Henri Chen KeZhan
by Adlina Maulod
Henri Chen KeZhan (b. 1959, Singapore - ) is an abstract ink and wash painter who thrives on the border of Chinese and Western art. He is internationally recognised especially among Western audiences with some knowledge of Chinese art, and he has held several overseas exhibitions in the United States, Europe and Asia.
Although Chen never harboured early intentions of becoming a full-time artist, he did receive art training. From 1975 to 1979, he studied Chinese painting under the late pioneer artist Fan Chang Tien, a renowned artist in China during the 1930s who had fled the country during the Japanese invasion and settled in Singapore. It was Fan who promoted Chen's interest in ink painting.
Chen furthered his art education while in Hong Kong between 1979 and 1983. During this period, he learned the techniques of the Lingnan style of painting under the tutelage of the late Chao Shao-an (regarded as one of the greatest masters of the Lingnan Technique), as well as the ways of the calligrapher under Fung Kang-ho.
When he was just 24, Chen travelled to China, India, Japan, the United States and Europe. He then settled in Paris, France, where he trained under expressionist oil painter Professor Jean Berthole of the École des Beaux-Arts.
Chen views his frequent visits to China as his main source of inspiration. However, since 1986, he has been making frequent visits to other parts of the world for exchanges and exhibitions with other artists as well as to seek inspiration for his art. His travels have taken him to places such as the United States, Britain, Russia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Indonesia.
The subject matter of Chen's paintings is nature, especially the lotus and other flowers. An enthusiastic gardener, he has even drawn inspiration from the plants he tends. The lotuses in his garden, for instance, inspired his Lotus series. Being surrounded by nature is an important stimulant to his creativity.
Music is Chen's artistic muse and listening to music while painting has become a ritual for him. Having studied both art and music, he fuses elements of sound and colour in his art. For example, "Autumn Lotus" had elements of Mahler's "First Symphony", which Chen listened to while painting - the soft colours reflected the light-heartedness of the first movement of the "First Symphony" while the darker colours represented the more dramatic music of the later movements.
His works have been said to be of rare genius, a testament to the years he spent as an art apprentice under established masters of the field. His works show an evolution of style and a freshness in theme, no doubt the result of his inclination to experiment and expose himself to new experiences through his numerous travels. This was evident in the two pairs of painted fans titled Lotus 1995 where he experimented with minerals such as lapis lazuli to recreate his adventures in Vietnam on canvas. Similarly, Self Portraits has been described as a series of confident, compelling and avant-garde pictorial statements.
In Chen's art, the orthodox marks of the Chinese brush are always evident but they are recontextualised and reinterpreted within the realm of abstract expressionism. The fine balance and synthesis of both eastern and western techniques of painting is characteristic of his works. His style has been described as contemporary and at the same time emotive and engaging.
Support for Artists
Chen has been actively involved in supporting the arts community. In the midst of the Asian financial crisis in 1998, he organised a charity fund-raiser exhibition in which part of the proceeds from the sale of the exhibited works went towards establishing the Visual Arts Fund (VAF). Initially administered by The Substation, the VAF is now an independent entity that continues to provide financial support to visual artists.
In 2009, Chen established a private non-profit organisation now known as Temenggong Artists-In-Residence (Temenggong) to manage an arts residency programme for foreign artists. It was conceived to enable artists to help other artists.
In April 2012, Chen organised Gathering Clouds, the inaugural fund-raising exhibition for Temenggong. By keeping itself sustainable through fund-raising initiatives, Temenggong strives to promote cross-cultural exchanges and networking among foreign and local artists.
1977: Art 1977 Exhibition, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.
1977–1982: Singapore Festival of the Arts Exhibition, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.
1977–1982: National Day Art Exhibition, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.
1978: Solo art exhibition sponsored by Singapore Airlines, Ming Court Hotel, Singapore.
1980: Singapore Cultural Foundation Art Exhibition 1980, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.
1983: Paintings by Chen KeZhan, Arbour Fine Art, Singapore.
1983: Salon De Peinture Club Des Arts De Centre De Paris, Paris, France.
1984: Salon De Printemps, Paris, France.
1984: Peintures Et Sculptures, Paris, France.
1984: 25 Years of Nation Building Art Exhibition, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.
1984: New Generation of Singapore Artists 1984, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.
1985: Chen KeZhan: Recent Works, Hotel Meridien, Singapore.
1985: Salon 85, Grand Palais, Paris, France.
1987: National Museum Centenary Art Exhibition, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.
1988: Contemporary Artists, Curwen Gallery, London, United Kingdom.
1988: Singapore Art Exhibition, Yokohama, Kobe, Sapporo and Tokyo, Japan.
1988: Masterpieces from Private Collections, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.
1988: Singapore Contemporary Artists Exhibition, Hong Kong Arts Centre.
1988: Singapore Contemporary Artists Exhibition, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.
1989: ASEAN Exhibition of Painting, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Bangkok, Manila and Brunei.
1989: Chen KeZhan: Recent Works 88/89, Ingber Gallery, New York, United States.
1989–1990: Contemporary Singapore: Where East Meets West, Amsterdam, Netherlands, and Glasgow, Scotland.
1990: Chen KeZhan: Self Portraits, Empress Place Museum, Singapore.
1990: Paintings by Chen KeZhan, Netherlands.
1990: Many in One: 25 Years of Art from Singapore, a travelling exhibition to the United States.
1993: Contemporary Paintings from Singapore and Japan, Japan Foundation ASEAN Cultural Centre Gallery, Tokyo, Japan.
1995: Art That Binds, organised by Cicada Gallery of Fine Arts, Singapore.
1996: Interaction, Singapore Festival of the Arts 1996, Cicada Gallery of Fine Arts, Singapore.
1996: Contemporary Chinese Painting Exhibition, Pao Galleries, Hong Kong Arts Centre.
1997: The Flowering Field: Contemporary Chinese Painting, organised by Kaikoda & Luen Chai, New York and Hong Kong.
1997: Taegu-Asia Arts Exhibition 97, Korea.
1997: Singapore Art 97, National Arts Council and Singapore Art Museum.
1998: The Familiar and the Surprising, Caldwell House, Singapore.
1999: Beyond Tradition, Earl Lu Gallery, LA SALLE-SIA College of the Arts, Singapore.
1999: Nokia Singapore Art 99, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore.
2000: Snapshot, in conjunction with ARTSingapore 2000, Plum Blossoms Gallery, MITA Building, Singapore.
2001: 49th Venice Biennale, Italy.
1985: Silver Medal, Salon des Artistes Francais, Paris, France.
1993–1994: Artist-in-Residence Fellowship, Honolulu Academy of Arts, Hawaii.
1994: Young Artist Award 1993, National Arts Council, Singapore.
1999: Patron of the Arts Award, Ministry of Information and the Arts, Singapore.
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(Call no.: RSING 709.5957 KWO)
The information in this article is valid as at 2020 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.