Chen Ping is a Chinese artist who lives in Tasmania. His paintings www.chenping.com.au are a great combination of abstraction and figuration. To me, they look messy and erratic, yet make total sense. I really wanted to chat with Chen about his process. Here we go ...
“I see figures as I paint, 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.”
MICHAEL: Hello Chen, I am very glad that we are going to chat because your work is very cool. It's a beautiful mess. I love it! Even though it's abstract, I can still see cool figuration. It's like your figures are caught up in the swirl of life. What do you think about my interpretation? Am I dumb?
CHEN: Hello Michael, you are right about my work. The abstract look of my work is the result of the process. For me, it’s all about narrative - my stories. For example, I am working on a new series of paintings based on the Chinese mine workers in the tin field in Tasmania in the later 19th century and early 20th century. However, all the stories I make up will be extensions of my own experience as a Chinese artist who lives in Australia. The work reflects my obsession with the tensions of different cultures.
MICHAEL: I keep hearing that the contemporary art scene in China is hot right now. Shouldn't you be in China where all of the action is happening?
CHEN: Any local artist in China has to work with the people with money and power to make them hot. For overseas Chinese artists, we do not have the same connections. However, the only way is that we should do well in the west before going into China. There are a lot of successful stories like this in the recent years, so I am still working hard in the west first. Even though I have been exhibiting in China and East Asia in the last few years and more to come in the coming years.
MICHAEL: Are you inspired by life in Australia? Where are you exactly? What does living in Australia do for you? Are you involved in the art scene?
CHEN: Yes, of course. I have been more than 20 years in Australia since I was 27. The unfitness in the society and cultural tensions gradually emerge in my work and finally become major issues of my work. In this series of paintings, “Unseen Mountain,” it starts with my research into Chinese miners in Australia in the late 19th Century and becomes modern experience of migration of my generation. Finally, it becomes my exploration of cultural tensions. I set up an ink like mountain, every imaginative story can happen here.
Hobart in Tasmania, where I live, is very artistic with a large proportion of artists, and recently a major private museum, MONA has been established. I have been doing very well in commercial galleries in Australia including Hobart. However, I have not been noticed by the establishments in Australia. I have even been showing internationally in China, Hong Kong, USA and Europe. I even have showed together with some internationally famous artists, such as Yoko Ono and Hermman Nitsch in one of the exhibitions in the 55th Venice Biennale.
MICHAEL: During your painting process, what is going through your mind? Is your mind empty or full of thoughts? What are these thoughts? Are you emotional while you're painting? Is the process also spiritual? What happens?
CHEN: Well, my works are actually narrative. They are either figures or stories I make up. These are all in my mind when I work. However, I allow things evolving, which means paintings can change directions during the process. I see figures as I paint, 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. It is emotional as I merge myself into the works, but it is also between control and accidental. It is also spiritual because I like to transcend into different reality, time and space. In the "Unseen Mountain" series, figures and stories travel from different times and locations, fly from and to physical and metaphysical realities. They are reflections of my experience and the way I see the world.
MICHAEL: Chen, isn't the life of an artist hard? Why do you do it? It's so much work and you never know when any of your paintings will sell. Why not do something different?
CHEN: I have known artist's life is not easy! Once I said to other people "Artist is the best job in the world because it is the job you like." Then was I just finished art school and work as a teacher at one of the universities in China in the early 80s'. There was no such thing as art market at that time. After I came to Australia, I almost failed in everything I did ‘til 10 years ago I picked up a brush again and have made reasonably good money since.
I have been working with galleries in Australia, USA, Hong Kong, Singapore and China. Lots of my paintings may be good enough to sell, however as I advance my art further, the more fear I have grown. It would be hard if I had less clients who can understand my work and the establishments are yet to recognize my efforts. In fact, the most fear is the establishments in question, because it could make my life easier based on my past commercial success, but it is also so complex and political, which money could not buy. The trouble is that I suddenly feel I may have all the talent and chance to make great art work - this feeling is growing ever stronger and I will not give up.
MICHAEL: Finally Chen, What is the point of art? Why should people care so much about it? Art is not curing cancer or helping the homeless is it?
CHEN: Well, art, when it is imaginative, is where we cannot have reality. Imagination is part of the human elements. We are complete when we have both practice and imagination. It is hard to understand this, but we see wealth can never make us happier, so it must something else. I guess imagination is a born human quality, which through expression in form of art is just what we need to survive.
MICHAEL: Thanks Chen. I enjoyed our chat.
CHEN: Thank you so much Michael!
Check out Chen Ping at www.chenping.com.au.