“Art has become free. You can do it anywhere, with anything you find.”
b.1971, Nantou, Taiwan
Chinese landscape painters of the past used soft brushes to apply ink to paper scrolls. Chen Chun-Hao uses a nail gun to slam tiny “mosquito nails” into canvas-covered sheets of wood. With these most unlikely materials, he simultaneously reinvents a thousand-year-old style and reaffirms its relevance. Chen Chun-Hao’s landscapes are copies of classic shanshui (mountain-water) paintings by such masters as the 11th-century Fan Kuan and Li Tang. Their impact is increased by their multiple contradictions: using electrical tools and steel to create works intended for tranquil contemplation; reducing lines to dots in a process that resembles digital pixellation; rendering two-dimensional paintings in bas-relief; copying pictures once reserved for the emperor’s court with mass-produced tacks—750,000 of them in Imitating Travellers Among Mountains and Streams by Fan Kuan of the Song Dynasty (2011); more than a million in Imitating Wind in Pines Among a Myriad Valleys by Li Tang of the Song Dynasty (2012). Copying has a respected place in Chinese art, but to qualify as an artwork, a copy must reflect profound understanding of the original and also add something new. Chen Chun-Hao manages, by varying the size of the nails and the density and depth of their placement, to create the effects of light, shadow and mist that classical landscape artists strove for. In his 12 Animals series (2015), he gives similar treatment to the creatures of the Chinese zodiac. The nail paintings take ferocious concentration to plan, he says, and up to ten hours a day of hard physical work to execute. He calls the practice “my kung fu”.