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Locus Chen: In Today’s Art, does a Visual Style Reflect a Particular Place?

Locus Chen is originally from China but went to school at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. She is very young--only 24 years old and has been living in America for six years. So, it is fair to say that her most formative years have been here in New York City, even should this period not yet be complete. A printmaker by training, Chen regularly works within abstraction, often printing with wood blocks on Japanese paper, sometimes with Japanese calligraphy already written on it. Her predisposition is for a light-colored palette, often but not always abstract, and perhaps indicative of her training in China before she came to the United States. Her art is attractively subtle, but also notable for her refusal to submit to a Western vision--although that seems to be changing slightly. Chen’s radical change of geography, coupled with a Western education, brings up an interesting question: Just to what extent does a move from one culture to a very different other culture result in an art reflecting such change? This is hard to determine, but, given the extraordinary range of travel and relocation by artists everywhere, it is a fair question to ask.


Traditionally, good art has often been associated with a period of time located in a particular place. In Renaissance art, we admire the work coming from Venice and Florence, and in modernism, Paris first comes to mind. Chen’s art is an inheritance of the very great tradition of Chinese art--even if the high points of such art occurred more than a thousand years ago in the Tang and Song dynasties. Nevertheless, the subtleties of Chinese painting are part of her background, indelibly so. Chen’s move, though, to New York was a decisive change, a choice to participate in the city’s famous internationalism. This probably means that her decision would result in a change of style, and, indeed, her work looks more and more like it is participating in a worldwide postmodernism, albeit one evidencing an Asian outlook. In some ways, the move could have been dangerous--much contemporary art from all over the world has a generic appearance, in which geographical allusion is so vague as to be nonexistent.


At the same time, the visual experience of one’s early life dies hard, and often is available in work that reaches into the artist’s maturity. How do we define this ongoing effect? It is almost impossible to say, in accurate detail, what makes Chinese art Chinese, although broader attributes, such as the choice of ink as a material, the virtuoso handling of the brush, and an emphasis on nature, do stand out. Yet Chen’s prints are notably abstract, a way of working that originated in France in the first third of the 20th century. She cannot escape the Occidental art historical implications suggested in her work. But even if Chen’s choice of abstraction frees her from the constraints of her own historical culture, her art also acknowledges its Chinese origins, even if she no longer knows China well. One might even wonder if her continuing Asian influences represent a resistance toward being engulfed by Western art practice. Chen’s art remains, very much, a personal statement, even as she moves into places distant from her beginnings.


“Voyage (Red)” (2017) must reference Chen’s move to America. A woodblock print, it shows a figure just outside the left post of an open entrance framed by three lengths of wood. From the central post a small square of decorated cloth is hanging. Above, fringe descends from the roof, ending just above the lintel. In the center, the ground is mostly white space, littered with a few objects difficult to recognize. It looks like Chen is leaving her Chinese home here; the single color in the print, a soft, pale red, is held in the highest regard in Chinese culture. In a later, similarly colored print, “Voyage II” (2018), Chen presents the same soft red, with a post, perhaps a tree trunk--leaves group on either side of the vertical--rising upward on the left third of the composition. To the right are two abruptly curving masses, represented in white--could they symbolize the land Chen is leaving? It is hard to say whether they are continents or abstractions. The point is that, for Chen, the two prints indicate a leave-taking, one which landed her, likely permanently, in a foreign place.


In “Deconstructed Voyage” (2019), Chen has printed on vintage Japanese paper, creating three rows of four individual sheets. The papers have rough edges, likely the result of the actions of bookworms, and have Japanese calligraphy written on them. The artist’s signature red is found in all the sheets to one degree or another, sometimes covering the calligraphy, which occupies different sections of the pages in different measures. But Chen cannot read the Japanese calligraphy, not even the stylized Chinese characters that are part of the Japanese language. So, the printed text is as foreign to Chen as it is to us. This means that the artist is implying, abstractly, the isolation of the immigrant’s position. In “Response” (2020), the Japanese calligraphy occupies the first third of the page, with a couple of scattered, straight black lines on top of them. One group of characters is blocked in a deeper red than usual, while the lower two-thirds of the page offers the red we know well in Chen’s art, embellished by small blotches.


Reminiscences of “Paperworms” (2021), the most resolutely contemporary work of Chen’s I have seen, is a single sheet of bright orange-red paper, with an angled top, rough edges, and jagged white lines on its sides. All three details may well have resulted from the paper worms consuming the material. At the same time, though, this work could easily be regarded as a monochromatic work of art--a well-regarded genre in New York since the 1960s and ‘70s. The title places the image squarely in Chen’s use of books for her art, while the image itself gives no suggestion of anything antique. This might be the best way to describe Chen’s circumstances in New York, where she pays attention to modern and contemporary art without having much access to historical Chinese work. As a result, we have a resolutely new image inspired by vintage materials and even traditional thinking.


The interesting thing about Chen’s work is that little or no conflict exists in the influences of the two countries she has lived in. This means there is, somehow, a stylistic connection between the long-ago imagery of Asia and the modernist (and later) forms of the West--or that Chen’s abilities are such that she can successfully merge her double allegiance. There are times when her choice figuratively reflects her early life in China, and there are times when her thinking seems entirely up to date in the Western manner. In the long run, though, perhaps it doesn’t matter where she belongs since she takes part in a pluralism that now occurs internationally in art. No matter where we assign her influences, it is clear that Chen is working from an independent sense of self. This is highly unusual for so young a printmaker, and it is impressive.


- Jonathan Goodman, May 13, 2021

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