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Sunday, December 11, 2016

Chen Chi

New York High Noon, 1986, Chen Chi,
watercolor on rice paper.
I'm all to painfully aware that I seldom write about oriental artists, and that I'm similarly negligent in highlighting watercolor painters as well. That doesn't come from any dislike of either on my part. It's simply that, in the first instance, I don't feel adequate in discussing the highly refined aesthetics of most Chinese, Japanese, and Korean art (especially that of the past). As for watercolor, I've always enjoyed seeing them and even doing them, its just that they're seldom seen today as the equal to other forms of painting. That's not a feeling on my part, simply a matter of exposure--image availability and content choice. I've always contended that it takes a special kind of refined taste in art to appreciate (and buy) watercolor paintings. For their part, watercolorists seem satisfied mostly with endless landscapes, highly experimental abstracts, and the occasional, loosely rendered, still-life, usually on a fairly modest scale, with fairly immodest prices. All of which seldom causes their efforts to "jump off the wall" and embed themselves in the minds of critics and those covering the present day "wide world of art." So, today, in covering the art of the Chinese-American watercolorist, Chen Chi, I'm doing penance for my past sins of omission.

At first glance, Chen Chi's watercolors don't look Chinese,
even when his content (as in Fishermen)  is Chinese, and
strangely, seems made up exclusively of women.
Chen Chi died in 2005 at the age of ninety-three. Some years before his death, the novelist, Pearl Buck, summed up this artist very well. "Chen Chi is Chinese and his work remains Chinese in its technique. He does not, however, find his subjects or inspiration in the past. He lives in the present; and in spite of the inherent delicacy of his medium, he is able to present with amazing power the elemental forces of nature, wherein man assumes his proportionate place." I couldn't have said it better myself. Many people besides Pearl Buck have been inspired to write about Chen Chi and his mastery of the brush, his extraordinary depth of feeling, and his profound philosophy of life. Others were immediately impressed with his energy, indefatigable optimism, and quest for peace and harmony.

The kind of person you'd like to know without regard for his art.
Chen Chi was born in 1912 in the town of Wuxi, near Shanghai shortly after the 1911 Revolution. It was a time of unending conflicts, which made survival difficult during his youth. During the 1920’s and 30’s Chinese artists were deeply affected by the influx of creative ideas from western culture. Chen Chi was strongly influenced by these new currents, which left an indelible imprint on his early work and approach to art. In 1947 he left China for the United States where he was to spend the rest of his life living, working, and exhibiting his watercolors.

Gala Opening in Old Metropolitan Opera House, N.Y.,
Chen Chi
Chen Chi was not only a painter, but also a philosopher and poet. Chi was contemplative by nature, a fact that is evident in his paintings. In the wake of the centuries-long Chinese tradition, he painted nature, a few floral still-lifes, and landscapes, his signature work. His subject matter reflected this inherited tradition of landscape painting, albeit through the filter of French impressionism and his delicate portrayals of trees or mountains or blooms. Although a city-dweller for a good deal of his life, Chen Chi revered the beauties of nature; and never seemed to tire of capturing its seasonal nuances in the unnatural act of passing pigments over paper. Very often we get a feel for the urban nature of his landscapes in the elevated viewpoint he chooses, as if painted from the roof of a building near Central Park, one of his favorite locations. In recent years, Chen turned his eyes heavenward, in his series, “Moon and Sky”, a haunting, mystical journey into the reaches of outer space.

Watercolor Chinese Scene, Chen Chi. His watercolors
are often quite large--eight to ten square feet.
Though most of Chi Chen's works reflect his impression of nature as applied to a contemporary urban environment, Chen did not limit himself exclusively to this realm of content. His Watercolor Chinese Scene (above) is evidence of that, though there seems to still remain a love of wintery whiteness (if not actual snow). In preparing most of Chen's images to look their best online, I was constantly tempted to adjust the contrast even though that quality in his work is often quite subtle. A Royal Doulton collector's plate (below) featuring a tower of the Imperial Palace, even though not set in winter, also displays this characteristic. Chen has long been an American citizen, yet in 1999 the Chinese Government opened the Chen Chi Fine Art Museum (bottom) in his honor (a rare event for a living artist, not to mention an artist living in America) at the Jiao Tong University in Shanghai.

Vintage Royal Doulton Collector Plate - Imperial Palace by artist Chen Chi
Chen Chi Museum, Jiao Tong University, Shanghai, China


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