Tommy CHEN: A Trailblazer in Abstract Art
- Exhibition Period：25 December 2020 – 23 January 2021
- Address：ESLITE GALLERY ∣ B1, No. 88, Yanchang Rd., Xinyi Dist., Taipei City 110055, Taiwan
Tommy CHEN was born in 1931 in Jinan, Shandong and at the age of 18, he moved to Taiwan with his family and began studies at the National Taipei University of Education. Dissatisfied with the school’s stifling education system, CHEN sought guidance in LI Chung-sheng’s studio and developed a unique and personal painting language, as well as became friends in art with other LI’s other students such as HUO Gang, XIAO Qin, and HSIA Yang, who together founded Ton-Fan Art Group in 1955. In the 1950s, CHEN specialized in sketches that streamed the natural expression of consciousness as a response to the post-war international pulse of abstract painting. During the 1960s, CHEN began to experiment with many types of media to express a bleak post-war struggle situation. His images have broken away from symbols to rely on points, line, and texture. His paintings were mostly gray and brown toned, and he would mix copper grease with oil paints to produce rich textures that would shine and flicker under light. In the 1970s, CHEN was busy with international activities, such as the Sao Paulo Biennale in Brazil, where he received the First Prize, International Youth Exhibition in Paris, and the Asian International Art Exhibition in Hong Kong, where he received high honors.
His style changed after 1980 to contain more fluidity and large untouched blank spaces on the canvas to allow the mind to freely wander in time to pursue a vivacious spirit. He also sought to express the nostalgia for the vast plateau landscape in which he spent his childhood years. The fluctuations in color as well as the sculptural texture of CHEN’s works are reminiscent of the jumping beats of a beautiful melody. Usually people feel a need to control color and technique, but CHEN focuses on the creative process, wanting to unleash the unconscious into the conscious. He says, “The works are records of the activity of my inner spirit. The principle is abstract, and I express my inner life with as little interference as possible – the beautiful, the ugly, they are all independent and full of life. I just use my language to expose these feelings.”
Rising from the East, Diver of Abstract Art
Tommy CHEN was born in Jinan, Shangdong Province, China, in 1931. Amidst the turbulence of the era, CHEN came to Taiwan and built his family here, later classified as one of the Chinese diasporic painters after the Chinese Civil War. At 18, CHEN enrolled into the department of art at National Taipei Teachers College and became the classmate of HSIAO Chin and LI Yuan-Chia. Afterwards, he learned under LI Chun-Shan, who had recognized his bold use of colors then. CHEN was acknowledged by HSIAO Chin as the first Chinese painter of abstract art, even earlier than ZAO Wu-Ki. At the end of 1955, CHEN, together with friends including HSIA Yan, LI Yuan-Chia, HO-Kan, HSIO Chin, co-founded “Ton Fon Art Group,” and the eight founders were dubbed “The Eight Highwaymen of the East.”
Influenced by Cubism at earlier stages, CHEN adopted geometric and architectural compositions. Around 1955, he introduced the formal elements of oracle bone characters into his paintings, attempting to capture the fluxes of consciousness through his abstract strokes. He also experimented with the combined effects of paints and varying materials, so as to equip his paintings with the uneven texture of antiques. During the 1980s, he turned to acrylic and watercolor paints, and thus his paintings appeared brighter and warmer, his strokes more dynamic. Like a scientific researcher, CHEN has been eager to explore the variations of materials, formations, and colors. He shapes microscopic worlds through the piling of paints; the concrete matters and abstract momentum come to clash on the canvas, generating many atlas-like tableaus vibrating with musical rhythms. As he remarked, “Make a change, or left behind.” His works reflect the destructive and constructive urges of an epochal artist, not just because he has loosened the yokes of formal languages, but also because he has widened the parameters of material expressions. Overall, his creation displays cosmic magnificence and oriental brilliance. Transcending the constraints of language, his works crystallize and transform the images of life into many a lyric scenes.
In 1959 and 1965, CHEN participated in “Sao Paulo Art Biennial” for twice. In 1962, he was awarded the silver medal in the 2nd International Art Saloon of Hong Kong. His first solo exhibition took place at ESLITE GALLERY in 2012.
Spirit of Ton Fon Art Group
The modernization of Taiwanese fine arts began in 1950s. The alternations of political regimes and the influences of foreign cultures stimulated the original art scene on the island. Taiwanese fine arts had long been influenced by Japanese culture; then the diasporic painters from China brought over traditional Chinese aesthetics, and the entry of American power also entailed the introduction of western avant-garde ideas. Different cultures converged here, provoking the artists to search for new languages that could reflect their individual mindsets and social fluctuations. Ton Fon Art Group was established when the politics were despotic while the cultures were diversified. It competed with Fifth Moon Art Group founded around the same time, and together they commenced many new inspiring chapters for the art history in Taiwan.
Ton Fon Art Group was founded by Tommy CHEN, HSIA Yan, LI Yuan-Chia, HO-Kan, HSIAO Chin, WU Hao, OUYANG Wen-yen, and HSIAO Ming-Hsien. Most of them came to Taiwan after the Chinese Civil War, and they chose artistic creation as their lifelong aspiration despite difficult lives. Dissatisfied with the colleges’ stereotypical pedagogy valuing imitation and realism, they came to LI Chuan Shan’s studio for alternative learning. LI, the father of modern art in Taiwan, set up his studio on Andong Street in Taipei in 1951. He influenced the students most from the aspects of knowledge and conception. Apart from introducing such new ideas of western fine arts as abstract expressionism and automatism to them, LI also encouraged them to forsake the tradition of imitating the classics and to create their own individualized styles. These youths, based on their shared longing for spontaneous expression, abandoned the learned skills of painting and strived to find their exclusive languages in the hundreds of works every day, developing their own idiosyncratic styles at last. At the time when public gathering was politically suppressed, the eight comrades still decided to establish Ton Fon Art Group at the end of 1955. Their first group exhibition in 1957 immediately met positive acclaims, and the eight founders were entitled, by the UDN reporter, HO Fan, “The Eight Highwaymen of the East.” From then on, they became the pioneers of modern arts, exploring the unknown and enriching eastern art with western ideas. Among them, Tommy CHEN was known for his extravagant colors and strong experimentalism. He utilized the skills and materials of western art to transform the symbols and rhythms of eastern art. His paintings, containing the features of sculpture, also broadened the parameters of painting the genre.
After the fifteen annual exhibitions, Ton Fon Art Group dismissed itself in 1971, and CHEN also distanced himself from the art scene for some time. Recently, he has resumed his painting, and his creative momentum is in no way dampened. His artistic integrity consolidated earlier is not tainted by the ups and downs of time. As art critic J.J. Shih noted, Tommy CHEN is an artist of “early departure and late arrival,” but the viewers can observe the abiding “essence” and “palatability” of his works. Today, people can hardly envision the prosperity of Ton Fon Art Group, but they can appreciate, from CHEN’s works, an epochal artist’s spiritual tenacity after the storms of times, as well as his delightful indulgence in creation.