BACKSymbolizing Sadness and Issues – On He Sen’s Painting | LvPeng

In February 1989 the Chinese Contemporary Art exhibition opened at the National Art Gallery;

Xiao Lu’s two gunshots at the chaotic yet energetic exhibition marked the end of art of the eighties.

In June, He Sen graduated from the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts. Like most graduates before him,

the state prepared and allocated a position for him as an art teacher at Number Forty High School in

Chongqing. It was a crucial period in the formation of a young person’s memory and in his ability to

understand. The twenty-one year old graduate already had a good understanding of the contemporary

art that he had been exposed to in his school, as well as in Chengdu, Kunming and other cities.

He now recalls that even before being accepted at the art academy he would often visit the Sichuan

Academy of Fine Art; his goal was to acquire exciting information and look at the works of the artists

he was familiar with. As he put it, “My reason for applying to Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts was that

the graduating class of 77’ and 78’ had produced many influential artists in China—Luo Zhongli,

Cheng Conglin, He Duoling, Zhou Chunya, Zhang Xiaogang—who I respected a lot.” For a young

artist like He Sen, this background was almost deterministic; it is difficult for us to imagine how

He Sen would have turned out if he hadn’t lived and worked in Chongqing and Chengdu, or if the

1979’s scar art and the mid-eighties’ southwestern art activities (The “Red Yellow Blue” group in

Chengdu, “New Figurative” group in Kunming, as well as other different southwestern art groups’

activities and exhibitions thereafter) hadn’t taken place. Zhang Xiaogang was He Sen’s professor.

As a representative member of the 85’ art movement in southwest China, Zhang’s influence on his

students was direct: he encouraged students to create freely and hold exhibitions. Like the atmosphere

resulting from the unique climate of Chongqing and the specific environment provided by the art

academy, from the end of the seventies’ until the mid to late eighties, contemporary art produced

in the southwest region showed great complexity. For example, the re-examination of history began

with students of Sichuan Academy of Fine arts – Gao Xiaohua, Cheng Conglin, Luo Zhongli; and

direct reflection on the reality of art came from the sensitive artists Zhou Chunya, Zhang Xiaogang,

and Ye Yongqing; the understanding of a person’s internal loneliness started with Mao Xuhui who

had read Sartre, Saul Bellow, Jose. If they weren’t classmates, they were friends; because of their

understanding of the freedom of art, they became inseparable comrades. For those who long to

understand contemporary art, they form an actual and indispensable spiritual resource.

Coming to 1988, the air of reform had been seeping into the streets and alleys for almost ten

years, there has no other time as filled with instability and potential as 1988. The contradictions

between rapid economic growth and slow change in the reform system became more apparent.

The development of market mechanisms in the economy over the previous few years had further

destabilized the once established social order. All kinds of disturbing phenomena accompanying the

reforms began to emerge: tens of thousands of people from rural areas began to abandon agricultural

production and flowed into the large metropolises to pursue their dreams; bankruptcy in some

factories, insufficient work and rumors of the possibility of massive and imminent unemployment

created fear; incompetent management in the railway system led to a seemingly incessant string of

accidents; on university campuses, a spirit of absurdity, indifference, superficiality, dispiritedness, and

chaos filled the air; this was accompanied by inflation, a fervor for “toppling officials”, and nepotism

among officials. All of this caused an unbearable mental burden and psychological pressure. Artists

began to focus on the individual, focusing on issues brought about by small changes. In May of 1989,

the clash between society and politics came to a boiling point, the reaction of the soul became even

more complex.

He Sen’s graduation paintings showed a heaviness of visual habit. He maintained the depth and

strangeness of space in his Shattered World. Obviously, he had been affected by ideas of surrealism;

however, in terms of its construction, the strangeness shared similarities with earlier scar art –

for instance, the obscurity seems to have been absorbed from Cheng Conglin’s Guards’ Morning

of Execution, and the fear seems to have come from representational paintings such as Zhang

Xiaogang’s Sick Bed. Such influences were certainly subtle and unconscious, yet also natural. The

1985 Movement provided all the resources of modernism; any young individual could have adopted

them. These graduation pieces were completed between April and May of 1989, a chaotic and

anxious time. However, the sensitivity and focus paid to the state and problems of the individual

allowed the artist to control such anxiety within an environment of neglect and exhaustion. The

artist offered us a conjectural setting, a space that was perhaps close to his own living environment

and habits. However, this space appeared only on “paper”, which proves that the artist was unwilling

to consider it an actual reality, but rather thought of it as a type of conjecture. In this period (until

