He Sen


He sen, born in Kaiyuan, Yunnan province in 1968, moved to chongqing with his parents the same year. He graduated from the normal department of Sichuan academy of fine arts in 1989.

In He Sen’s early practice, a slice of life was captured through the here and now of everyday ‘things’; both the presence and absence of progress and change were portrayed in dimly lit uncertainty with shadows casting that ashen future. In contrast, in the metaphysical realm of Chinese thought, intensely contemplating the present runs the risk of obfuscating the guiding light of experience and tradition, which time and again informs the future. This philosophy towards self-reflection is conspicuously endemic in established Chinese thought: to move forward spatially is to look back temporally (inherent in the meaning of 前). He Sen indeed has translated the theme in his paintings into English as “contradictory wandering”: to pursue a ‘contradiction’ which ‘wanders’ is to practice the wisdom in looking back to move forward. Traditional iconographic motifs are often placed to exalt contemplation and introspection, as classical works often aim to reflect on human fragility as the artist contemplates the scenery or speaks to the joys of reclusion or the melancholy of longing.

This series echoes the Chinese painting genres of “landscape” and “flowers and birds,” celebrating nature’s profound influence. Human presence, often a sage or hermit, subtly exists within the vibrant natural realm. The depiction of man’s fragility contrasts the potent, aggressive nature, characterised by its sharp, vigorous features.’

He Sen’s technique in his canvases, a blend of brush and spatula strokes, is captivating. It shifts focus to material and style, highlighting brushwork and composition, momentarily downplaying scene content. Painting with layered spatula strokes adding dimension and diluted brushstrokes evoking ink effects is pivotal in his artistic journey. Using Western methods with oil to depict ink-wash and gong bi realism extended both contradiction and wandering while preserving the techniques of abstraction. Historical images also inspired composure, introspection, anger and aggression, which then filled an enlarged canvas to take measure the process of artistic exploration: a brush in a state of tranquillity or a palette knife under fatigue and exhaustion. Remarkably He Sen’s oils are sometimes applied so liberally that the form needs to be gouged out from an almost clay-like surface, and yet the signature styles of traditional ink are so recognisable in the thick impasto.

Here’s to say, there is no need to turn away from tradition and history as an exchange to gain self-esteem, identity and confidence. Quite from it, self-awareness is the last thing you want to abandon. In this context, to dwell on China’s cultural lineage is to recognise it has been scarred but remains nevertheless completely alive. Such a conclusion builds thrust and desire for self-re-invention and a renewed engagement with China’s here and now.


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