||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
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
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.