1991), another classmate, Shen Xiaotong, was also interested on the effects of “paper”, and Guo Wei

had also presented similar surreal environments. There was certainly a psychological contradiction,

a questioning of one’s own living environment. Having left school and stepped into society, He Sen

completed many works that revealed similar sentiments: in works like Still life and People (1990), he

incorporated into his compositions objects that he himself used or was familiar with in everyday—

bags, clothes, cups, ashtrays and cigarette butts of various length. These objects symbolized the

chaos of his personal life, having left school and entered into society. In fact, their existence also

became evidence for the artist’s attention to his personal life and his break away from the pursuit of

the essential principles of the 1985 Movement. Until the end of 1991, He Sen used his friends and

classmates as objects of representation; but, unlike the scar tradition, these people did not revolve

around a problem or goal—even though the compositions are the same, there is no relationship

between their facial expressions and actions (Two on a Chair, Joyful Years, 1991). That is, the

psychological details of essentialism were neglected, even though the artist’s application of complex

brush strokes were a trace of the profound nostalgia for his professor – a nostalgia that couldn’t be

quickly severed. Whether it was his sentiments that brought forth a new consciousness, or whether it

was the effect of a new generation of art, in either case, He Sen’s feelings for the reality of this period

must have shared some similarities with artists in Beijing. In 1996, He Sen told the editor of Gallery


“The series of works between 1991 to 1992 are basically a compilation of personal experience,

an accumulation of culture, and a synthesis of many years of undefined urges. I endowed

familiar people, friends and personal belongings with sacred meanings. The representational

language that I made my own naturally became my spokesperson. In those images, the

“close distance” in the unlimited expansion of personal sentiment matches up perfectly with

the methods of the “new generation” of artists in Beijing – subsequently categorized as

“Pop art” in the Post-89 exhibition. However, in my opinion, the heroic impression and

representational language is in contradiction with the attitudes of “Cynical realism”. But,

apart from a release of personal emotions, these works lack broader social meanings. Thus,

in 1993 the only adjustments I made were in my subject matter – for instance, marches

presenting a social scene and a symbolic copper bird.

He Sen’s self-description reveals similarities with the new generation of artists, he even admits,

“apart from a release of personal emotions, these works lack broader social meanings”. However,

his emphasis on “heroic impressions” demonstrates a preservation of his unique sentiments; and

he believed deeply that these sentiments would gain the approval of professors in the southwestern

region. In 1992, He Sen painted Two Artists based on a photograph of Zhang Xiaogang and Chen

Weimin. He Sen applied his brushstrokes with anxiety and used a grayish tone to comprehend his

two professors. In the top corner of the work, He Sen wrote, “Setting up a stele and establishing a

record of the venerable Zhang and Chen”. This shows his respect for professors who disagreed with an

attitude of “non-seriousness”. Indeed, in Life Triptych (1992), even though the subjects have upturned

lips, their smiles are forced; in Centered Landscapes (1992) the females’ smiles are not enough to

alleviate the heavy hearts or even anxiety of the men. The artist loves music, he even says that music

is “more enriching and energetic than paintings”. However, even in his compositions related to music,

the “music” we feel is very heavy – this is the soul in the tradition of southwestern artists. Rough and

repetitive brushstrokes, towering compositions, as well as the grayish tone mark an obvious distance

with the “new generation”. This situation is related to the artist’s understanding of his experience; an

expressionist vocabulary often appears in the painting of artists who feel suppressed or are in actual

difficulty. Indeed, in the works of his close friends of this period—Zhang Nengzhi, Yin Ruilin, and

Du Xia—anxiety, anonymous violence, and oppression comprise the basic tone of the artworks, even

though each applies his own method. Such a phenomenon also explains what led the artist to portray

the highly symbolic “copper bird”: the chained up bird expressed the artist’s helplessness. The reason

for the artist’s selection of this particular bird is in fact unclear, however, since he uses heavy strokes

and colors, and since he piles a thick layer of material on the image, it would be best to view the

bird he painted as a convenient conjecture, it is not a conjecture regarding the ill omens of western

mysticism, even less an orientalist auspiciousness, rather, it is merely a record of the state in his life,

a kind of diary that when recalled many years later would bring forth sadness and sorrow. After this

work, He Sen rediscovered his hope and imagined himself breaking away from the chains and flying

away, consciously or not, he created a relationship with society. In his own words:

Thereafter, the experience of being a guest host at a TV station in Chongqing allowed

me to personally sense the power of media, adding to this my exaggerated ideals from an

earlier period, my rebellion against –isms, in 1994, I painted the Stage series. This series

was intended to unveil the social reality of contemporary people’s conscious or unconscious

“acting”, as well as the mutual influence of media. At the time, I over emphasized the artist’s

reaction to his immediate environment. However, just as one’s choices become limited when

one enters a certain setting, the overly direct and determined model, along with my relatively

introverted character, formed a serious contradiction.

