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As a painter, Chen Fei is one that uses “painting.” While faced with his paintings, it would appear as if a vision of Lessing had passed from the Enlightenment to contemporary times. When describing the boundary between poetry and painting from a literary perspective, the German philosopher placed poetry in correspondence with the temporality of voice, while he understood painting to be an extension of space through form and color.
But in discussing Chen Fei’s work, one can either descend into the visual atmosphere of contemporary culture or circle around the intellectual discourse of painting itself according to the tenants of modernism, separate out an element of iconographic narration from a painting tradition of long ago to become the initial concept behind his painting practice. In actuality, narrative elements have never been that far from our visual culture and have been transferred and diluted into the visual media that lie beyond painting, the most self-evident representation being the motion picture, a form of video art.
By contrast, following Socialist Realism’s employment of iconographic narration and China’s “Reform and Opening Up,” when the narrative of reform was replaced by one of modernization, iconography had already gradually lost the ability to respond to current times. But as a modernist variant of the West’s “history of painting,” after its “politicization,” it has again returned to the intellectual discourse of painting. This is evidenced in the prominence of narrative in Chen Fei’s painting practice, which makes no appeal to modernist logic, instead presenting a realistic texture of painting in its finality. In other words, history has ended, and life continues to go on.
Specifically in Chen Fei’s paintings, the texture of reality is a dialectic formed by iconographic narrative. For example, in Scavenger (2010), Coming Home Early from School (2010) and Renaissance in the Thicket (2013), the recurring natural environment becomes a stage for humanity’s violence.

The recurring natural environment becomes a stage for humanity’s violence

From the Kantian binary of nature and humanity, the body of man and his “animalistic mentality” are incorporated into the natural world, but Chen Fei is more Nietzschean in thought process. He consciously constructs a stalemate between nature and humanity, reversing humanistic expression by making the natural state the source of life and creativity. For example, Wasp (2013) depicts a scene within a small convenience store. Pig brain is for sale in the foreground; on the counter is a copy of Die Leiden des jungen Werther; a wasp nest hangs from the roof, while anatomy posters of genital organs hang in the distance. Each of these elements carries a symbolic meaning. The narrative relationship between the young man and woman putting out the bedding seems, on one hand, like simple love, while on the other, details of this summer day unconsciously reveal something: the stinky pig brain and impassioned humming of the wasp nest, the male and female protagonists losing themselves in this situation. Symbolic elements not only lend a literary nature to the imagery, but also evoke synesthesia. In the feat of combining senses, Chen Fei benefits from his accumulated experience in artistic direction for films.
His narrative themes drift through many changes, but Chen Fei’s male figures are almost always self-portraits, and the female figures are also always the same woman, the four corners of the canvas framed to capture the two in the “performance” of different roles. However, Chen Fei’s “performances” and theatricality, here, are meant to compensate for the boredom inflected by surplus historicizing. From one angle, the world’s current dilemma seems to overlap with painting’s.

Chen Fei (Chinese, b. 1983) is an artist who lives and works in Beijing. He is represented by Galerie Urs Meile, Lucerne/Beijing. His solo exhibition “The Day Is Yet Long” is currently on view at Galerie Urs Meile, through 30 April.

Sun Dongdong is a critic and independent curator, formerly senior editor of LEAP magazine.

Translated from Chinese by Greg Young

Image: Portrait, 2012. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Urs Meile, Lucerne/Beijing.