‘I wander between the past and future.’
Born 1968, Kaiyuan, Yunnan. Lives and works in Beijing
He Sen graduated from the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts, in Chongqing, in 1989. Here, with Zhang Xiaogang as his professor, he was trained in the distinctively expressionist Sichuan style. From an early series of melancholy portraits of young women, and the dreamy, lingerie-clad contemporary odalisques cuddling soft toys for which he became best known, He Sen transitioned to a painterly examination of Chinese history and culture. He sourced imagery from Chinese literary and artistic history, appropriating classical paintings by ink masters such as Li Shan, Ma Yuan, and Xu Wei. Reproducing elements of iconic Chinese works in oil paint rather than ink, and embedding western painting conventions into the iconography of ‘gong bi’ realism and ink painting, He Sen turned from a focus on the impact of society on the individual to an examination of Chinese culture more broadly. Similarly, by breaking into the painterly surfaces of flat oil paintings on canvas with stripes, squares or grids of heavy impasto paint, He Sen questions the very nature of painting itself: ‘Why should we deal only with what we see on the surface?’ he has asked. ‘In traditional Chinese art, meaning is not only on the surface; it involves the imagination and ideas.’ Selecting, enlarging and re-grouping sections and motifs from well-known traditional ink paintings, folk paintings or popular culture images, and rendering them in oil paint, He Sen turns the original works into ‘ready-mades’ that require the viewer to question their perceptions and see this source material in a new way, as grist for the global image mill. After visiting the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2005, He began to question the distinctions between eastern and western aesthetics, and to consider ways to bridge these seemingly opposed visual languages. Aware that these works will be ‘read’ and interpreted differently by Chinese and western audiences, and conscious of the complex history of ‘guohua’ (literally, ‘national painting’ — and generally understood to refer to ink painting), He Sen considers the relationship between painting and cultural identity.