(Gallery Magazine, combined issues of 5, 6, 1996)

Here, the artist has touched on the popular cynical realism and Pop art of this period, as well as the

kitsch art that branched off from these two. He Sen’s description is real, his introspection makes

him accustomed to and interested in flavors of expressionism, but the immediate environment is

telling him that society is undergoing obvious change. Stage series is He Sen’s break away from an

overemphasis on the self, and entry into a period in which he paid greater attention to social change

and hoped to more accurately express his feelings. He recognized the problems stemming from

“exaggerated idealism” and “ideology”, he noticed the endless “sighs” of souls that appeared in the

late eighties, he no longer believed that a clamoring for idealism was appropriate or meaningful. On

the basis of memories, reality and his particular environment, he built a new stage, microphone,

television, media studio as well as memories and street banners. However, no matter how much

the artist attempted to present a relaxed and dissipate guise, traces of expressionism and complex

composition led viewers to make a connection with recent history – the contemporary nature of “scars”

and romanticism. As the new generations clean and neat compositions became popular, He Sen,

living in the city of Chongqing and working in the gray smog and greasy corners of Huangjiaoping,

could not truly be involved. This unique environment prevented He Sen and his other friends from

using the flat smearing and commercial like manipulation used by artists from the north.

In December 1994, He Sen collaborated with his friends and classmates Yin Ruilin, Chen Wenbo,

Du Xia, and Zhao Nengzhi on the exhibition Slice. This took place during a particularly difficult

time in the lives and work of He Sen and his friends. They put together a very simple exhibition

catalogue, not only was the printing of the photographs in black and white, but they were also rather

unclear. Yet, in this exhibition catalogue they expressed a sharp and opinionated understanding: in

the section entitled “slice selection” they expressed their opinions on art. Yin Ruilin warned, “the

colors in our paintings are becoming brighter is not a direct release of emotions and personal

sentiments, but being outside the works and narrating in a relatively objective fashion a shared and

common inheritance”; Zhao Nengzhi noticed that, “most of our works have elements of documenting

and reporting, we are careless and unwilling to clearly show overt criticism or other attitudes”;

Chen Wenbo noticed the influence of Pop, although he subtly despised the direct expression in Pop

works such as “Mao Amin’s Songs”. When faced with the influence of popular mass culture, He Sen

expressed his own inner complexity,

“Everyone knows that what’s most contemporary is most direct, for instance popular films all

make use of direct and shocking modes of expression. However, the more contemporary people

become, the more complex is their psychology; this contrast will certainly become greater, and

the inner complexity will become impossible to discard. As we put it into the form of art,

we can express such complexity, but the directness will naturally be diminished. This is a


Therefore, the rather ‘hesitant’ psychological state that became dominant in the mid-1990s did not

lead toward memorable images and symbols. As the northern painters directly spoke of their boredom

and helplessness, He Sen used popular images to warn people that neither stage or actual life were

any more real; fabrication itself should be pointed out, however, He Sen seems also to have expressed

his attachment to reality:

The amusement of the stage: people can see truth through fabrication.

The danger of the stage: people can see fabrication through truth.

The seriousness of the stage: people can see invincible strength through concise logic.

The safety of the stage: what’s played is all unreal.

He Sen’s way of thinking came from his professor’s tradition, this tradition began with scar art’s

questioning of history, and later was affected by principles of western essentialist philosophy; up

until the first half of the nineties, artists working and living in the southwest maintained their

understanding of issues related to reality.

In fact, after 1989, the logic of essentialism had lost its existential reason, people no longer agreed

that there existed actual collective issues. A social life produced from unique political events had

clearly warned people: there is no actual meaning in the pursuit of truth. Not only can exciting

events happen naturally, people can set up a stage at any time and in any place, and act out a moving

performance. It is not a matter of being willing or not, if each person does not take on a role and

participate in it, it would become worthless. Therefore, the knots and pains in one’s heart become

insignificant. In the eighties, pain and loneliness became the artists’ resource, they became evidence

of the necessity of resistance in preserving one’s life – this was the common subject expressed by Mao
Xuhui and Zhang Xiaogang in the ten years prior to 1992. But, at this moment, such a mental state

was being questioned, the relationship between the individual and society was once again being

taken seriously. In 1994, Zhang Xiaogang had already painted the mature Family series. Mao Xuhui’s

Parents had already evolved into a scissor that moved from dissatisfaction to ease; Ye Yongqing had

begun the “graffiti” that brought together a literati attitude; Zhou Chunya, inspired by the ancients,

was enamored with studies of the Rock …this was an overall change, although compared to the

phenomenon in the north, it was a change that had not derailed from its essential track. Nonetheless,

He Sen accepted the influence of Pop-art, yet, red flags, merit certificates, red scarf, and all these

images are not only borrowed, at the same time is also a documentation of memories and reality.

As the artist combined symbolic meanings of politics, history and society, when the artist freely

combined different sections, he in fact was involved in resolving historical and actual issues with the

“new generation”, “cynical realism” and “pop-art”. Having been washed by modernism, He Sen’s

composition is expressive, surreal, collaged, advertising as well as photographic. Naturally, like most

southwestern artists, He has kept a vigilant stance toward the entrance of modernism.

The relationship between emotions and rationality is difficult to explain. At the same time, the

influence of a region on the artist is not limited to matters of style, the style brought forth by

“internality” and “caution.” To what extent is it appropriate in terms of the trend? For He Sen this

is an issue. Clarity and simplicity allows these images to be distinguished and remembered, even

though they’re common “kitsch” paintings, they became popular. Such a situation made He Sen

anxious, therefore until 1996, He Sen wandered between his expressionism and his hesitant complex

world. He focuses on the inside, but he realizes that one’s heart is not everything; he is concerned

with reality, but he realizes art is not reality; he longs to be acknowledged, but he realizes this is not a

genuine artistic problem; how should one deal with all this?

