttering: "Ah, that is my life!"

Chen's nocturnal self-portraits kept in a secret diary are like a kernel of impulse from which the rest of his life has unfolded.  The pubescent experience of self-recognition in a foreign tradition led, through a number of stages which cannot be traced in the limited space here, to Chen's residence in Paris during his late twenties and early thirties.  After earning a Master's degree in French literature he went on to earn a Ph.D. in art history at the Sorbonne.  In his thesis, "Chinese Calligraphy and Contemporary Painting," various calligraphic styles, models, and works are seen in association with paintings by western Modernists such as Franz Kline, Mark Tobey, Jackson Pollock, Pierre Soulages, Georges Mathieu and others.  Chen's sense of the underlying affinities of these distant traditions encouraged him in the idea of the "world family."  This utopian future, as he explained in hi thesis, would be produced by a convergence of cultural streams such as East and West and an amalgamation of the five races of humanity - events which would be spurred on, however distantly, by efforts such as Chen's cross - cultural scholarship.

In Paris as in Taiwan Chen continued to educate himself in the western styles of painting by copying the canon of masterpieces.  He made, for example, three hundred renderings of the head of the Venus de Milo, a visage which came to assume for him the stature of a presiding deity of art and beauty.  With the opportunity to see their works in person, he acquired facility at the styles of Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne, and others; meanwhile his own style, his formal signature, had not yet emerged and he could not foresee it.  He felt torn between East and West.

Between 1970 and 1973 the realization began to dawn that Chen's devotion to iconic examples of western painting had in it the germs of a method that would embody the idea of universal culture through the method of post-Modern pastiche.  The central idea of his doctoral theses, the convergence of East and West toward a universal culture, began to translate itself into his painting.  He began to realize that he was not a painter in the traditional sense of the word, who would adopt a specific esthetic style as his own and maintain it, but a scholarly conceptual artist whose work, while pursuing expressiveness and quality, would consist in philosophical conjunctions of images and style from art history.  The multicultural artwork would contribute to the essential act of the Hegelian historical dialectic which would lead to the universal culture, the Aufhebung or sublatio through which a thing becomes more itself by incorporation its other.  The five races of humanity, the world family of the UN, would have its visual embodiment in hi painting.  After ten years of difficult spiritual struggle in Paris, uncertain whether he belonged to East or to West, Chen consciously undertook this project in 1973, as a solution to the problem of persona identity as well as a lasting direction for artistic effort.  By late summer or early autumn of 1973 the neo-iconographic style was born, in works such as "Degraded Modern Man," August 1973, "Smiling Over the Pyramid," October 1973, and "Dream, Music, Space," November 1973.

In 1975 Chen, now married, moved to the United States, where he and his family now live in Soho in New York City.  There his work has unfolded in the midst of a self-conscious and widespread post-Modern movement of cross-cultural pastiche in which related methods of iconic paintings were arising.   The accuracy of his intuition and the confirmation of his thesis that this was a cultural stratagem which the moment called for is demonstrated by the fact that this was a type of style being developed in a number of nations, and especially in America, the socalled melting pot which shows signs of becoming, through immigration, the first global culture.  The American Pop artists, of course, were early practitioners of "appropriation" or "quotation," which they used to combine the popular imagery of comics and advertising with the connotations of serious art. Quotations from the socalled high art realm were being made by Elaine Sturtevant as early as the late 1960s.  More recently the works of the Icelandic artist resident in Paris, Erro, of the Spanish group Equipo Chronica, of the Russians Alexander Kosolapov and the collaborative pair Komar and Melamid, the Indian Tyeb Mehta, the Japanese Masama Teraoka, the Americans Russel Conner and Pat Steir, the Yugoslavian Goren Dordevic, the Zairean Cheri Samba, and others, have contributed to the global project of creating a cross-cultural visual vocabulary that would unite various ages and traditions.

Chen's Post-Van Gogh Series, the principal subject of the present exhibition, is perhaps the key expression of his inner conflation of eastern and western identities.  Chen recounts how, at age 14, he wept when he saw a book of Van Gogh's works.  Van Gogh has since come to function in his work in several ways; on the one hand the familiar image of this artist represents quintessentially the whole western artistic tradition; in addition, Van Gogh's work stands for more than the west, functioning as a sign for the universal spiritual self-expressiveness which might lead to the convergence of cultures.

The appeal of Van Gogh in nonwestern cultures (most famously Japan) may be based on that unhappy man's demonically intense embodiment of the Romantic ideal of the self, which has traditionally been de-emphasized in Asian systems of feeling.  Van Gogh articulated an immediacy of life participation that amounted to a nameless obsession, that was so immediate as to be prior to any act of naming.  His stance toward life has seemed paradigmatic of an openness that verges on the self-destructive.  Yet its self-destructiveness is validated as a higher kind of selfhood, a response to the irresistible attraction of a universal selfhood.  Chen's 14 year old tears of recognition at seeing reproductions of Van Gogh's work express a foretaste of what he has called "an obvious opening of a universally anticipated era: an era of a new civilization in which every source of differing tradition became but one."  In this childish moment of identification Chen began to see his art as what Lawrence Jeppson, speaking in a Hegelian mood, has called "one of the strong threads pulling the world toward a harmonized esthetic."

