BACKAn Artist’s View of the World – Exploration of He Sen’s Studio | Alexandra Grimmer

When entering the spacious studio, several large scale works left an imposing impression on me since

the beginning. Most of his works are leaning on the walls, standing on protection cubes in order not

to touch the floor, some on easels and a few hanging on the walls. Two attributes which immediately

came into my mind were discipline and quality, and this first view did not change during my visit

and the short talk with the artist. He Sen himself only showed up at the entrance door, then leaving

us alone with his works for a while.

His recent paintings refer on famous images from Song, Ming and Qing Dynasty. He considers some

of these well-known ink paintings from ancient times in his works, reflecting them in different styles

and architecture in his new works. Most of them are in big sizes and contain separate parts laying

different perceptions of time over each other. He Sen is interrupting the old image and bringing it to

its form through different styles and techniques All of them are oil on canvas, but realized in different

painting methods: Some come close to the traditional ink on rice paper work, some with less diluted

colour and the lines engraved into the material and some with very thick layers of colour, giving the

impression of the surface of a sculpture which has been modelled by hand. Through the first style

reminding of Chinese- and the second one of Western tradition, He Sen raises cultural contrast.

These recent works by He Sen can as well be interpreted as processes of memory, the blurring image

of memory which is in the same time the phenomena that we keep certain moments and images

very clear in our memory, some we only remember vaguely and some we forget. The layers of colour

represent a certain slowness, which can be as well considered from a point of view of a process of

memory. The reflection about processes of memory through evidence of the long Chinese culture.

Another starting point of interpretation would be the different angle of seeing things. So, with his

different methods of execution, the artist brings a certain criticism towards the view on the history

in his work. Does the blurred image, which is on top of the thick layers of colour point out the

ignorance on the passed centuries of high culture in China?

In a way his paintings remind of Yang Fudong’s arranged situations in his films, the combination

with old, traditional requisites in a contemporary environment. But He Sen brings all these situations

into one image: from ink-on-paper appearance to contemporary painting methods.

He Sen is always in the position of the viewer in his works. For this reason he is not representing the

struggling painter, who transforms his feelings through his language of painting and covering his

tracks afterwards in order to disappear from the painting again with the own subjectivity. Is he not

leaving an artwork to the people to discover their own situation in it? He Sen never seems to be there

in his works, he is never leaving his outside-position, all by creating a perfect image of something.

When considering his early works as well as his recent ones, there is always a certain message

transported to the viewer, but it is something more or less transfigured and objective. The artist can

never be personally spotted through his works.

He Sen’s painting is about painting, but his works are not theoretical, nor are they “educating”. They

open views on things from different angles and confront the viewer with images to be reflected, as the

artist himself has been reflecting them.

The technique in his paintings has been, since the beginning with his series of smoking woman, a

way to arrive at his resulting image. He Sen seems to have never been in the situation of being driven

by the educational past: of the technique, the elements which he has been taught, controlling him.

While many artists have been fighting against this conceptual thinking, leading their work into a

predetermined direction through our educational past, He Sen always focused on the context of his


He Sen has been a seeker of perfection since his early works. His pursuit of integrity became like an

excuse for his absence in his paintings. An absence which is not intentional, as He Sen confirmed in a

conversation during my second visit in his studio.

A facet, which draws a parallel with Pablo Picasso, who never got tired of constantly experiencing

new techniques and styles of painting. By always setting standards of perfectness, the emotional level

and the traceable presence of the artist always stay behind.

In He Sen’s paintings, classical music can find its place; they seem to follow a rhythm and a natural

development of an introduction, the development of a theme, its execution and the conclusion

corresponding to its introduction. Not many contemporary artists can bring comparable regular

forms into their work without being repetitive. He Sen’s paintings are not repetitive. They treat

similar subjects, cursing around the image of the art during former dynasties, sometimes even

repeating one subject in a series, but never repeating its method. The point of view of the artist is

every time from another angle, challenging the viewer.

Since his early beginnings of painting in the 90s, He Sen has been several times re-inventing himself

through the years. The different styles which he is now bringing together in his actual works lead

into several directions. Through them, He Sen is successfully resisting to any classification into a

certain painting style. On the other hand his painting is representing a way of indecisiveness and He

Sen is enjoying this uncertainty: Where is it going to lead to and what will be its result? He describes

himself as a mental homeless and maybe it can be as well understood as a hint to the actual situation

in China.