In 1996, Huang Zhuan asked, “since the mid-1990s there has been a trend toward conceptualization

in Chinese visual art; what is your opinion of this trend? Do your works have this sort of character or


He Sen answered, “This conceptual tendency provided a new point of entry for figurative

artists in their search for a new field after Pop-art and cynical realism. It also benefited from

the impact of the stimulating and vibrant installation and performance art movement. If

paintings no longer serve as bearers of meaning, they could not stand along side installation

art, performance art and video art as authentic media of contemporary art. Such a change

reflects a disconnection with the old reaction model. Buy this is only a premise; that is to say,

it has already become another beginning, and it is only on this basis that the artist can begin

to re-explore and reconsider issues of interest, enabling artistic method and cultural direction

to be further emboldened, in which case new artistic strength can be born. Do we still have

imagination? That is the premise for an artistic dead-end. I continue to have a lot of work to

do on this.

By re-organizing the compositional structure and basic language, I am hoping that painting

will no longer remain a simple reaction to the outside world. In my basic language, it is

necessary to sort out the more expressionist language from the danger of simply venting my

enjoyment, and then setting this into a rational structure, getting rid of visual chaos, not

adding meaning through the process of painting and the brushstrokes themselves, or else the

origin of the concept would be squandered completely. Here, the presence, typicality and

plot have no function; the question is how to minimize relations of inheritance, and make it


Using expressionist methods to multiply an object several times, reaching a level of

refinement at which there will be contradictions with the meaning of this body of language,

contradictions with unique spiritual meaning; making ambiguous that which is signified.

In the end, that which stands out is the effect, the images; it’s no longer simply the dregs of

emotional release, rather, meaning is brought under historical observation.

In his answer to this question, He Sen is obviously quite clear about his future work, he genuinely

began to interrogate the dangers of accustomed methods of expression in forming contemporary

artworks. He thus entered a new artistic period.

Perhaps there is no great significance to an individual’s psychological uniqueness; however, once this

uniqueness is transformed into a language, there is the possibility of producing meaning. As early

as the 1990 work Space Inside, He Sen began placing some ambiguous spots on the upper corner

of the background, there is no particular meaning to these spots, rather, they are an effect of the

artist’s treatment of the piece. Looking at these in terms of psychological exploration, they perhaps

could be taken as a display of “complete ignorance”. In 1991’s Still life series and his work on figures,

the indistinct clumps produce a tone of melancholy expressionism. What is interesting is that other

artists of the same period—Shen Xiaotong, Xin Haizhou, Guo Wei and others—also presented these

floating clumps in different forms. Under what kind of circumstances would these ambiguous feelings

become a type of language instead of being merely self-initiated presentations? We don’t know

the particular circumstances, but one day in 1996 He Sen transposed these indistinct masses onto

figures; to a certain extent, he kept their “form”, however, these masses started to become apparent

and rigid, the forms were fossilized, they began to take on the appearance of stone. As the artist

became more enamored with this effect, even heads could be seen as a fake stone. Works completed

in 1996 are uniformly allusive: they reveal internal contradictions, a realization of the heaviness

and necessary response demanded by reality. Among these fossilized works, the subject’s daily life

is fixed, they might lead us to make a connection with the history of Pompeii, but the stones under

He Sen’s brushes remind us more easily of Chinese stones. No matter how much effort the artist

has made in style or linguistic level, his stylistic tone still leans towards expressionism: complexity,

incomprehensibility, serious reasoning. Such a style has clearly extended the distance between He Sen

and other artists. Yet, the effect achieved only with special techniques has prevented the artist from

clearly conveying his attitude: is it a reliance on modernism, or is it an attempt to truly break away

from the entanglement of psychological details? To a great extent, this was a mark of distinction, a

watershed pointed to by critics – between modernism and post-modernism – letting the metaphysical

individual attitude to be effaced.

On the basis of a “fossilized” aesthetic, the artist began to relax his mood, the complexity of his

thoughts gave way to a probing of imagery and interest. Among works done in 1997, rigid objects

(including people’s heads) suddenly emitted light, in sharp contrast with the lifeless rocks from the

past. Who or what was the reason allowing “fossilized” objects to emit light?

