CHEN PING: UNSEEN MOUNTAIN

John McDonald

When gold was discovered in Victoria in the 1850s, fortune-hunters from around the world descended on the southern continent. A tiny minority would return home wealthy, while others chose to remain in the colony and make a living by other means. After a year or two of relentless toil in the most primitive conditions, any ordinary profession began to seem attractive. The influx of new men and new talents would permanently transform colonial society, laying a path to nationhood.

Within the ranks of those miners were many thousands of Chinese coolies, driven from their native land by poverty. On the goldfields the Chinese worked harder and longer than anyone else, picking over the claims that others had abandoned, aiming to extract a few grains of precious metal. Their industrious habits and the unbridgeable cultural gulf that existed between them and their Western peers led to outbreaks of violence and victimisation.

The same story has been repeated in many parts of the world, with the progress of the Chinese diaspora. By their willingness to work, their thrift and success, Chinese migrants would incur the resentment of those who felt that ethnic differences conferred automatic superiority.

During the 1870s, the Chinese émigrés began making their way to Tasmania, where they would mine tin in the north-east part of the island. There were never more than a thousand or so, but they outnumbered their European counterparts by ten to one. In time they would become integrated into Tasmanian society in a way that the early prospectors on the goldfields had never achieved.

The Chinese gradually became an intrinsic part of the Australian community, prospering as market gardeners, laundrymen and in other forms of business. In Tasmania they would make a name for themselves as merchants and entrepreneurs. Nowadays every country town has its Chinese restaurant, although the food bears little resemblance to traditional cuisine. In the larger towns there are Chinese societies and associations, Daoist temples and museums of local Chinese history.

At the end of the 1980s, a new wave of Chinese began to arrive in Australia. The new settlers included many artists, writers or intellectuals who had left China to avoid cultural isolation. Although the ravages of the Cultural Revolution were still fresh in everyone’s minds, over the past decade they had tasted freedom and were further encouraged by liberalised migration policies.

Chen Ping was a late addition to the ranks of emigrants, arriving in Tasmania in 1994. Born in Shantou, he had received a classical training at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Art but wanted to experiment with new ways of painting. He had many precedents among those Eastern European artists who had received a Soviet-style education behind the Iron Curtain but were transformed into dedicated abstractionists when they came to live in Australia. At first glance, Chen’s paintings seem just as abstract as those of the Eastern Europeans, but we soon realise he is actually a figurative painter. His turbulent canvases depict figures and landscapes, executed with speed and self-confidence. Taught to paint with the most painstaking respect for detail, Chen has embraced spontaneity as a way of breaking free of the mindset imposed by an academic education. He repudiates the dull prestige conferred by a technical expertise that invites us to appreciate an artist for their skill and patience. Conversely, one might still link Chen’s work to a Chinese tradition of brush-and- ink painting in which an artist must summon up their qi – literally ‘breath’, but plausibly ‘soul’ or ‘life force’ – before making a mark on the pristine surface of a sheet of paper.

If this comparison ultimately fails, it is because Chen is not trying to invest a few lonely brushstrokes with a great weight of spirituality. He is a narrative painter who loves to tell stories and attempt imaginative recreations of the scenes he reads about in history books. He is a painter of many, many strokes, who tries to capture an image on canvas while it is still forming in his mind’s eye. His paintings are moving and evolving as his hand tries to move faster than the speed of thought. In Chen’s works the hand is not the servant of the mind but an active collaborator, with each gesture demanding an instant response. The artist admits it is a method that has more affinity with drawing than with painting.

Chen is no respecter of rules, whether they be Eastern or Western in origin. ‘I see figures as I paint,’ he writes, ‘but I try to make myself semi-unconscious and put myself into an uncertain situation. I regard this as searching for the unknown and letting the unknown emerge.’

Cézanne claimed to be seeking ‘the truth in painting’, and Chen is no less dedicated to this ideal. He seeks a form of expression that transcends artifice and preconceived ideas of style – a kind of ‘style beyond style’. The title of this most recent series of paintings, Unseen Mountain, is entirely appropriate, not only as a tribute to the Chinese tin miners who came to Tasmania in the late nineteenth century, but as an intimation of the looming volume of possible meaning that lie behind appearances.

For Chen, the first stage of this series was to immerse himself in reading and research as he strove to find out as much as he could about these early Chinese immigrants. When he had attained a certain level of knowledge and understanding, the work in the studio could begin.