Many of Chen's canvases in the "Post-Van Gogh Series" feature the famous interior of the artist's room at Arles, that room which witnessed his tortured feelings and reflections just before his suicide.  Chen's art, in other words, transpires in Van Gogh's bedroom, as if it were in a sense Van Gogh's dream.  Van Gogh's spirit, multiplying itself through Chen's varying images, diffuses into cultural identities both past and future which congregate and throng the strangely sunless room where he sat with his aching ear, thinking.  In these works Van Gogh's room becomes metaphysical; it functions as a transformative space where events arise from what the German Romantic poet Hoelderlin called the gateway of all image, or what various Buddhist texts have called the alayavijnana, or foundation consciousness, in which as in the primal sea in Egyptian mythology all the seeds of thins lie dormant but waiting.   In this fertile emptiness, as Cabbalists have called it, this interior space of the Orphic Egg, or the open sky which the Tibetan Milarepa called "Limitless Mind," the images of art from different ages and cultures mix and interpenetrate as in a universal mind.  Chagall's figures cavort on the little carpet; Matisse sits thoughtfully before his odalisque; the couple form American Gothic peer in the window.   More than 20 of the 100 "Post-Van Gogh" paintings occur in this setting, involving "visits" by Chagall, Rothko, Gauguin, Mondrian, Warhol, Cezanne, Braque, Bonnard, Rouault, Modigliani, Picasso and Miro.

Ten or so others of the "Post-Van Gogh" series feature not the sanctified bedroom precinct but the fields where the artist walked in plain air with his easel and paint box slung over his shoulders.  The small figure of the humble painter coming to contemplate and then record an image of nature appears almost omnipresent, like a principle of vision which brings things into existence by contemplating them.  The small cartoon-like figure with easel and paint box, wanders through pictures by Vermeer, Mondriaan, Matisse, Millet, Velasquez, and others.  Art history becomes a permeable membrane through which pictorial elements separate, recombine and fuse into new transhistorical relationships.  Sometimes Van Gogh appears like a nature sprite looking over his domain.  In "Guard Them for Harvest", 1990, for example, Vincent protects with his avant grade painting practice the fertility of the earth, like an ancient sacrificial pure aeternus, or Dying God.

Other works in the exhibition belong to Chen's "Venus," "Cardplayers," "Eiffel Tower," and "Self Portrait" series.  The Venus series, based on variations of Giorgione's "Sleeping Venus" and Titian's "Venus of Urbino," may be seen as a kind of homage to the idea of a presiding goddess from whose fertility nature the stream of art imagery flows.  Around and over her bed drift fragments of Mondrian, Gauguin, Picasso, Rousseau, Matisse, and others.  Her transformative female nature, as she lies half-dreamily on her central couch, becomes the permeable membrane through which images pass, seeking each other like long separated soul mates.  The "Cardplayers" series involves variations and substitutions in Cezanne's "Cardplayers" of 1890-92.  While elements of Picasso, Chagall, Van Gogh, Lautrec, and others, transpose themselves around the table, the cards they hold work out the future of art history as a series of reshuffled and redealt rectangular images.   In the "Eiffel Tower" series Chen offers homages to western monumental architecture whose social history involves the idea of the world family.  Chen's self-portraits, finally, return the focus to himself as the medium through whom these cultural transfers and identity revisions are being made.

The global ambition of this art work, and its central focus on the artist as individual committed to that ambition, suggests a kind of messianic element which, in one way or another, is present (however hidden) in many artists' work.   It derives from the sub-Hegelian theory of art as the spiritual vanguard of humanity's destined project - a sense that is easily translatable into various occult and Orientalist matrices such as Theosophy, Vedanta, and Mahayana Buddhism.  Here is the issue: we observe that Chen's work is post-Modern in its quotational and recombinatory approach to history and his relativistic approach to multiculturalism; yet there is a powerful ideological force operating in it, too.  A transcendental sense of the mission of art exudes from the work's deeply felt evocation of icons of Modernist spirituality such as Van Gogh, and from the inner sense that its self-defining purpose, its ideal self-identity, involves what Jeppson called "pulling the world towards a harmonized esthetic."  This creative tension in the work points to a question.

Is post-Modernism a rejection of Modernism or an adaptation and extension of it?  Hegel had felt that the Prussian society of his own day was the culminating point of history.  This now seems absurdly parochial.   It now seems clear that a kind of international cultural pastiche will have to lead toward a global cultural moment which might be regarded as the fulfillment of the prophecy of a revised Hegelianism.  Chen's idea that East and West are imminently about to converge in a universal culture is finally a hope more than a prophecy.  Yet it is, at this cultural moment, a plausible enough hope, and one on which not just art history, but History itself, awaits.

Chen's own statements are acutely aware of this historical moment.  They carry associations of Hegel's idea of the "world historical individaul" - an individual whose activities knowingly participate in the formation of world history:

I belong to a new generation in civilization, a new universal culture in which we are now living, which synthesizes a new society for everyone.  I am neither Eastern for Western - I belong to both at the same time, the whole.

The seriousness of such remarks is mitigated by the humor and modesty which are always present in Chen's neoiconography.   Characteristically, till now, he describes the new civilization not as one he is ushering in, but as one in which he finds himself.  Look at the picture of him at age 30 with the statue of Baudelaire and consider the remark, "I belong to both at the same time, the whole."  It seems a simple truth.  Chen has achieved mastery of a wide variety of painterly techniques and united them to his dream of a global humanity.  It is not without reason that an American critic wrote that he is "one of the twenty most influential artists in the world today;"

written by Thomas McEvilley



A Brief Bio of Thomas McEvilley
Dr. Thomas McEvilley holds a Ph. D. in the Classics - Greek, Latin and Sanskrit languages and literature - and has taught art history for twenty years at Rice University.  He has published about 200 books and essays in a variety of scholarly fields including art criticism, classical philology, philosophy, the history of religion, and Asian studies.  His works have been published in a dozen languages, both eastern and western.  He has been for ten years an editor of Artfourm magazine, the most influential journal of contemporary art in the world.  Dr. McEvilley has been a admirer of Dr. Chen's artwork since about 1984; and has referred to it in a recent essay, "The Selfhood of the Other," on global tendencies in worldwide contemporary art.



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