What He Sen was truly focusing on were not the rubbish-like “adhesive things”, an image that

appeared to be carved by a knife was not necessarily what he wished for. What kind of miracle could

be created with the techniques and enlightenment accumulated over the years – this question could

only be clarified through constant experimentation. If this sort of repetitive manipulation still couldn’t

make him break away from the details of the past, then perhaps completely discarding this could lead

to a new direction. He began to subtract the complexity and the layers of his images; it is unclear

which source of light gave the artist a clue, if soft lighting could diminish the complexity of the

image and bring forth other possibilities, the artist would have found an effective path for discarding

the detail of expressionism. He Sen began to recall his own artistic history, he even returned to the

experimentalism of 1990; in works completed in 1998, Girl biting hands, Wandering, Scream, Self-

portrait – Hiding face, we see a summary of his previous works: a return to “paper”, the cleanliness of

realism as well as expressive brushwork. However, the artist began to calmly study his compositions,

he courageously gave up complex and unclear content, and reduced his expressive brushwork to a

minimum. Light has become a crucial element influencing his composition – especially the abrupt

light that made people’s eye disappear. This was an era in which digital photography replaced film,

free and careless use of the camera became possible. It is not important when He Sen began to pay

attention to the special effects of lights on images and photographs, especially in situations without

specific manipulation, but this provided the artist with important clues. We also are unclear on when

He Sen began paying attention to Richter’s work, but he mentioned that he really enjoyed the art of

this German artist. Obviously, the Western artist’s experience also served to provide encouragement

and inspiration for He Sen’s experiments. Overall, among all the possibilities, He Sen chose the

effects of photography, just as Richter once said, “photography once attempted to achieve the effects

of paintings, today, works on canvas are beginning to learn from photography.” Such an opinion is

also supported by Duchamp’s observations, images painted in the form of photographs can also be

productive of new conceptual compositions. The girl lying on a sofa became the earliest bold trial in

using photographic effects – completed in 1998, it was a shot without planning, it was a spontaneous

flash. Up to 1999, this sort of coincidence was of great assistance to He Sen; he completed a large

number of works of this type. He completely abandoned expressive methods, and seemed to think

that adding coincidental factors onto the canvas directly would be sufficient – this was He Sen’s new

turning point.

Certainly, unlike other artists who use photographs in their painting, He Sen remains cautious; he

has noticed the effects of light, however, by highlighting those effects, and especially highlighting

the simplification of forms caused by the flash, he creates a unique mood. Therefore, if we check

the photographs He Sen refers to, we discover that the artist relies on the visual inertia led to by the

simplification of form to purposefully wipe off the eyes of the human subjects. He Sen once said, “the

previous Accumulation series took “stone sculpture” as the original inspiration, and stone sculptures

have no eyes; thus, when I switched to girls, they also had no eyes”. However, in the actual situation,

this is not necessarily because when “the flash goes on, people’s eyes become undefined”, the artist has

only appropriated people’s visual understanding of the flash’s effect – intentionally erasing the eyes.

Such manipulation is very important, because through it He Sen has an opportunity to underscore

the fear that has always be present in his heart – this kind of mental state has been directly revealed

in expressionism. Now, the artist has added another thought to the images, “the girls in my paintings

don’t have eyes because I believe there is an unreachable distance between people, making them

unable to clearly recognize reality. They are confused, cold, and see reality without actual attention.”

(Female Portraits, Social Projection? Ke Ning, June, 2006)

He Sen has finally discovered an experimental path that he feels comfortable with, the concept

of painting photographs allows him to apply his solid realist techniques and abilities without

any obstacles, the subject matter and its content allow him to distance himself from the endless

caricaturing of “beautiful” subjects. With such conceptual support he has begun an endless

representation of girls: their poses are listless and uninterested, with no particular purpose, even

their unwillingness to answer the telephone gives a viewer the impression of an unbearable boredom;

they also lack class and elegance in a public setting – all of this is the kind of thing that vulgar and

unthinking artists like to represent. Under many circumstances, He Sen’s compositions could easily

attract voyeurism. At the same time, we notice that even as decorative props have been taken out of

the photographs, the artist has kept or added toys which are usually white, on the ground, on sofas or

being held by his subjects. When He Sen, answering a critic’s probing, explained his reason for using

the toys, he said, “Everyone’s growth is accompanied by a sense of loss. Like the eyeless girls I paint,

as well as the toys on the sofa in a closed space – all convey the emotions of childhood.” (“My work

is to understand others and myself through art” – interview with He Sen), of course this is a rather

personal feeling and understanding. What needs to be emphasized now is that everyone has their

own understanding of growth and time, such a fear is relevant to one’s aging and the situation of

one’s path, no matter what the artist’s life is like in particular.

In 1999, He Sen moved from Chongqing to Chengdu, he had always longed for the excitement of the

Chengdu art world. Most of He Sen’s important paintings were done after this year, he realized that

his art was moving towards a greater clarity, he needed a new environment and more opportunities.

After 2001, women with blinded eyes began to have clear eyes. Based on previous experiments

He Sen began to leave subtle hints of sadness on his subjects’ faces and bodies – with the abrupt

brushstrokes used to accomplish this effect he seems to want to say that even the most bright and

shining image or form can be hurt or be a sham. There is no fundamental difference with the artist’s

previous expressionist attitude, he has only changed his conduit of expression. In the years following,

he has fully expressed the life and youth that he understood, all of which were related to time, related

to the constant renewed understanding and probing of one’s existence. Even though critics have

covered up these questions with post-modern vocabularies, the works of the artist still reveal these


Women and the world in which we live seem rather similar in appearance, to put it in simple

words, girls nowadays are prettier than before, and they seem to get even more beautiful.

