NEW York-based artist Chen Dongfan revealed he was inspired by some random graffiti for his third solo exhibition currently open to the public at the Inna Art Space, in Hangzhou.
One evening, on his way back home from the gym, Chen walked past a wall daubed in some urban art, which reads: “You Are Not Alone.” He had seen it several times before, but at that specific moment he was touched. The Chinese- born artist had an epiphany.
“I felt like I was in my childhood again, walking on the same road, with the same trees,” admitted Chen ahead of the exhibition, which runs until January 3 and presents 108 pieces of his work from 2014 to 2017.
Motivated by the pithy saying, he decided to use it at the entrance wall of his exhibition, accompanied by many eyes. The artist said the eyes were looking at him, both from the inside and from the outside and it gave off a heartwarming effect at being looked at by so many people in Hangzhou and New York.
Chen began his career as a public artist in Hangzhou, where he spent 11 years after studying at the China Academy of Art.
His most publicized artwork is a dazzling wall painting on the facade of a five-story apartment house facing a busy street in downtown Hangzhou, which was commissioned by the local community in the hope of attracting more visitors.
In 2013, five years after graduation, the artist began a journey to find himself and cut himself off from the world.
“As an artist I felt that I have some unfinished business,” said Chen. “So I had to go back to my studio and finish my own work.”
A year later he set sail for New York as an independent artist. He set up home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and spent time between there, the gym and his studio in Sunset Park. It was here where he finally found himself.
In his first two years in New York, language was no longer an asset and sometimes life lost its focus. He uses some video art in his exhibition “Viewing Platform” to describe his feelings of those early days in New York. The platform is in New Jersey where you can get a panoramic view of New York from a pair of binoculars. He turned his phone camera towards them and recorded views seen from the binoculars.
“It was hard to make alignment and you had no idea what had been recorded exactly,” Chen said describing what he was trying to do. “Sometimes it was something concrete, sometimes it was just ‘empty scenes’ — the sea, the birds or his self-reflection.”
In one video work, showcased in the exhibition, he recorded a moment when a group of friends hugged and kissed each other in a Brooklyn house on New Year’s Eve. The four-minute video is played in slow motion and the sound amplified, as if it was seen from the bottom of water.
“I was so affected then, I also hugged them. But at the same time you didn’t really know why they were so cheerful,” said the artist. “It was like a dream for me.”
For the talented artist, the video is like a time capsule and he named it: “In Bliss Until Eternity.”
A great many of his works presented this time are produced on newspapers, as Chen paints directly on to old newspapers. The series is called “Half a Man” and includes more than 60 pieces of plush toy paintings. It is also a tribute to the late American artist Mike Kelley.
“In 2012, I saw a retrospective exhibition of Kelley in a museum in Amsterdam, a week after his suicidal death in the US. In one series, he made identification photos of deserted plush toys,” Chen told Shanghai Daily. “Among them, there was an ID photo of himself, looking at us.”
The memory of this scene remained with Chen for a long time. Then, one day, an enlarged font of “Kelley” on a newspaper triggered his memory, and the first piece in the series was born — a koala with human eyes and a pair of glasses.
All newspaper sheets were then crumpled and ironed flat. The artist would then fix the broken part on the sheet with traditional Chinese rice paper and paste, not only on the front but also on the back.
“I think the backside is also a part of it, where you can identify a daily news item that happened on that particular day,” said the artist. “It’s hard to say if it has some kind of connection with my work, but I think the backside is in sync with the front.”
Other figures in the series include a three-eyed pompon, a red-lip snake, and a grinning rabbit. Actually a lot of the figures are grinning with teeth. They look odd and terrified at the same time.
Date: Through January 3, 2018, closed on Mondays and Tuesdays
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