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Mozhi Chen

Few countries have a history in the arts as long and consistent as China, where change is measured in centuries instead of decades. Typical subjects for painting, such as landscapes, religious and secular figures and nature objects, including animals, birds and flowers, have had centuries to acquire an Eastern reference while the West concentrated chiefly on the human figure. By the time there were intersections with Western art, influence was minimal. When the communists took over the country and later staged their Cultural Revolution, aesthetic change within the People’s Republic of China had been at a stalemate for thirty years. Once the country opened itself to the West in 1972, and then at the conclusion of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, artists had become reporters providing visual proof of profound changes in their society and shifts in their aesthetics.

Even with these recent changes, the Chinese artists’ custom is one of understatement, leaving more for viewer’s participation and interpretation. Mozhi Chen fits easily within this long tradition of Chinese artists, yet his vision has made significant alterations. Born in 1947 in Shanghai, as a youth he studied the priceless art collection of his grandfather. During the Cultural Revolution, this collection, which included pieces reported to be over 3,000 years old, was destroyed.

Chen’s early paintings more closely reflect his life in Shanghai, where he studied at Shanghai School of Textiles Art and then held a faculty appointment at East China Normal University. Shanghai, China’s largest city, is also well known for a group of mid-nineteenth century artists who began the “Shanghai School,” which is noted for its emphasis on flowers and natural objects as the subject for paintings. These artists had an easy fluency of style and great sensitivity in color, ink and composition. Chen’s painting in the seventies and early eighties fit naturally into this school’s style.

Another major influence in Chen’s work is his research of early Chinese calligraphy and his recognized artistry in carving seals or signature chops. The carving of calligraphic characters on the base of rectangular forms used as signature stamps is a craft with the highest artistic standards. From 1967 through 1978, Chen studied seal carving and painting with famous Shanghai artists Wang Geyi and Zhu Qizhang. By 1973, his carvings were exhibited and won awards. He continued his advanced studies in arts at Zhejiang National Art Academy in Hangzhou, where he received a Master of Fine Arts in 1980.

Mozhi Chen’s paintings of plants and flowers during the seventies to the mid-eighties in some ways haunt Chen. Their spectacular beauty in the best tradition of the Shanghai School is so facile and rich in their misty picturesque effects. The natural subjects embody rich poetic, symbolic and allegorical meanings in the splash-ink technique. It is Chen’s successes in this genre that endeared him to his Chinese and Western admirers. To move from this motif would be a risk few artists would take.

His appointment as visiting instructor in Chinese Art and Art History at the University of Victoria in 1986 provided an opportunity to break from his Chinese tradition and experiment with Western materials and images. Chen chose to refine and expand his watercolor techniques; a more drastic break from the familiar would occur within his first year in the West. When change came, his previous quiet images of nature were replaced with brilliant colors in abstract imagery that seemed to shout their presence. Yet these expressive images are still in the tradition of basic, hard core Chinese painting.

At first, these paintings were on paper using natural materials and traditional tools. Their carefully constructed compositions manipulate the flat Chinese space to expand and contrast in typical splash-ink technique. Sometimes his paintings appear to be an enlargement of a small segment in one of his earlier traditional paintings. Yet with their abstract imagery, Chen manages to remind us of his heritage and will probably disappoint those who look for a protraction of familiar images associated with Chinese painting.

His work shows his latest expansion into a hybrid form of painting. On large canvas with brilliant acrylic colors that both ride on and melt into the surface, combine with ancient pictographic lines that are reminiscent of the whimsical marks of Western artist Paul Klee. Chen’s pictographic marks become the superstructure for bold, bright colors that at first seem arbitrary—a little blue here, some green over there, splashes of red to brighten it, and always just enough yellow for spice—but these washes of color are necessary to establish the linear forms and exceed their iconographic traditions.

As he continues his spectacular production of paintings while he resides in Edmonton, he leaves us in awe of his skill and vision. Their strength is Chen’s intuitive control of space, transforming apparent simple composition into profound expression of life. The rich color tonality painted with exquisite brushwork takes full advantage of surface surprises and brings spontaneity and joy to his work. It is an expression Chen happily shares with those of us who admire his paintings.

Copyright by Richard S. Thornton

This review is excerpted from an “Introduction” in Mozhi Chen’s catalog published by the Visions Gallery, Edmonton, Canada in 1991.

Untitled Lady Bathing in Moonlight    
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