And the actual society we live in is also more beautiful, architecture and streets are also more

beautiful. But our hearts and spirits are far less fulfilled than in the past, and the current

beauty and progress is entirely illusion, in fact it is only an empty shell, an appearance

covering a void; idealism is gradually diminishing in actual life, and this society is becoming

very realistic and cool.

(My work is to get to know others and knowing myself through art – interview with He Sen)

This is the kind of melancholy that can often be seen among southwestern artists; we can see the

same contemporary tragedy in works by Zhang Xiaogang, Mao Xuhui, Zhao Nengzhi, Xin Haizhou,

Zhang Xiaotao, Xie Nanxing and others. The time is “beautiful”, but this “beauty” is precisely the

symbol of degeneration and problems.

Just as a few years earlier He Sen had hopefully moved from Chongqing to Chengdu, in 2003 he

moved to Beijing. And in the capital the artist attained the success he had long been hoping for. In

the last few years, he has spent a lot of time on this degenerate “beauty”, until 2005 when he restarted

his reflections on art.

One’s emotional wisdom and sensibility is related to one’s experiences and knowledge learning.

In the period of mesmerizing with “beauty of decay”, He Sen was interested in a state of spiritual

“descent”. In order to carry on this state, he had to provide evidence from his spiritual needs and

artistic practice. For He Sen, the previous “beauty of decay” appropriates into representations of the

possibilities of photography. It fulfilled the inevitable receding psyche of the 1990s – a psychological

state that was continuously affected by chaotic social life and artistic trends (for example, cynical

realism). After 2000, those young artists born in the 1970s began to suggest a trend-resisting

representation of individualism, or at least, they focused on the individual’s quotidian solitude and

helplessness internally. Like those from the Sichuan Art Academy, Wei Jia, Li Jikai, as well as artist

like Chen Ke who derived their practices from Anime began to become the focus of art critics. Their

paintings were considered as the beginning of new individualism aura and interest: characterized by

insignificant details, sense of being at loss, anxious, fragmented and volatile. Yet, for He Sen who

lived through both vanquishing collectivism as well as a sense of solitude and at loss, the search for

transitions in his own artistic senses became the most important task.

In the last decade, I’ve sat by the Arno River three times, not to “ look” but to “sense” the

landscape. I told myself to slow down, or just rush by, or to recall this place only by looking at

the pictures I’ve taken, I should stay around to sense the moment of this landscape. It was a

city of Giotto, Da Vinci, Micheangelo, Galileo, Borticelli, Tiziano Vecellio, Raphael, Dante,

it’s a city of David’s “angelic messengers”; the city of “the birth of Venus”, the city of “spring”…

warm sunshine poor down by this river traversing the city of Florence, I breathe against the

breeze, looking at the happily playing beavers, ducks and egrets, grasping onto senses of those

independently and eternally existing insignificant “points” in this magnificent “construction”,

suddenly felt the passing of time… passing…

(Contradictory Wandering, He Sen, 2011)

This was He Sen’s inner journey revealed to us in 2011, implying, since 2002, the artist’s attitude

began to change. He Sen commented on those western artists he was quite familiar with in his early

studies of art – commentaries that did not reveal intimate excitements, but rather, reluctant farewells.

He began to sense with his past experiences rather than “looking” and studying with expectations.

He’s familiarity with these artists allowed him to cite from his memories on characteristics of these

western artists from various periods. Even prior to this time, He was differentiating on the effects

and approaches of “image” painting – for a long of time, Gerhard Richter’s art has been a catalyst for

China’s New Painting - gradually, He Sen turned around to a realm behind him. Perhaps it is random

to have such feelings, or certain opportunity captured the artist’s attention that was behind him, He

Sen was determined to uncover new sources of dialogue that was left behind by our forefathers. In

fact, he was informed by his own inner needs that, the way in viewing and representing the world

had to transform. Until 2006, He Sen had completed a number of paintings by appropriating works

by Li Chan, Ma Yuan and Xu Wei.

One can imagine, the thematic channels an artist draws inspirations from traditional Chinese

paintings are generally limited to landscape paintings and the paintings of birds and flowers. Since

the very beginning, He Sen had set his experiments on a rather dangerous direction: regardless of

the explanations provided, Westerners’ unfamiliarity and misunderstanding on Chinese traditional

paintings and calligraphy was pivotal in the formation of these new painting. Then what are the

reasons that would allow art critics to interpret such experimental paintings as a component of

contemporary paintings?

In traditional Chinese painting, the symbolic meanings of bamboo and various types of flowers have

been the focus of literati. Is He Sen’s goal set to achieve paintings with contemporary symbolism?

