New York

T. F. Chen

Lucia Gallery

T. F. Chen was born and grew up in Taiwan’s ancient capital city Tainan. He was educated in Paris, where he wrote a doctoral dissertation at the Sorbonne in which he compared Eastern calligraphy with Western Modernist painting, arguing that the similarities between them foreshadowed the eventual convergence of East, West, and other zones into a universal culture. For 16 years he has lived in the United States—lately in SoHo—practicing a conceptual mode of painting that shares considerable affinities with post-Modern pastiche. Third world artists often feel that post-Modernism is a peculiarly Western formulation—as Europeans often feel it is peculiarly American. Yet Chen’s art seems genuinely to comprehend the issues the term post-Modern signals. Chen himself says that there are many Modernist artists in Taiwan, but that he is the only Taiwanese post-Modernist he knows of so far.

Chen’s practice, of course, has resonances beyond or in addition to those of a Western appropriator. Chinese tradition has gone through something like the developmental cycles involved in European history at least a couple of times. With such a surfeit of history, Chen is more involved with the possibilities of the future than with such passionately dark obsessions as the death of the past. Chen’s special preoccupation with Van Gogh along with Jackson Pollock—the quintessentially self-expressive examples of individualism in Modern art in the West—suggests an attempt to rearrange not just his work but his self. In both his life travels and in his art he has made himself a cross- or multicultural individual, to suggest the citizenry of an age to come—or at least one idea of what such a selfhood might be.

This exhibition featured Chen’s “Post-Van Gogh” series—a set of 100 oil paintings involving images borrowed from Van Gogh in a reconceived universal history in which all times and things psychedelically mingle. In one picture Vermeer works on a half-finished canvas of Van Gogh irises. In another, a Gauguin-style Polynesian nude lies wistfully above a scene where Cézanne’s Boy in a Red Waistcoat, 1888-90, sits at table with Van Gogh’s Dr. Paul Gachet, 1890. In still another, the art dealer Père Tanguy, who presciently supplied Van Gogh with his colors, sits by a table on which a Cézanne still life lies. Paintings by Matisse and others hang behind him.

Many works in the series feature Van Gogh’s familiar rendering of his bedroom at Arles, visited by other artists, suggesting the universality of the artistic project. In one picture we see Joan Miró standing in Van Gogh’s room, while works by Miró hang on the walls and lean against the bed. In another work, Picasso’s harlequins sit on Van Gogh’s bed while Vincent himself walks past the window outside, wearing his peasant hat, with his box of paints slung over his shoulder. In another picture, a mental patient as rendered by Van Gogh sits on Van Gogh’s chair clutching his head while Munch’s The Scream, 1893, takes place outside the window.

The central works in the show, Homages to Van Gogh, 1, 2, and 3, all 1991, are triptychs based on Van Gogh self-portraits from the period 1887-89. In the central panel of Homage 2 a Van Gogh self-portrait is reproduced in each of nine color zones, referring both to Andy Warhol’s multiple portraits and to the Indian and Chinese icons of infinite Buddhas reproduced identically in gridded rectangles. Western and Eastern ideas of selfhood are conflated in the morose yet serene Van Gogh/Buddhas.

Chen learned about Western Modernism through Japanese art books, which he saw while in high school in Tainan. He says he wept with recognition when he saw the Van Goghs. Now the “Post-Van Gogh Series” is traveling to 18 different venues in Taiwan. Perhaps there will soon be other post-Modern artists there.

Thomas McEvilley