Leo Li Chen | Wu Chen: A Sly Rabbit’s Three Burrows

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Wu Chen has painted three works of rabbits.

Weird Rabbit After Understanding Painting, the first one was painted in 2014 when Wu Chen was still in Chengdu. He said, ‘I used the dead rabbit in Joseph Beuys’ hands as a self-analogy, where the pearls and golden cross were all imaginary. Truthfully, I hope this odd rabbit would discover opportunities in Beijing and become successful.’

The second, Untitled (Still-life with a Rabbit), was painted in 2015. By then, the artist had moved to Beijing who recently held his first solo exhibition. The rabbit was still a Beuys’ appropriation, and the artist hoped to discuss ‘the relationships between capital, painting and the artist.’

The third, Stop Sketching Autumn When Summer Comes, was completed during the 2020 Covid-19 outbreak. The rabbit is no longer that of Beuys’, but a lovely white rabbit rips open its stomach to reveal an array of colours on a black palette, overshadowed by a terrifying dash of blood on the canvas. This painting unfolds a dark fairy tale.

The first rabbit painting embodies a nod to art history, and the second represents artistic practice under the constraints of capitalism, and the last, a type of naivete. They are straightforward. Although, we might ask rhetorically, ‘What then?’ Wu Chen hasn’t offered any answers. He reserved the ideas on canvas and in his brushwork: in the first work, one perceives the composition, chiaroscuro, and techniques in classical and religious paintings, which makes the rabbit a specimen; the second painting uses light and transparent paint in bright colours, on which the rabbit is still alive, hung upside down; while the last one is a rendition of willful composition and colours, its infantile affinity offers a chilling impression.

One is often left with a conflicting sense when looking at Wu Chen’s works on canvas. The visual perceptions of the canvas often appeal to your genuine appreciation for their vivacity and humour, while you may also consider these bold colours and brushstrokes are impulsive and frivolous. Other than your personal preference and inclinations, often the artist’s appropriation and integration of pictorial elements may seem superficial, to the extent that the viewer would question his impetus, expression, and techniques. Nevertheless, Wu Chen tends to embed himself at the depth of his tableaus.

Wu Chen sets multiple narratives in his painting practice that adopts the most typical and powerful symbolism in conveying the artist’s messages. They include the stories in the histories of art, the motifs from classical painting, famous artists and persons’ portraits, artists’ painting tools, cartoon characters, images circulating in mass culture, and news reports. How should we look at these stories and various ways of storytelling? Were we to cease with the information provided in these images, we would be deceptive of the voluntary clues Wu Chen has left us. Petit Dejeuner Sur L’herbs, Palm Trees, Bathers are pertinent to art history, at the same time, making references to our general visual experiences. We have been receiving and familiarizing these classic images, whose paradigms continue to renew and reinvent in becoming new classics. Wu Chen bases his scepticism for the standard and eminence of painting on his artistic training and an innate inclination of doubts. More importantly, he translates the classics onto a levelled view for the masses, a kind of self-deprecation from being trapped by authority and self-paralysis.

This kind of deprecation is more apparent in Wu Chen’s fairy tale, and cartoon subject matters: Snow White becoming the young lady of scrutiny; Santa Claus, a gender-ambiguous, fat and naked man; Mickey dismembered into embodiments of evil, etc., none of which are unfamiliar to us, symbolic of desire and absurdity, prevalent in the adult world. Once Wu Chen lifts the cover-up, we would no longer appreciate his tableau and subject matter with the same innocence. His straightforward irony becomes the most unbearable sight.

Compare to his previous works, Wu Chen’s artworks from 2020 incline to cartoons and personification: among them, characteristics of political figures permeate into the spots of Sponge Bob; Fan Kuan’s Travelers Among Mountains and Streams compositional structure superimposes on a few pieces of watermelons in Frida Kahlo’s Viva La Vida, transpiring with contempt; the artist’s painting tools come to life in his art studio as if they’ve become the toys in Toy Story, having their last supper. Upon first glance, the garish and stimulating imagery exudes high energy. At the same time, the work also gives a sense of noise and dissonance. Nevertheless, Wu Chen has chosen an apparent subject matter, yet his irrational emotional catharsis fills the canvas, which is likely the most truthful expression in this unique time of the global pandemic. The emotional outburst and frustration conveyed overpowers the stories told in these imageries.

Wu Chen’s paintings inevitably stir controversy because their stories are those ‘we have already known.’ Were we to follow the narrative clues Wu Chen had set up for the viewers, we’d lose the possibility to reach their core. All of the stories, hints, icons embody specific references, which provide us with multiple entry points. For Wu Chen, they are second-hand information he receives and processes. The artist does not seek to verify or discuss this second-hand information, but to blend their symbolism, so every entry looks like a ‘no entry.’ To decipher the messages in Wu Chen’s painting would require common sense rather than knowledge, which undermines the viewer’s existing cognition. However, this kind of familiarity relays the autonomy of criticism back to the viewer. The apparent symbolism allows for diverse and open-ended interpretations of the paintings. Simultaneously, the artist’s intentions are buried deep within his tableaus, and the decipherable information does not suffice for entering Wu Chens’ inner world. In other words, he tells stories through painting without expecting other’s understanding. The artist makes a contradictory yet predilect choice. We can’t discover definitive answers through Wu Chen’s images. It’s similar to sharing something with our friends; some information gets lost while others emerge in the course of exchange, in the end, the matter becomes less important. This decision also reflects our truthful condition of constantly wavering between humility and conceit, doubt and avoidance in our everyday life.