Chen takes an interest in the physical details of the landscape where the miners lived and worked. He is interested in the clothes they wore, in their homes, their animals and pastimes. Many of these elements find their way into the paintings, as in Mine and Little Girl, in which we see a figure in a traditional straw hat running barefoot through a landscape, watched by inquisitive cows. In Sunrise and Young Ponting, there is even a cricket match in progress.

Few of Chen’s pictures are so literal, but the logic of spontaneity allows for clear images as well as dense, quasi-abstract bursts of gestural painting. Fly with White Bird is an example of the latter tendency, and it takes much decoding even though the title gives us our lead. It is difficult to pick out discreet figures in what seems like a violent explosion of paint.

Chen is not wedded to appearances in his search for truth. Not content with providing a snapshot of a historical moment, he wants to find out what his subjects were thinking and feeling. What sadness did they feel to be so far from home? What were the joys and terrors of a new world? What reflections of their birthplace did they find in the landscape of Tasmania? In Sukhavati, the Land of Joy, we find a Buddhist deity perched in the grey rocks, suggesting that age-old spiritual beliefs survived, and were perhaps rekindled, in a foreign climate.

With the progress of the series, Chen has expanded his focus from the past to the present. Time and space lose their distinctness as he reflects on the events of Chinese history over the past century and the experiences of modern emigrants. He contemplates the phenomena of migration and displacement; the pain of bidding farewell to one land and finding a place in another; the cultural tensions that have to be met and overcome. In these meditations his own experiences are mingled with those of his nineteenth- century forebears.

In discussing his earlier work, Chen has invoked the Chinese concept of xuan – which might be translated as ‘metaphysics’. This is a notoriously difficult term to explain in any language. For Chen it invokes the relationship between mankind and the universe, but it really concerns every aspect of experience that cannot be assessed empirically. Metaphysics is an inquiry into the nature of being. It may be conducted by a philosopher sitting quietly in his study, or an artist at work on a painting. As late as the Romantic period, the Germans considered painting to be an exact science, but modernism and the rise of abstraction made this definition untenable.

Chen is happy to treat painting as one long quest for knowledge as he seeks to reconcile ideal and reality, body and spirit, East and West. It is a constant, ongoing process of accommodation for an artist who lives between two worlds, for although Tasmania is his home, Chen’s mental and spiritual roots remain unmistakably Chinese. It is to his advantage that today he doesn’t have to choose one home at the expense of the other. As with so many contemporary Chinese artists, he began as a displaced person and has evolved into a citizen of the world, whose work speaks to audiences in Asia or Australia, Europe or the United States. Like his most fortunate countrymen who left China in search of riches, he has travelled to the farthest ends of the planet and prospered.

John McDonald is art critic for the Sydney Morning Herald and film critic for the Australian Financial Review.
 

Colour and Ink
Chen Ping
Colville Gallery
27 November – 16 December

There is a sense of urgency in Chen Ping’s paintings. His thick painterly strokes embody a frenetic energy that suggests the artist is quickly capturing a dream before it disappears. In a sense, this is true.

Born and educated in China, Chen migrated to Tasmania in the early 1990s. Straddling two disparate cultures steeped in mythology and distinct natural elements, Chen seeks to reveal the tenuous and rapidly fading connections between landscape, people and animals.

Abstractly expressive in their configuration, looking at Chen’s work is like trying to decode a tumultuous language of dreams. Paintings often feature a figure looming discreetly from the canvas, an animal (particularly birds) and hints of the natural landscape. Although we are aided by clues given in the titles of the works, these elements are not always immediately clear. Their presence is suggested through carefully placed daubs of colour, their existence a mere shimmer in a turbulent cacophony of line and brushstroke.

“My work deeply connects to the Chinese culture and mythology,” says Chen. “It expresses my sense of loss of the cultural identity and the inevitable environmental issues. The beauty of ancientness has never been more incompatible with the speedy age of new technology.”

While Chen’s previous exhibition in 2014 focused on the history of Chinese tin miners in north-east Tasmania, the works in Colour and Ink are more conceptual in design and rely on traditional techniques of mark making. “The concept of ‘black has five colours’ used in Chinese ink painting appears in my work and blends into oil colours,” he says. “The broad strokes of colour in landscape, the thin lines of mountain shapes and old Chinese characters have been united. They contrast with symbolic techno colours to bring tensions between life now and timeless imaginations.”

Briony Downes
Art Guide Australia
Published in November/December 2015 edition