A Dual Movement between Painting and Thinking – A Look at CHI Chien in Prima Facie Exhibit: Park

Written by Wu Shu-An

 “I ‘want’ to be a painter – it is what I mean.” – CHI Chien

If there is an artist who wants to be a painter but is neither satisfied with those paintings which only visualize what one perceives nor with the personal sentiments to “paint whatever one wants to paint,” – instead, the painter directly looks into the lasting history of paintings, experiencing various insightful views brought out by art masters, and continuously reserving and challenging the pre-existing understanding of painting so as to find one’s own position where one’s artistic practice can be related to –, then, a painting practice like this should definitely offer a penetrating and self-reflective view to examine the idea of painting – to think about what painting is, or to think about how painting can “once again” have more possibility. Such an artistic practice undoubtedly makes the making of painting as meta-painting. The process of art-making thus becomes a self-reflective critique and practice at the same time. CHI Chien’s solo exhibition Prima Facie Exhibit: Park at Crane Gallery in May, 2014 should be one of the examples as the artistic practice mentioned above. The three-floor exhibition showcases artworks of various media including animation, sculpture, installation, and painting. Although almost half of the exhibits may not be defined as “paintings” according to our pre-existing knowledge, they were definitely paintings for me – or at least artworks discussing the idea of “painting.” Through persistent dialectical thinking, his works present an art-form that can never be separated from the “Ontology” of painting.

As a self-aware artist who always begins with concepts and is full of philosophical thinking, CHI Chien can only finds the most appropriate and exact reason as well as necessity for each of his works after a careful and meticulous consideration.[1] The title of the exhibition is no exception. It not only suggests the multiple relationships with surface, plain, fragment, evidence, and “the Real,” but also, most importantly, highlights the performance/exhibition essence of park. On the one hand, it refers to the complicacy between the private and the public throughout the development of human modernization; on the other hand, it echoes the transformation of the artist’s speculation toward a straightforward confrontation with the public via “performance/exhibition” and the switch of the Subject between the artist and the public. Prima Facie Exhibit: Park is a critical response to “painting.” However, as it faces the countless attempts throughout the history of painting such as Marcel Duchamp’s mockery or the historical trauma caused by numerous debates about paintings in the 20th Century, it unavoidably has to knock on the door of “image” before it speculates on the idea of painting. For CHI Chien, the image should not be read as the speculation on the visibility of the duality. Instead, it directly points to the logic behind the production of image as well as the structural system that supports its visibility.  In other words, it is more precise to describe the artist as a filmmaker or an art critic who explores the potentiality which comes with the idea of “image as an operation” rather than describing the artist as someone who explores the image itself.

The Counterpoint between Concept and Form

There is no underpainting on the sackcloth to the base of the work, and some parts of the image keep the oil painting prime unpainted. CHI Chien deliberately divides the three layers in the process of oil painting. It can be seen as a response to his original inspiration in 2011 – the hand shadow reflected on the wall. Layers of paints visualize the illuminated hand, while the underpainting depicts the shadow. The rest of the sackcloth is unpainted. Such a composition strictly and precisely captures the comparison between image and painting. Based on it, the artistic practice in this series of works has been further complicated through the artist’s continuous exploration. Take the recent works at Prima Facie Exhibit: Park for examples; CHI Chien starts to use images appropriated from elsewhere as the content. The act of photographing or the photographed image becomes the visible “carrier,” including photographs, pieces of paper, screens, monitors, and etc. Integrating multiple materials into the works makes a responsive form which is more intensive and complicated. The elements in the form now cover light/objects/shadow from the real life as well as the photographed/represented/image carriers from the logic of image. Here, the process of painting is more like to deconstruct numerous two-dimensional images into a collection of three-dimensional layers and then compressing the layers onto a two-dimensional plane.

The process starts from the selection of image, photographing, image processing, the making of silk-screen for printing, screen-printing with propylene paint, and the final painting with oil paint on the pre-designed image. The “shadow” part also begins with the making of silk-screen and is completed with spray painting on the unpainted sackcloth. A complicated method like this on the one hand allows the layers of paint to create a fresco-like quality which is similar to classic paintings, delicate but yet slightly mottled; on the other hand, the absorbent sackcloth creates a blurred effect in the shadow part, highlighting the distance/differences among layers of paint, underpainting, and sackcloth. Generally speaking, CHI Chien’s exquisite use of materials and techniques perfectly demonstrates the idea of “image as an operation” in the paintings.  Furthermore, in the artworks which combine painting and animation – including , , , and – the use of images in these paintings proves that the artist never avoids the critical reflection on the contemporary society which takes place after the birth of media theories about image, spectacle, simulacra, and etc.

