Ping Chen and I met in 1999 when we were both at the Salamanca Arts Centre where he had a studio and ran a very small space, the year after he completed postgraduate studies in Tasmania. One of my strongest memories from this period was his foray into western contemporary art practice through a solo exhibition at Foyer Installation Space. His work, Box - viewpoint, consisted of a lone, anamorphic figure drawn directly onto the wall across the corner of the space, accompanied by a solitary box on its side and open to the drawing.
The concerns that underpinned his art practice then are the same as now - firstly there is his love-affair with oil paint, his 7 years of traditional arts training in China (based loosely on a 19th century European academy with some focus on both western and Chinese art) and 1 year of study in Tasmania where he was exposed to the then dominant rhetoric of the 'postmodern' age.
Over the past decade Ping Chen has continued and maintained a wonderfully balanced and highly considered relationship between traditional Chinese cultural values and art education while engaging in, and experimenting with, concepts and practices from a contemporary western perspective. He has been free to explore all the possibilities such exposure allows and uses these experiences to work towards developing a personal visual idiom. He has always been generous in discussions about his work; I am not alone in being one of the beneficiaries of access to his thoughts on perceived cultural similarities and disparities. His is a position that is culturally remote from - but not disengaged with - what is here, where he is exposed to some of the excesses of contemporary western culture. It is this controlled and observant cross-cultural balance that, for me, is what is truly interesting about Ping's oeuvre.
Ping's first professional love was painting, and this has matured into a commitment to painting's place now within a history of painting. He is fond of reminding us that he is committed to demonstrating ideas and not 'mere illustration.' He has written about the epiphany behind this fascination for paint; on seeing a Rembrandt self-portrait when he was a young boy wherein he was transfixed by the qualities in the skin of the aging painter. (Fittingly, that is precisely what oil paint was developed to do - to reproduce the qualities of flesh.)
His recent paintings proclaim loudly the qualities of flesh, not reproduced flesh but heavy volumes of the stuff 'fitted back together'. The apparent distortions of Ping's paint-handling builds up these images in ways that are reminiscent of the slicing and pixellation of the digital age, and of cubism, yet at the same time they easily recall the visceral but essentially linear distortions of another of Ping's favoured predecessors, Francis Bacon. However, their contemporaneity is confirmed by the highly expressive and charged materiality of the paintings combined with the remoteness of each subject - calling upon both his traditional skills and knowledge base with the medium and the dehumanising clamour of media and technology of now.
Salvaged from the pictorial 'noise' of media imagery, his figures often – decapitated and dismembered, seeping, oozing, almost melting – sit proud of the canvas, like the proud flesh of massive wounds and appear weighty against the planar space of raw canvas. Always active in the works, the raw expanses of negative space are negotiated through a trained familiarity with traditional Chinese ink wash paintings and a thoughtful understanding of the values of the ineffable and the absent in a pictorial form.
Ping selects the images of his figures from newspaper stories. They are particular subjects – all are caught in the media glare of the recent past – not that they can be identified in the paintings. They are not portraits, rather they are a point of connection for the artist to the 'Boschian' excess of contemporary life as played back through information media. Somewhere out there they are also real people who, pared back to an obvious and simple format, stand-in for the spiritual frailty of the world we populate. I suppose that the artist's connection with these subjects is through his connection to the real people in his life, his family, and behind this connection are his associated concerns for their vulnerability combined with the increasing sense of spiritual loss that seems to be building around us today…
Or as Peter Timms remarked in the catalogue essay accompanying Ping's recent exhibition at the Guangdong Museum of Art, '…it is not so much savagery as sadness that these images convey.' It would seem then that the artist yearns for a different world, a world that values other ways of being and understanding – a world he left behind and which we cannot return to.
Ironically then, and in keeping with the strange complexities of life today, the China he left in 1997 is now rapidly becoming the epicentre of the art world with many major European and American galleries setting-up in Beijing. Artists from the Chinese diaspora over the last 20 years - Ping among them - are returning to a booming economy with its burgeoning interest in contemporary art. 2008 has suddenly become, by far, the most exciting year in Ping's professional life, producing important exhibition opportunities in high profile galleries, including: Three Australian Artists, at the Guangdong Museum of Art, Guangzhou, China; a solo exhibition, Ruins, at Vis-à-vis Art Lab, 798, Beijing, China, and; Try to Remember, at Osage SoHo Gallery, Hong Kong.