Modern China Through the Lens and Brushstrokes of Chen Man
As a part of its visionary “Rogue Wave” program, presenting the work of emerging contemporary artists, L.A. Louver has brought the fantastical photographs and elegant ink paintings of Chinese artist Chen Man stateside. At first, this pairing of wildly manipulated, lush digital photographs with ink-and-brush paintings and calligraphic works—made in the classical Chinese idiom—may seem strange. For Chen Man, however, there is no conflict here, but rather a reflection of contemporary China itself and of her own artistic background. Trained in classical Chinese art and informed by Taoist philosophy, she established a successful career as a fashion photographer, and became known for her bold use of post-production techniques and digital image manipulation. Speaking of her photographs, she once explained: “I mix tradition with modernity and make it kitsch. In the past, Chinese artists have always looked abroad for inspiration as opposed to looking domestically. I’m one of the first people to actually look to China for inspiration.”
Though Chen Man’s large-scale color photographs may look futuristic, they are full of references to Chinese history and culture. Impossibly beautiful Chinese women serve as the protagonists in many of these works. In the artist’s “Long Live the Motherland” series, for example, they appear dressed in red (a color symbolic of luck and believed to ward off evil) in front of various iconic locations in cities like Shanghai and Beijing. In D & G (2011), four men dressed to the nines in the most up-to-the-minute suits sit around a table playing the ancient Chinese game of mahjongg, next to a window opening onto what appears to be a traditional scholar’s garden.
In the exhibition’s arrangement, the artist’s maximalist photographic mash-ups of East and West, past and present, and tradition and change give way to her relatively quieter paintings and calligraphy. Boldness in these works comes in the form of brushwork. Exuberantly executed strokes alternate with delicate ones, which shape the negative space of the paper into characters and images that seem worlds away from the photographs—whose world they share.