Journey to the South

Solo Exhibition
25 Aug - 23 Sep 2023
Redbase Art Sydney


The perfect moment and the double soul.

He Sen’s new works have enchanted me; they infused within me the desire to write about them, an inspiration arisen from new ideas with an antique flavor. I do not know the specific reason why; it probably comes from the lyricism of the subject or from the peculiarity of the technique, or, better, of the techniques. It is curious to linger on every little detail thanks to which we realize that nothing happens by chance, that even in the chaos there is a precise order decided by unknown laws.

I admire the change He Sen dares to make. Perhaps his smoking ladies have reached such a high perfection to actually tire the artist, who is now looking for new initiatives, new challenges, and new goals. He put aside what is contemporaneous, the fast persistency of the elapsing of identical days; he wants to retrieve a past that he will amazingly renew.

He followed the ancient admonish to refine the technique through the repetition of the old masters’ artworks. He transferred on his canvases the ink masterpieces by Ma Yuan, Li Shan and Xu Wei and bestowed upon them the expressive strength and modernity of the oil. These are well known subjects to Chinese people’s eyes; they are emblems and images from glorious dynasties, icons loaded with thousands of meanings. To Western eyes instead they are the fable and the dream of an exotic world, remote in time and space, almost magical.

He Sen takes inspirations from two specific genres of Chinese traditional painting: landscapes and “birds and flowers”. From Li Shan, He Sen borrows the bamboo’, symbol for nobility and Confucian rectitude, conjugal fidelity, submission and perseverance, a “gentleman” that flexes but doesn’t break. He Sen decides to accompany it with the inscription of splendid calligraphy.  From a work by Li Shan derives also a painting with an orchid. A little bird lays on the flower that seem sprouting from a rock, which emerges from the canvas and shows the early appearance of this new technique: thicker colors applied with a spatula. In the first part, the inscription seems to be copied from the original; while in the second half the artist probably wrote it by himself because the linguistic code appears more modern both in content and graphic.

The flowers inspired by Xu Wei, talented painter and writer from the Ming dynasty, have instead blue and rose shades. The subjects are pending in the emptiness, detached from the world and surrounded by a suffused aura. The atmosphere is uncertain, almost as if it was suspended. It appears as if He Sen wants to hand down Xu Wei’s destructive emotions that for a few times drove him to attempt suicide, his impatient and unapproachable spirit that through his works often shocked people, the rebellion externalized detaching from the tradition and introducing with verve a new style made of wild cursive and broken up brushes.

He Sen makes this creative force and this energy as his own. These components reach then the highest levels in the four canvases representing Ma Yuan’s works. In these paintings he portrays the deep and storming sea. He Sen reproduces the sharp-edged style characteristic of this painter: Ma Yuan used in fact the axe-cut technique through thick, angular and abbreviated brushes and with a reduced composition. The poetic verses written out underline once more the impetuous sentiment and the perturbation in action: “The Yellow River goes countercurrent”, “Waves and clouds wrap up”, “Imaginary waves fluctuate”, “The vastness of the Yangtze”. It’s another rebellion, once more “Sturm und Drang”, an typical passion for the East.

He Sen stresses this urge of explosion with a unique technique: he divides the canvas in two or three alternating sections: one part is flat, realized using the brush, with a taut color and a very light and thin consistency that inspires a feeling of tranquility and impermanence. The other part is ferocious, made of material, realized with the spatula; it’s alive and violent, it seems to be screaming, feeding the waves while winding up the sea with anger.  In some points the brush is tired, just like after a hurricane, or a thunderstorm. The traits wrap around themselves creating circular strokes that dissolve, disappear in white portions, as the painting seem not been ultimate.  

These paintings seem to be created by Dr. Jackil and Mr. Hyde, from a man with multiple personalities that, while painting, transforms and becomes quiet and docile and suddenly scary and fierce, to end being deadbeat exhausted and drained. Every moment is neatly separated and characterized by a precise style, a precise emotion and by a correlated feeling.

On the other canvases, the waves become elegant zigzags, decorative motifs almost seemingly frivolous, as he underwent an umpteenth transformation, a change towards an apparently simpler and more naive style. He seems to be evoking a life style full of pleasures, made of evanescent delights and poetic beauty, just like the importance of aesthetic at the Song court. Nature is still protagonist: sometimes like a harmonious system, a live dialectic of the opposites in which every miniscule object, flower, bird or insect assume a value that cannot be estimated. Other times it becomes threatening and cruel, keen to tread and destroy like an impetuous wave.

We need only few words to describe these works that fill the space and magnetize the gazes. It’s enough to look at them.

Eleonora Battiston

Selected Artworks