Perrotin Paris proudly presents Chen Fei’s “Fine Art”.
Chen Fei’s first solo show in Paris follows 2014’s “Flesh and Me” at Perrotin Hong Kong. Born in 1983 in Shanxi province, Chen Fei positions himself as an outsider. Since studying at the Beijing Film Academy, he has cultivated a persona more at home with Beijing’s youth subcultures, the tattoo parlours and punk music scene, than the so-called fine art world. His signature pop style reflects this, blending the slick lines and surfaces of manga cartoons to depict the psycho-sexual states of the Beijing demimonde. Flat, immediate images composed of cartoon outlines and color-fill eschew painterly affectation. What counts is not how the painting is painted but the images themselves, clean-lined depictions of a dirty real world. Even so, Chen Fei does not ignore art history but sardonically exploits it, raiding the canon, marking its otherness. “Scavengers” (2010), based on John Everett Millais’s iconic Pre-Raphaelite painting “Ophelia” (1851-2), shows a young woman wading in a forest pond, fishing out Ophelia/Chen Fei’s body (with écorché gut). “Xiao Wu Ji” (2012), lightly references Manet’s “A Bar at the Foies-Bergère” (1882), with a bored shop assistant at an electronics stand. In his new paintings however, Chen Fei’s previously incidental investigations into Western and Eastern art history and practice are developed into a central theme. The outsider has come inside.
Cartoons derive from a process used to transpose designs from one surface to another (most famously as employed by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel). Now it is principally used for animated films, Chen Fei’s focus as a student. A film is essentially a kinetic series of still pictures forming a narrative. The selection of a “still image” metonymically prioritises a moment. In “Fine Art”, Chen Fei takes generic (art) historical moments, Chinese and Western, to critique contemporary (art) history.
Lewd and hilarious, the exhibition’s key work is “Traditional Self-Portrait” (2015), which depicts the artist life-size, nude and with an erection. Adopting the classical pose of a Western painter (Rembrandt? Velázquez? – we don’t know), including haughty narcissism, “Traditional Self-Portrait” is at once pastiche and parody. Yet whereas Velázquez put his self-portrait as a witness into the royal portrait of “Las Meninas” (1656), in Chen Fei’s painting the focus is exclusively on the real king: the artist. In the painting the presumed self-portrait that the Chen Fei figure is working on cannot be seen and even the background is an anonymous black. The self-portrait reflects the circularity of narcissism (and art history, too), with the viewer co-opted into one of the subjective positions of the artist (are we observing from the position of the painter, the mirror or the painting being painted?). The painting ambiguously mixes high and low art and culture, public and private life. The reflexive artifice of the portrait (and self-portraiture) is emphasised by other doublings. The right fore-arm and cock are in alignment, as are the brush in the right hand and the palette-painting in the left (the palette/mini-painting is a joke about the value and place of abstract art in art history). Further diegetic information is included in the figure’s tattoos, including a physical depiction of a heart over the place of his actual heart would beat.
In “Sketch” (2016), Saint Bartholomew/Hercules poses in a jungle. The pose and head are drawn from the third century Farnese Hercules (c. 216 AD). The flayed skin of his body, instead of that of the Nemean Lion, hangs from one shoulder, almost like a bathrobe, thus recalling the original placement of the statue in the Baths of Caracalla in Rome (c. 216 AD). Two piglets calmly gaze upon Hercules, recalling one of the 12 labors—the capture of the Erymanthian Boar—that the hero had to perform for murdering his family due to being bewitched by the goddess Hera. Hercules has begot a new family.
In “The Charm of the Middle Class’s Gaze” (2015), a clichéd 1950s American family sit around a domestic table, smiling at a turd on a plinth. In “Natural History” (2016) a woman dressed for clubbing or the gym, stands in an idyllic field surrounded by random animals, such as an armadillo, a squirrel and a penguin. Another domestic setting depicts a Chinese family in an apocryphal 1960s American living room, father reading a newspaper, mother sipping tea, and Afro-American child approaching the mother, while in the center of the painting a bust of Chen Fei looks on. A Dutch master still life depicts a Chinese bowl overflowing with fruit, including suggestive cucumbers and bananas.
Finally, “A Big Event” depicts a graphic explosion of light rays, recalling popular but historically ambivalent Japanese sun iconography, specifically the imperial rising-sun but also previously employed as elements in popular prints, including by such masters as Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858). We could just as easily be looking at a Damien Hirst spin painting, produced semi-mechanically and which, among other things, are about the surface rejecting paint(ing). Chen Fei however leaves nothing to chance but much is left implied. His sunrise explosion has an actual emptiness at its center, much like the clichéd appearance of the rising-sun in tattoos on Western bodies, celebrating the symbol’s slick design while apparently ignorant of its dark heritage.
Even in the demimonde and alternative scenes, Chen Fei stands apart. The symbols of subcultures and high-cultures, Western and Chinese, are equally fodder for jokes and critique. A tattoo may be superficially permanent but signs are slippery and their stories open to interpretation. Chen Fei is not necessarily against hierarchies—subcultures are also exclusive—but he loves subverting them.