Chen Ching-Yuan Unsettles Time and Perception With Paint
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In the summer of 2020, flying to Paris for his residency at the Cité internationale des arts, Chen Ching-Yuan found himself under lockdown with rules that compelled him to spend his days within one kilometre of Cité.
A sense of that isolation can be glimpsed in the artist's solo show PAGES (2021–20) at TKG+ in Taipei (27 November 2021–22 January 2022), with realist paintings produced between 2020 and 2021 in a surrealistic style unsettling definitions of the ordinary and perceptions of time.
Tapping into the artist's penchant for the absurd, the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have made experiences and sensations once thought of as commonplace feel alien. Chen captures that sense of uprootedness in his paintings of train interiors.
In Still II and III (2021), the empty stillness of a train compartment contrasts with views outside windows rendered as colourful blurs.
Windows appear again as a contrasting device in canvases depicting the yellowish beige exterior of a dance studio, which Chen photographed in Paris, each one sharing the same horizontal and vertical lines of windows and rails and, through them, views of people dancing.
Across Pages (2021–20), chronological time has been usurped...
Despite its transparent windows, the building's opaque lines firmly separate the viewer, locating them perpetually on the outside, as is the case in Page 2020 11 (2021). Most figures are seen in profile or have their backs to the viewer; one dancer wearing glasses seems focused on their partner, who is completely concealed by a central column, along with half of the dancer's body.
These frontal views produce the effect of looking into another dimension, where previously ordinary activities become inaccessible, otherworldly, timeless. Across Pages (2021–20), chronological time has been usurped, starting with the exhibition title, which has reversed the years in its range.
The sun may still initiate and close the day, evidenced by the shadows of buildings cast on the dance studio in 2020 Page 9 and 10 (both 2021), which move from right to the middle, or morning to noon. But the paintings cannot reveal whether the scenes occurred on the same day, week, or month.
Chen continues to evade coherence in Triptych I: The Sunset From Munch; II: The Infection; and III: The Descent (all 2021). Through their titles, three paintings form a long horizontal sequence, despite being spread around the gallery, effectively making it impossible to view them in a coherent line.
A group of men bring a truncated tree down in The Descent, while dogs run off with tree branches in The Infection, and swimmers seem unperturbed by the activity since various paintings block their view in The Sunset from Munch. In contrast to their numbered titles, however, fragments of white text that appear in each painting—for example, appearing faintly at the bottom of a grey screen—partially spell out a quote from the 1982 movie Blade Runner from left to right: 'All those [moments] / will be lost in [time] / like tears in rain'.
This directional immersion, in which the numbering of the triptych in their titles suggests a reading order from right to left while a text intervention reads from left to right, creates multiple points of entry. A viewer familiar with English, for example, might be more inclined to read from left to right, while those from Arab countries might be drawn to read from right to left.
Chen further fosters confusion—or fluidity—by interjecting this sequence of three with another painting, The Limbs: Measure II (2021), that occupies the space between The Descent and The Infection.
The Limbs: Measure II depicts three men taking measurements from a truncated tree, a subject around which a number of paintings in PAGES (2021–20) revolves. In these works, actions are taken around and with trees by a small number of workers wearing hard hats, aprons, or gloves, their facial features rendered in simple touches of the brush.
In 'The Limbs: Divide' (2021), workers are shown painting trees with truncated branches in red, blue, or yellow; while in the series 'The Limbs: Measure' (2021), they brandish measuring tapes across branches and trunks, or hold up branches for inspection.
The purpose of the men's endeavours in each composition remains unclear throughout. Their act of painting trees in unnatural colours may recall the card guards who painstakingly cover white roses in red paint in Alice in Wonderland, but Chen offers no clue on whether such a tyrant queen awaits them.
Also unclear is the status of the trees in each work. What first appear to be truncated trees are in fact trees that have been uprooted and reconstructed with sections from others. In Dangling Man (2021), a piece of grey tree trunk sits atop a thicker dark trunk, which in turn rests on an even wider section of another tree.
Chen ascribes different colours to the tree parts and puts them together like wooden blocks, though they do not fit seamlessly with each other.
Chen's latest paintings continue the artist's development of a surrealistic style, with earlier paintings including the depiction of maids resting and swimming in a carpet-turned-pool (Pool, 2019) and a group of nude men stranded at sea attempting to fan their way into the sky (Up, 2019).
As with the tree paintings, the figures' actions and situations in these works are not immediately explicable. Though the inhabitants of each scene look ordinary enough, they are absorbed in their own, mysterious narratives. —[O]