In terms of his composition, He regroups details from calligraphy and traditional paintings. Those

with basic knowledge of traditional art can identify the basic sources of these artworks based on its

symbolism and image; indeed, no matter how He Sen has applied the oil paints (thick or thin, using

a painting knife or not), his corresponding colors and effects allow viewers to sense the quality of

the original painting, and to imagine those indifferent and noble integrity. Of course, the artist’s

unsettled attitude remains concealed on the surface of the artwork. Although the audience may

not be familiar with the life of the Ming dynasty painter Xu Wei, one may still sense an unsettling

anxiety amongst the depicted flowers. Moreover, He Sen selected details of the original paintings and

applied oil painting techniques that naturally conveyed similar messages.

Furthermore, He Sen had extracted details from Ma Yuan’s Twelve Water Atlas, to represent the same

work in an entirely different approach. Counter-currents of the Yellow River, Dispersing Clouds and

Rolling Waves, Temperate Waves, and The Immense Yangtze River have been Ma Yuan’s subjects,

of which He Sen appropriated through his own approaches. The topics suggests the viewers toward a

spiritual direction He Sen points to, who rationally revises the paintings of the ancients as ready-made

objects - not as a visual illusory but an analytical perspective: what should one ponder on historical

images? In fact, we observe the unfolding of a varied artistic concept through the differentiated

compositions. As a painter, He Sen is aware of the uniqueness of images in the history of Chinese

painting. As most painters interpret contemporary issues with images imbued with complex ideology,

He Sen had set his starting point much further by discarding political implications entirely and

establishing rapport with the ancient to break up paradoxical habits of political implications and


He Sen usually divides the canvas into two or three sections using various painting approaches.

Applying approaches inspired by traditional paintings into oil painting techniques to foster

possibilities of spatial effects in his representation, He wishes to suggest both qualities of the ancient

tradition and visual appeal of today’s attitude. Consequently, making it difficult for art critics for

pinpoint a clear focus between literary understanding and formalistic analysis of his work. In 2006,

young art critic He Guiyan had the following conversation with He Sen:

He Guiyan: My initial impression from looking at your artworks was that the series of works

aimed to make formalistic breakthroughs, because in my opinion, this is a form inherent

to the Chinese aesthetic experience. For example, like Ma Yuan’s depiction of water, which

is an entirely subjectified and image-driven approach, yet, it’s formalistically homogenous.

However, it is a unique form deeply embedded in Song dynasty aesthetic experience. Is your

inclination to such form a considerate cultural return? If your work were exhibited overseas,

either in the US, France, or South East Asian countries, the oriental cultural ideology carried

behind this form would seem rather poignant.

He Sen: Certainly, there are factors of such cultural qualities, yet, they are not the focus of

my expression. I am trying to magnify the expressive effect of this form by developing it to

its fullest. If you see the landscape painting by the ancient painters, their attitudes were to

perform a critical and tasteful expression within a limited space. However, I have transformed

this form, for example, by changing the way of expression within. Moreover, I am using a

much larger image to represent this form, thus the resulting form differs from its original.

Although there may be a corresponding relationship within the cultural characteristics behind

such forms – that it may seem like the traditional artworks initially, then one may realize

that such manifestation only rests on form. It becomes self-regulatory. One may also interpret

it from a formalistic perspective, which may produce a powerful visual effect psychologically.

It is a contemporary impression although the images are ancient, yet the sense we gain from

seeing them are present.

(Reality and Images – Conversation with He Sen, interviewed by He Guiyan)

As a critic, He Guiyan posed a sensitive question: assessing such critical transition in consideration

of the lack of common knowledge of traditional Chinese cultural elements in Western audience, if

He Sen’s work were to be exhibited in today’s globalized context, what possibilities would it bring?

He Sen firmly believes that it is not the theme of the works but rather the language independent of

theme and content that is critically at play. In his words, “The images are essentially homogenous,

a homogeneity found in the languages you found on canvas. And the cultural implications are only

complimentary to this language.” (Reality and Image - Conversation with He Sen, interviewed

by He Guiyan). Of course, this transition is faced with challenges. In fact, this challenge was

also confronted collectively amongst other contemporary Chinese artists. A challenge involves

fundamental changes in the artists’ views on history. In the artistic field, what were the reasons for

our reception of knowledge and what made knowledge become our hindrance? How should we

perceive our experiences from the last few decades? How should artistic standard be established for

today and the future? He Sen realized the urgency of this issue, which propelled him to make the

following claim,

The current Chinese reception of art education are unaware on the impact on itself from

western art history education system, what is “beauty”, what is not? Zhang Xiaogang visited

the Van Gogh Museum and was shocked that, Van Gogh was a Caucasian? The global

characteristic of art presents many specific issues, for instance, the Chinese do not share the

anatomic structure we have learned in sketching, because our faces are flatter. Such details

applied by the dilettantes in art when practicing portraitures, they subconsciously enforce

such anatomic structures, forehead, cheekbones, nose ridge, brow bones, orbicular muscles

and chewing muscles… or even we could see the shoulder blades on Mao Zedong’s back under

his thick coat among many of his landmark statues in many city centers, because they are

“scientific”, “ dimensional” and “beautiful”.

