A review of Chen Ke’s art
Chen Ke has a reputation of featuring a button-nosed girl, depressed, introverted, and stationed in an undefined, otherworldly space. She deals mostly with personal experience, memory and identity. As she articulates the memory of her childhood: “Even as a child I painted a lot. At the time, I felt free, but also sheltered. I could live completely in my own world.” Her works keep these memories alive in the imaginative space of art. A well-trained painter with a scholarly reprieve, Chen consistently experiments on painting new painting methods and materials in order to develop canvases with multiple layers, photographs and impeccable installations.
With You, I Will Never Feel Lonely is a large-scale installation piece by Chen Ke. In this installation work, even the cabinet surface becomes a psychedelic space populated with her melancholy girl. Despite the minimalist gestural approach to the pictorial surface, Chen Ke’s manages to invoke an intense feeling of loneliness, exposure, and helplessness. The unassuming archetypal home furniture immediately evokes the memories of the generation of 80’s. The old-fashioned furniture intrudes abruptly into the space of the viewers, triggering a feeling of misplacement and thus anxiety, and finally a pang of loss. In this moment Chen Ke seems like a magician, viewers are not only those fooled by her stunt but also seem to become her co-conspirators. Like the viewer, the artist is likely to be unable to distinguish if these are her childhood memories, or scenes of an imaginary character. The viewers are thus left indulging in the inclusive realm of sentimentality. This conflict between the real and the imaginary is precisely the beauty of the piece.
Tender, cozy, lamenting but beautiful, this installation arouses our fervor to hypnotic levels, and is capable of moving us. On top of the widespread feeling of identification enabled by its cartoonish visual schema, the pathos of this piece is considerably attributed to the title “With you I Will Never Feel Lonely”. The word “you” as used by Chen Ke has a wide range of interpretations. Firstly, “you” signifies the path of art that it was her fate to embark upon. She stated, “As a child, I dreamed of living like the host of a worldwide travel program on TV, but in adulthood it turns out that I have settled into a single room. And so I create a world for myself, where I can roam without constraint.” With regards to her antecedents in art history, this “you” also refers to the long string of artists that have amazed and edified her: Van Gogh, Cindy Sherman, Jan Saudek, Araki Nobuyoshi, Yoshitomo Nara. “You” can also refer to familial ties. This is clear in the statement: “In daily life I go back and forth between two states of mind. In front of my artwork in the studio, it’s like being three thousand feet up in the clouds. I am free and unburdened, but of course still experience painful moments of sudden fall. When I am with my parents I where to solid ground, where there are ordinary, trifling matters to deal with, but I feel safe. The unbearable lightness of being wavers in and out among times of heaviness”. Concomitantly “you” can be indicative of friendship, love, and in some cases personal reminiscence of the general world. In the long run, this “you” shows the personality of an individual. Another interesting factor in Chen Ke’s paintings is the close juxtaposition of two young women of different expressions: a mirroring of doppelgangers. This eerie pairing enlivens a dialogue or interrogation or a form of solace between two selves. This odd idée fixe should be traceable to a motif she drew in early childhood. In the blank spaces of a family account book, she liked to draw with dainty strokes two oval objects, perhaps an image of two heads resting against each other.
For the present-day Chen Ke, one of those selves pertains to the innocent, original ‘I’, and the other endeavors to become the ‘other’, to be a vessel that opens itself to absorb outside elements and realities. This way, the latter self becomes the self-possessed “ordinary mind.” While undergoing this process, it was the inescapable solitude of life along with all those different “yous” that brought rescue from aloneness, which in turn prompted her to write this book. This book reminds me of a kite flown above her home country of Zhicheng. “Go and feel distant flight; feel the firm rootedness.”
In the very instance we confront the paintings of Chen Ke we immediately feel that we have finally found those things that have always remained in our hearts and protected us as we passed through so many realities, or at least permitted us to pass through. While we might not uncover any new ideas while we search in vain for them, if people truly understand the paintings of Chen Ke, then they will necessarily also understand those years.
If the audience has a shared understanding of Chen Ke, then they can see the artist’s passion for purity within his spiritual world. This passion almost equates with a need to ply his craft away from the outside world. As noted previously, he tries to avoid accommodating himself and comes close to placing what according to his own understanding is a split society on his romantic stage while also maintaining his resolve to express his own ability to maintain control over this romantic world. As embodied in his works, this is manifested as his subjective use of the color red. It is a contentious issue to determine whether Chen Ke is a successful” painter or not, but it is clear that she is a fine artist, because, through her dusky romantic scenes and the feeling of strength which bursts from his canvases, the audience can feel familiar feelings that are indelible in people’s memories.