BACKShadow Shaped | Pi Li

Until recently, the few critics written about He Sen have adopted a sociological framework to
explain his art. According to many of his critics, He Sen’s paintings offer the potential for unlimited
explanations. These images reveal certain characteristics of Chinese society in a period of transition;
at the same time, they are also reflections of so-called ‘social concepts’. The women of ambiguous
identities who appear in his paintings, and those seemingly relevant props given to them offer
the critics spaces and possibilities for explanation. From these we can almost always discover a
relationship between the artist’s creative product and social reality, a relationship that is quite similar
to that we find in Cynical Realism, Pop-art and folk art. This way of analyzing contemporary
Chinese art has been lingering for a while. In explicating the relationship between art and society,
its method is characterized by a combination of effectiveness and inertia. This method of analysis
frequently simplifies the complexity and uniqueness of any given artist’s creatively. He Sen’s has a
particular value in contemporary Chinese art, and this value does not exist solely in the explication of
the relationship between painting and society. These works of art provides us with an understanding
of the subtle yet meaningful relationship between creatively and trends.

 In order to understand the meaning of He Sen’s paintings, we must first gain an understanding
of the shift in contemporary Chinese painting from image composition to concept creation. Since
contemporary Chinese art first appeared in international exhibitions in the early 1990s, works
of Cynical Realism and Pop Art have always been regarded as representative of contemporary
Chinese art. Those who first produced works of Cynical Realism and Pop Art considered these
paintings a betrayal of Chinese socialist realist paintings. They were considered the most appropriate
representation of a turbulent social reality in post-1989 China. In fact, that which was betrayed were
the dogmas of socialist realism rather than its methodologies. To be more precise, these new art
works were mixtures of socialist realist methodology and modern painting theory. At the same time,
they pursued the creation of an original symbolism, a particularity in composition, and a frequent
and clear expression of opinion. All of this created a Chinese imagery that was comprised of unique
mixture of various exotic symbols, and influenced by folk culture and politics. To Western observers
of art, this genre that pointed a non-Western ideology became a standard for contemporary Chinese
art. Based on this foundation, they began a process of cultural endorsement.

 He Sen was among the artists who matured in the early 1990s. The time during which he began to
produce his art was also a period during which Cynical Realism and Pop Art were achieving great
commercial and cultural success. Following his graduation in 1989, He Sen immersed himself in the
production of contemporary art with a sense of incontrovertible duty. At this early stage, Cynical
realism, Pop Art and what was translated as ‘the Chinese new-expressionist’ paintings were major
influences on his work. The influence of these artistic genres is revealed in He Sen’s attempt to sort
out the relationship between painting and real life. Therefore, this series of art works is primarily
characterized by the composition of imagery and creation of symbols. Throughout the images, the
artist and his circle of friends appear as witnesses of the various scenes of life. The artist’s interest
in depicting scenes of everyday life, and his artistic language were derived from new-expressionist
paintings. Following his interest, he put out a large number of works emphasizing the creative
possibilities of brush stokes in painting. He Sen’s works are not obviously comparable with works by
his contemporaries; moreover, these works do not possess the often meticulously chosen ‘particularity’
of the works of other artists. Nevertheless, these unique representations of ‘Chinese social life’
naturally aroused the intense interest of their viewers.
Paintings have always been an important medium for representing socialist realist art. All
contemporary Chinese artists were trained in a socialist education system. With a half-century of
development, the tenets of socialist realism and compositional methodology have become closely
intertwined. For many contemporary artists, the emphasis on the particularity of the form, the clearly
defined point of view, and the method of realistic creation have been deeply internalized. Cynical
Realism and Pop Art mark a generic change in terms of the appearance of the painting. However,
they inherit almost completely the realist methodology of creation. The success of these new forms
on the international market in fact delayed the resolution of issues pertaining to the methodological
transition in the production of Chinese contemporary art. A large group of artists began to indulge
in inventing their own symbols and creations, while disregarding the question of methodology. The
success of Cynical Realism and Pop Art forced artists to refine these ‘genres of international demand’,
while, at the same time, adding an ever-increasing amount of political ‘spice’. On the other hand, this
trend encouraged younger Chinese artists to fill the roles of those who ‘hold different political points
of view’. In the mid 90s, the appearance of ‘folk culture’ was in fact evidence of this. Young artists
adopted Western compositional language, but mingled this language with politics and folk symbolism
to showcase what foreigners wanted to see. However, in doing this they have created a ‘China’ that is
largely irrelevant to the China that is undergoing globalization, urbanization, and commercialization.
Their success, in fact is an indication of the overbearing strength of the contemporary Western art
structure over ‘third world’ countries. Of course, this control is really based on commercialization.
The influence of commercialization over art is seen most clearly in two ways. First, commercialism
influences the clarity of symbols created by the artist. Commercialism demands continual
clarification and simplification; symbolism must be made easily distinguishable. Second,
commercialism challenges the artist to produce images whose relationship to society can be easily
identified. In contrast to these demands, He Sen’s work in the 1990s was characterized by the
presence of ‘non-identifiable’ symbols. In his series entitled ‘Accumulation’, for example, the scenes
of real life portrayed in his early paintings were replaced by life-like objects and objects imbued with
life, neither of which could be easily explained. Among these works, we can no longer sort out the
relationship between art and reality, because all of these images lay beyond the descriptive abilities
of their viewers. Comparing them to the earlier works, this series’ most significant characteristic is
the elimination of the critical standpoint of morality; the most important feature is an absence of

