Li Chen's World of Sculpture
Ph.D. Art History, Cornell University
Li Chen is an internationally renowned contemporary artist whose sculptures represent the perfect combination of modern architectural technique and the inspirational power of Buddhism and Taoism. Li has produced a great deal of art over the years, providing those interested in deciphering his work with a wide range of reference points. He has even proved himself adept at utilizing concrete sculpture to express abstract poetry. However, Li Chen's sculptures are often imbued with allusions which can make deciphering their meaning difficult, as a result of which viewers tend to come to their own tacit understanding of his work. In addition, people find themselves drawn to Li's work, which makes it easier to engage with the philosophical meaning and cultural sentiment they represent. The reasons the sculptures elicit such a response can be attributed internally to their formal appearance and externally to the artist's masterful use of color (black, red, silver and gold).
When viewing Li Chen's sculptures one cannot help but be deeply attracted by the color and smooth, light-reflecting surface of the work, which qualitatively enhance its form. The texture chosen by the artist together with the curved arcs and flowing lines captivate viewers. As they linger over the work their viewpoint changes, imbuing the sculpture with the subtle changes and movement of qi. In terms of visual psychology the color black invariably creates a feeling of withdrawal and heaviness, but stylistically Li Chen's black sculptures are rounded and expansive, as if filled with air or energy. Despite being emotionally introspective, they also create a sense of being suspending mid air, which is to say they appear simultaneously "light and heavy." This visual tension means that the rules of gravity do not apply to Li's work, which places the viewer in a visual and psychological state of timelessness. As a result, Li Chen's ingenious contrast of color and form in a situation where static and kinetic, lightness and heaviness are juxtaposed and balanced, creates a unique psychological interaction between viewer and sculpture.
Li's sculptures bring to mind the monochrome black aesthetic of Western painting. In the West there is a tradition of painters using black to reflect the color of ink in a way that symbolically represents the East. Some artists use black to create a dialectical relationship between the picture and the background or canvas (white or cream colored). At the same time, black is also used to re-present a certain degree of meditation and yearning for something mystical. Li Chen said the following when discussing his use of black: "Usually when we see a black substance it is heavy and serious. However, when we sit in meditation or close our eyes black is the lightest of colors, so what is really important is inner language detached from external appearance." Only by being heavy and light, colorless and tranquil can black serve as a spiritual vehicle with the ability to fully express abstract space and qi. The fact that Li Chen expresses Eastern ink blackness through his sculptures makes his art even more unique. Although their objectives might differ, broadly speaking eastern and western artists consider the process of viewing a painting to be a form of communion between Mankind and nature. I would say that Li's works are more diverse and richer, replete with even more possibilities, the main difference with artists who focus on mere visual images being the way in which he showcases a much broader range of emotional experience. Moreover, Li Chen's artistic strategy lays bare my own lack of knowledge about sculpture, which leaves me even more enamored of the unique creativeness of his sculptures.
Li's use of color is not simply a matter of visual impact and psychology as his sculptures clearly incorporate the aesthetic of "emptiness" that plays such an important role in Eastern culture. Based on the Chinese Zen Buddhist idea of "something in nothing" and the Taoist expression of "smashing emptiness to create peace", Li Chen has developed his own unique artistic language which he employs to express a highly distinctive spiritual landscape. It is this that enriches his many sculptures, including Energy of Emptiness, Spiritual Journey Trough the Great Ether, Soul Guardians, The Beacon and Ethereal Cloud.
Li Chen's ingenious use of sculpture, particularly the way in which he utilizes color to convey visual, psychological and cultural semiotics, has created a body of work that epitomizes a new eastern aesthetic.