“Some people have commented that the egrets I paint have elongated bodies. To me, these are not egrets from real life but imaginary ones. The lotus stalks that Bada Sharen painted is as tall as a person, so as to magnify the purity of the lotus as it grows above its muddy surroundings. Early 20th century Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani painted women with impossibly long necks as he thought that elongated necks are beautiful. Similarly, I believe that by lengthening the body of the egret, it appears more graceful. These practices are considered distorted and exaggerated forms of beauty in art.”
Chen Wen Hsi
In Chen Wen Hsi’s innovative experiments with abstraction in the medium of Chinese traditional ink and paper, his abstracted forms of herons and egrets stand out as some his most recognizable and iconic work.
Chen’s strong foundation in the rules and techniques of traditional Chinese ink paintings gave him the ability to see beyond those rules, and challenge the constraints of strict formalism. By integrating his knowledge of line and space, and the technicalities of achieving varying degrees of ink wash by varying the pressure of one’s brush, Chen was able to construct images that also utilized the compositional qualities of Western modern painting. His years in Singapore allowed him to widen his repertoire, experimenting with different mediums, new art forms and techniques. But his favourite medium was always in freshly ground black ink and the brush, which he inevitably always returned to.
Chen once remarked that, “more and more the artist tries to express inner thoughts and ideas subjectively conceived in his mind and not bound by form and shape”, but that was not to say that form and shape were of little importance to Chen. In fact, the artist was very much concerned with the stripping down pictorial elements. Using simple, calculated and forceful brushstrokes, Chen created sparse yet rich paintings that had the ability to catapult the imagination beyond the physical realm of the picture plane.
The artist mimicked the multi-chromal effect of traditional black ink with colour, choosing a rich, pastel palette. The bold streaks of colour would have little visual cognition if not for strategically placed lines of black ink which with an elegant simplicity, invoke the form of a bird. The way the lines cut horizontally and vertically across the painting sends the eye darting across the surface of the painting, creating a sense of frenetic energy and movement, and a real notion of ‘assembling’. The complementary colours blend and bleed into one another, and deceives the eye as to where one bird ends and another begins. Particular to the work is the distinct underlying patina of yellow wash that assists in bringing out the blues and pinks of the composition. The painting in its entirety is organic and fluid, encourages a close looking to reveal the forms and connections within.
Included in a monograph published while Chen himself was alive and able to oversee the project, it is clear that Chen himself felt immense pride and accomplishment at the completion of this masterpiece. Indeed, as the all-encompassing forms of the herons eagerly jostle for space on the page, one can sense a transference of the vitality and life that Chen must have felt when executing this painting.
A monumental painting that commands the eye on first glance, and endears to the heart upon further meditation, Assembling is a work that, like many of Chen’s more abstract compositions, reaches a timeless quality – always fresh, engaging, and offering a new insight or feeling to the viewer each time.
Perhaps the great achievement of this unparalleled painting lies in its subtle ambiguity. The herons are all different, yet the same; and the painting is neither symmetrical, nor repetitive, yet the semi-abstraction Chen tries to achieve with the bold vertical lines turning at acute angles give the illusion of repetition, reminiscent of printed wallpaper designs. The interlocking lines and sudden directional change of brushstroke offset the two-dimensionality of the bold flat streaks of colour. The interlocking herons exist in undefined space, as a flattened, all-over composition without any outer boundaries; yet this interchangeable treatment of solid and void produces infinite depth.