He Sen’s transformation was largely incompatible with the atmosphere surrounding the field of art
in mid-1990s. However, he was able to reach some kind of commonality among those exploring
conceptual art. In 1996, the discussion on ‘meaning’ showed that young artists were reconsidering
the relationship between Chinese contemporary art and realist methods of artistic creation. Following
the elimination of judgement in art, art avoids ideological appropriation. These artists proposed
that, ‘art will not allow us to approach truth’, but rather, ‘art will only cause things to become
more interesting’. ‘In more academic terms’, ‘Art is a kind of pre-thinking, it is the preparation
for thinking. Art refuses to become a kind of ideology. It cannot help us to adopt a particular
perspective, but rather, it helps us to walk out from any given perspective’ (Qui Zhijie). In the mid-
1990s, the discussion on the meaning of art was intended to oppose the tendency towards non-artistic
directions and the development of a sort of ‘vulgarized sociology’. This discussion also exposed and
satirized the attempts of ‘Cynical Realism’, ‘Pop Art’, or even ‘colourful folk art’ to cater to the West.
This discussion on art has played a direct role in inspiring the development of Chinese conceptual
art. Video art and photography, for example, began to appear at an unprecedented scale in numerous
Chinese exhibitions. To a certain extent, such phenomenon were closely related to the dissatisfaction
 of certain younger artists with an art system that was dominated by art collecting. However we 
should also take not of the fact that the spearhead of the ‘discussion on art’ was really pointing at the
question of the suitability of painting as an artistic medium. Because of the natural lineage between
commerce and art, many artists feel that paintings have come to be viewed as culturally symbolic
local Chinese specialities. In response, He Sen began to remove morality and judgement from his
paintings. Like Zhou Tiehai, Chen Wenbo and many other artists who lean more toward conceptual
art, he tried to eliminate the monopoly of handicraft and symbolism in Chinese painting.

The most significant difference between He Sen and other young artists is that, on the one hand, he
is deeply aware of the danger of the commercialization and popularization of painting; yet, on the
other, he remains infatuated with the artistic language of painting. For him, this language delivers
both visual satisfaction and gratification in the handwork. He believes in the redeeming effect of
the concept to art, but at the same time, reserves doubts about the conquest of concept over art.
This ambiguous dualism is the main source of inspiration behind the production of a series of works
that is characterized mainly by ambiguity. After 1999, in the series of paintings titled ‘Portraitures
of Women’, He overcame the standpoint of morality in contemporary Chinese art. The ambiguous
scenery props, and figures all hint at this intention. However, as we discover later, the artist began to
move away from counter-morality towards the visual itself.

Beginning in the 2003 series ‘Girls, Toys, Smoke’ through some of his more recent works, He Sen’s
paintings have been characterized by a composition of figures and application of a flat smearing
technique on the background that creates a unique effect of floating. The shreds of cigarette smoke,
as well as the shadowy figures, reveal the pleasure of the artist as he paints. But they also show that
He was creating a visual game between the devoid and the concrete. The most outstanding feature
of these works is that the shadows have fully extruded the spatial relationship between the figures
and the background. This is a unique spatial relationship lying between the psychological space of
painting and the physical space of photography. Furthermore, the application of black, white, and
colours on the figures strengthens the illusory effect. Together, these features provide the viewer
with a unique visual experience. These works do not dwell on any particular level, whether visual or
psychological, but rather transgress between the two. It is worth paying attention to the special effect
of the constantly charging brush strokes in an environment of time and space. These are sometimes
tools used to create a composition, and at other times, an expression of interest. Because of this, these
works not only present the image itself, but also convey the existential ‘self-evidentialty’ of paintings.
These images produced by hand cannot be substituted by other media, they can only be produced by
hand; they can only truly express themselves through their own appearance.

For He Sen, a vigilance against the pressure of commercialization, and a passion for the language of
painting are two elements that exist together in an uneasy relationship. They are like the smoke and
shadows in his paintings, possessing the duality of emptiness and solidity. Between the two, he has
created a paradoxical relationship of ‘form following shadow’. From these works, we can sense at once
an awareness of the danger of commercialization, and an attempt to consolidate the ‘self-evidentialty’
of painting. Together, these convey precisely He Sen’s outstanding significance within current artistic