The social concern in CHI Chien’s works simultaneously inspires the artist’s exploration. It not only enriches the content of the paintings, but also helps to start a series that goes beyond easel painting. The Object in features a Still Life with apples. In front of the painting is a long wood table and on the table are plaster casts of apples placed exactly corresponding to the apples in the painting. The two-dimensional painting is like a mirror image of the three-dimensional apples on the table, through which the artist plays with the pre-existing logic of mirror/image representation. In the work , a roll of sackcloth is placed in the exhibition space and partially spread on the floor and painted the pictures of tiles. A light bulb hung from the ceiling almost reaches the floor, creating a vertical line with responsive interaction with the horizontal floor-like canvas. In – an artwork that can be seen as something among sculpture, installation, and painting –, the artist has pressed the blanket with an iron for 40 minutes, creating a burn mark which was framed into both two-dimensional and three-dimensional presentations. Through the metal and acrylic structure, the upper part and the lower part of the work echo each other. In , the artist turns the MRT warning sign “DO NOT CROSS THE YELLOW LINE” into a yellow painting laid down horizontally. The four corners of the painting are fixed with wheels, allowing it to move freely. A cube-like frame is built with bamboo sticks to surround the painting. The function of the “frame of painting” is thus reversed as it limits the mobility of the painting. As mentioned above, these works gather various understandings of paintings. They are paintings, but they are not merely paintings. They are the non-paintings that have to abandon the pre-existing definition of painting to defend its creativity. It is an ambiguous identity that one should “become the other” because of its “becoming.” Even though CHI Chien’s artworks never lack of the artistic aesthetics of forms, it fully embodies duplicity and the alteration of various thoughts. If we only focus on the form of Prima Facie Exhibit: Park, we may miss the most charming part of the exhibition. For me, the greatest charm of the exhibition is not limited to its form but the invisible world of thinking!

When Painting Becomes a Movement of Thought

It seems that each of CHI Chien’s artwork is dealing with the question left from the previous piece or responding the vacancy of the question that has not been managed yet. It is a process of self-questioning, repetitive questioning, another response, an alternative thought, another kind of solution, and etc. Prima Facie Exhibit: Park thus becomes a demonstration of the aesthetics of painting as well as a “field of problematic” about painting. It is similar to how the French philosopher Michel Foucault dug out the exciting discussion in René Magritte’s and the charming conversation between the two as they wrote to each other.[2] Or, it reminds us of the analysis of Diego Velázquez’s world-renown , where a three-dimensional space of movement is created from a two-dimensional image through the optical mirror reflection/refraction of thought.[3] The aesthetics values of an artwork may depend on the encounter between its material form and viewers. However, if not for the medium, as mentioned in Michel Foucault’s complicated “movement of thought,” we would have never seen a rich scene like this in these works. The complicated and multiple style of painting in Prima Facie Exhibit: Park is not exactly like or . The exhibition does not require a philosopher’s words to reveal the concept. Instead, it features a great amount of attempts, also with great variety, to render the speculation that has been accumulated for many years at the exhibition site. The traces which are made visible by the continuous extension, reversals, and folds between painting and images are the “non-materially visible aesthetics” that is unique to Prima Facie Exhibit: Park as I have mentioned in the previous paragraphs. Indeed, the aesthetics here is not the perceptive/emotional experience provided by the art forms as how we usually define it. Instead, it is a movement of thought that takes place in the brains of viewers. It is more like how people are deeply inspired or amazed by some exciting argument – an aesthetics which does not have materiality but only exists in the space of thought.

It is a recurrent encounter between art forms and the operation of concept. Through the mutual resonance between “the thought of painting” and “the form of painting” which takes place during the exhibition, the artist not only amplifies the pre-existing territory of painting as an aesthetics but also present an abstract storm that intrudes in the brains of viewers. Prima Facie Exhibit: Park is an exhibition “about” painting rather than an exhibition “of” painting. The exhibits are never merely paintings but the actualization of “the movement of thought” featuring painting as its subject matter. Therefore, if one does not understand CHI Chien’s understanding and concept of painting, one cannot fully grasp the richest part of the exhibition in terms of aesthetics. I am not asserting that “intelligence” is the basic knowledge to interpret CHI Chien’s artworks, nor am I encouraging readers to ignore the exhibits and to go straightly to the concepts. On the contrary, I attempt to highlight the concept and the argument that cannot be instantly represented by the artworks at the site of the exhibition. The reason is simple, because it is the thought of the artist. The movement of thought, as well as its speed, motion, direction, or path in each artwork, is the truthful feeling what I have experienced when I see the exhibition. What Prima Facie Exhibit: Park attempts to attract is not our eyes but the recurring conversation between our eyes and the movement of thought. In other words, it is the dual movement between painting and thinking demonstrating the artistic practice that begins with the “intention” of “I want to be a painter.” Art (painting) thus provides a gesture which points to both the creativity and the future as it also presents an artistic expression targeting the public as its title ‘park’ suggests. At the same time, we start to look forward to the future development when CHI Chien again enjoys and challenges the pre-existing understanding of painting.

[1] It is described in CHI Chien’s artist statement “A Private Discussion of ‘Us’ in ‘The Practice of Painting’ – A Writing about the Solo Exhibition Prima Facie Exhibit: Park.” http://www.184cranegallery.com/tw/artists/%E9%BD%8A%E7%B0%A1/statement

[2] See Ceci n’est pas une pipe, written by Michel Foucault.
[3] See Michel Foucault’s Les mots et les choses, chapter 1.