Exhibition review Paintings: Zhong Chen Adelaide Central Gallery, South Australia 7 March - 20 April 1997
There has of late been a growing dialogue on the question of the alleged inability of art schools to maintain a credible pedagogical profile in respect to both the status of these institutions within the brave new world of tertiary academia, and in respect to what they substantively offer their graduates, vis à vis a professional grounding in their chosen field. In tandem with this debate is another associated query that has long been tacitly acknowledged but rarely subjected to interrogation, which is the apparently increasing paucity of a viable market for the visual arts, bringing into focus again the issue of the visual arts maintaining credibility as an object of desire within an increasingly market driven economy.
I mention the above only to suggest that if there is a growing perception that the wheels have fallen off the visual art caravan as it has been promulgated/ extrapolated within the predominantly modernist context of the art school, and within the traditional structure of the art market, then somebody forgot to tell Zhong Chen, and also those purchasers who have been responsible for his current showing at Adelaide Central Gallery being 90% sold out.
A recent visual arts graduate, Chen has generated a professional momentum, acquiring amongst other prizes a Samstag Scholarship to study in London and Paris. His is a real success story, and leaving aside the influences he has been exposed to in his undergraduate years, (influences that Chen values highly) it is not too difficult to appreciate why when one is surrounded by this current crop of paintings.
The images are, for the most part, finely centered between the naive and the inscrutable, self-portraits, and portraits of art school associates, students and staff, most of them full length figures with smiling faces in a recurringly stylised landscape of semi-arid hills and valleys dotted with scrubby vegetation.
The artist's use of a ubiquitous landscape/vista as a primary metaphor 'within' which he can place his subjects and 'upon' which the viewer can hang their readings is central to a sense of a naive stylisation to the work, however, this device provides an entree into the smooth play of codes, clues and narratives that underwrite these paintings and imbue them with a joyful coherence.
Two earlier self-portraits, both double (yet disconcertingly so due to a lack of any overt concern with identicality) depict a more vulnerable, more introspective persona than the 'smiling' ones indicating that the exhibition as a whole is informed by narratives of identity. In developing this theme the artist has appropriated the dominant motif of identity in (within) the landscape representations of which have long provided Australian artists with a metaphorical sublime concomitant to the dialectics of identity and belonging. It is reasonable to assume that the work in this exhibition would be resonant with an interrogation of identity, especially that of a visual artist whose roots lie in a tradition of representation that in a number of ways is the antithesis of the European tradition generally and of modernism in particular. What makes this age old theme so bankable in the case of this artist is his elegant resolution to the riddle of self and place, his deconstruction of which incorporates Chinese imagery, both pre and post revolution, Australian modernism and the nuances of post-modern practice. Yet the above is no predominantly dead-pan tapestry of quotation and appropriation, the triumph of style over meaning, and nor is it an overtly indulgent exposition of a rite of passage from innocence to experience: it is a manifesto of arrival and understanding.
That these paintings are sites of cross-cultural convergence is clear from even the most perfunctory of glances (distinct codes both oriental and occidental are immediately apparent) however, the smiling face of the Chinese artist against a backdrop/vista of the Flinders Ranges is a sensational device and it is used twice, one of the paintings being a full length, double self-portrait with the artist in paint-smeared smock, the sleeves of which are far too long.
The portraits of art school associates also employ the device of the smile - it 'lights up' one's reading of the work at a number of levels of interpretation. Sub-texts here include the Chinese face in the historical Australian landscape, and the plethora of associations, vis à vis identity through the occupation and ownership of the land that has and still does confront this society; and this nation's identity in a regional context.
Of the self-portraits, one stands out (the only one I notice that wasn't sold), an earlier work than the others mentioned above, of the artist in his studio, brush and palette at the ready, standing before a painting depicting the 'landscape of the middle distance', the thumb and forefinger of his left hand holding a thin thread of red ribbon leading off the canvas, symbolic of the precariousness of his interpretative and expressive position (a simple tug on this cultural thread....), the artist caught between the gaze of the viewer and his own appropriation of an appropriation (etc.), of a foreign, mythologies site of meaning.
The painting is encoded with the angst of western modernism and the fatalism of an oriental perspective. Its sense of hesitancy and tonal introspection stands it apart somewhat from the other work and may well account for the absence of a red sticker.
Two other works complete the show, both multi-panelled, both conjunctions of vigorous expressionistic renderings of figures and birds (a bird hunt, perhaps), juxtaposed with representations of Tang dynasty figures, and Sung dynasty landscapes - women flute players and a river/gorge vista, respectively. While not totally arbitrary associations given the artist's origins, these images are sufficiently stylistically different both in their juxtaposition of content and within the context of the other work as to indicate that the artist is not beholden to the success of any one formula.
The rapid success of Zhong Chen's career and the almost instantaneous success of this exhibition are indications that, while there is no guaranteed career path to be found in the visual arts it (in this case painting) facilitates a kind of inscription that remains unique.