Chen Dongfan at Fou Gallery

Chen Dongfan, 2018 mural painting project. Photo by Li Yuhong.


Chen Dongfan is a Mainland Chinese painter with studios in Hangzhou and New York. This fine show of abstract paintings echoes a major effort taken by Chen in March, when he painted the walls, ceiling, and floor of his new studio in Long Island City. The brightly colored environment is alive with many hues, which radiate in broad patterns throughout the space. The exhibition at Echo He’s Fou Gallery repeats general abstract painting patterns found in the artist’s studio space, but the imagery occurs on traditionally sized canvas and paper. (The show also has complicated literary allusions, occurring across cultures and referring to Edgar Allan Poe and the Tang Dynasty poet Li Shangyin.) Chen has spent considerable time in New York City, and so this show must be understood, at least in part, as a re-envisioning of ab-ex influences. As such, the paintings refract influences that are at least as Western as they are Chinese. This makes perfect sense; especially now, when it is so easy to travel all over the world, painting has become a vehicle for global transmission, allowing us to pull effects from everywhere. Gallerist He’s exhibitions, which tend to focus on Mainland artists, also demonstrate the results of international travel and education. Cheng’s show thus makes it clear that good art today can be inclusive of styles assumed rather easily out of hand.

But this facility is also highly dangerous, in the sense that eclecticism very often is weaker than the art movements it takes from. Chen must, necessarily, consider what happens when styles are borrowed so easily. Internationally, now, such borrowing reflects the still ascendant mode of gestural abstraction, despite the fact that it is heavily weighted with previous efforts. Even so, this exhibition feels enthusiastic and young; its energies certainly are (Chen is in his mid-thirties). House and Vortex (2017), a whorl reaching upward, created with pencil, crayon, and acrylic on paper, is offered on a house-shaped ground. The thin lines composing the vortex circle closely upon each other, with the result that the form seems to be traveling upward en masse. As the image lifts toward us, we notice its similarity to something in nature even as we understand its presentation as a cultural undertaking that is more abstract. The image is culturally neutral, demonstrating an affinity neither for New York or Hangzhou. Instead, it occurs in the interstice between differing cultures and differing means of imaging, figurative and nonobjective.  

Shangri-La (2018), a canvas work using acrylic and charcoal, consists of a complicated but very well handled mix of patterns: a grid outlined in white, a nest of white dots, spheres containing the beginnings of spirals. The title refers to an unknown paradise; perhaps this abstract work embodies our very limited knowledge of such a site. Whatever the work ultimately means, it embodies an abstraction that does indeed feel like a move forward in style. This is remarkable, as nudging abstraction toward a new imagery is close to beyond our current capabilities. Shangri-La’s dense, frantic accumulations of non-figurative designs result in a vernacular closely joined to the random visual patterns we experience on the streets, although we don’t normally associate urban life with paradise! Indeed, its grid, visible on the upper left, references New York’s modernist and contemporary use of the structure, which establishes a formally neutral ground. Spring (2018) is simpler but also decidedly nonobjective. An acrylic on canvas, the painting relies on bright colors--white, blue, and yellow, with some red--that are painted in the lyrically abstract manner, with thick strokes whose jagged edges refuse to be compartmentalized. It is accomplished, but also stylistically ancestral.

Chen Dongfan Never More Installation View Photo by Pei Chao Lin

Still Life (2018), is more or less nonfigurative, but its overlay of white and black curving lines seems very much to display a vase with flower. This is the result of our imagining, though; the lines do not exactly fulfill the image described. Instead, it is a suggestion, one in keeping with Chen’s wish here to orient his audience toward something actual. Behind the superimposition of the flowers, we find a mess of a background, elaborated mostly in white. Some reds and mauves and yellows occur, and they act as intensifiers of the white backdrop. The final image discussed, A Bird (2018), consists of abstract designs painted on paper, collaged in the forms of a flying bird. The image, which is quite large, occurs above the iron balustrade of the stairs of the two-story gallery. Gallerist He explained that the painting might be that of a bird flying out of a cage. Seen from a bit of a distance, the painting does work nicely in this fashion. And despite the small panels of simple pattern, the overall image does read very clearly as a bird. These days painting looks most interesting when it balances between modes of seeing, figurative and nonobjective. Chen has the Chinese facility of the hand, but he clearly is using that ease to render a visual life that would encompass his sincere effort to include his experience, Asian and Western both. He does these things remarkably well. WM


Jonathan Goodman

Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications. 


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