(Contradictory Wandering, He Sen, 2011)

Such ideology is certainly not nouveau, however, in the last decade or so, another way of looking

at the world have been largely overlooked. He was not concerned with the tendencies of judgments

exercised in contemporary art, despite scattered acceptance of his transition around 2006. He Sen

insisted on his own understanding and senses, he believed in his rational instincts from years of

reading, listening and experiments; he believed in his ability to focus on the most essential elements

in judging art; he believed that a point and a detail can both reflect what people wish to see. The

unraveling of the artistic structure may be extensive, perhaps we only need a spectacular moment

in the crevice of such extensive structure. It was the way in which He Sen saw these issues made

him increasing uninterested in the entirety and structure of art. Setting out on one detail or even a

fragmented image, he magnified it into an independent realm of its own. Language is definitely the

natural center of focus for an artist. Art critic Hang Chunxiao analyzed the construction of He Sen’s

artistic language as such,

Previous experience of interpreting traditional Chinese painting had suddenly lost referential

subject due to the change in conditions of its system. Thus an absurd phenomenon emerged,

those presumptuous image experiences suddenly became utterly unfamiliar, that became a

new visual subject – enabling interpreting reference of Chinese painting to be re-divided

into the “perceivable visuals” and the “ knowledgeable content”. Especially, the latter is no

longer a logically outcome of the former, but requires the assistance of recalling on the “mother

ship” to reconstruct a new channel. It is an uncomfortable viewing experience because,

forcibly changes your viewing habits, and informs you that your previous viewing habits have

been rather simplistic – to a point that it can be completed without the necessity of a visual


(Disconnect Between the Seen and Known – He Sen’s “Visual Attitude”)

Former interpretation references in fact plays a role in one’s knowledge and senses where

“hypothesizing” may not necessarily be a strategy, in the contrary, the cultural elements that may

not effect psychological response urges to be presented through new artistic language, because they

cannot be fully concealed. This is the key to artistic phenomenon like He Sen’s practice: allowing

possibilities of contemporary art to become the channel in which historical psyche saturates, then

bursts fully, completely with vital energy.

In 2005, He Sen visited the Centre de Pompidou, where dazzling western art and its environment

reminded him of the future of his own artistic practice. He began to believe that Western standard

will not be the outcome for Chinese art, and Chinese contemporary art had to find its own cultural

logic in order to move forward and establish its own values – a value that cannot be granted from the

standard of occidental-centrism. (Annals)

Nevertheless, He Sen persevered in his new painting experiments. In 2007, He Sen had unveiled

works of traditional images in the former Universal Studio art space in a solo exhibition, Now

and Then. Thereafter, he participated in exhibitions in London in 2010, and at the San Francisco

Asian Art Museum in 2011, as well as, the Chengdu Biennale, Pure Views. In fact, seeking spiritual

resources from traditional culture has become a new direction in the paintings of the new century.

We have seen the artists’ sensible gaze shifting towards historical origins in Zhou Chunya’s peach

blossoms, Zeng Fanzhi’s landscape paintings etc. At the same time, the viewers have also been

exposed to similar directions from works by a younger generation of artists (such as works by Cao

Jingping, Yang Xun and Shen Na). Many artists have realized a transcendental quality from the

artworks of the ancients, a path that may contrast poignantly with cultural traditions deeply rooted

in western art. In today’s globalized network of information, the search of true individuality and

uniqueness has again become the new goal for many artists - a goal that requires one’s concept to

accord with sensual experiences, where the contemporary should be bridged with the historical.

In the last three decades of searching for new art since the 1980s to our present understanding on

conceptualism, other than one’s own freedom of enlightenment, everything else can be rebutted.

For He Sen, significant achievements have been made in his experiments in new oil painting who,

successfully infused knowledge and experience into a new artistic era. In this era, language continues

to be the artist’s focus, however, the quality and taste are becoming elements necessary in formulating

new art history and the standard for contemporary art – if concepts are not accorded with quality,

then it will not be worth mentioning.

Obviously, among He Sen’s works of different periods, we can sense the artist’s early loneliness and

his present melancholy. A person spends his early life pursuing something, but when he achieves what

he has pursued, he feels new losses: naïve, beautiful and eternal. Ma Yuan’s son Ma Lin has a painting

titled Holding a Candle Roaming at Night, the ambiance of this image is both elegant and classy.

At night, candlelight illuminating a garden in full blossom as if it’s day, a person sitting in its midst;

it is difficult to determine whether this person is enjoying reclusion or feeling a melancholy longing.

We know that early 1279 was the last moment of the Song dynasty, before the Mongols invaded

Hangzhou the literati all escaped to become recluses, and the quiet in each of their gardens came to

an end – these little paintings by Ma Lin and other artists without recorded names of the Southern

Song are records of the complexity of their mindset. Similar emotional states might also appear in

today’s works, in a period of drastic transition, perhaps symbolic melancholy could better remind us

of the existing issues. He Sen and other artists have already realized the importance of sympathizing

with history, and this is also the crucial characteristic of new art.