The strangely beautiful art of Chen Man


Special To The Japan Times

Echoing the Pan-Asian theme of this year’s Art Fair Tokyo, which was held earlier this month, Shibuya’s shop-based Diesel Gallery is hosting a free exhibition of the visually striking work of Chen Man, a young Chinese artist.

The 32-year-old Beijing-based native of Inner Mongolia uses heavily treated photographs to create lush, glamorous digital prints that are filled with a great deal of wit, humor, and sexiness.

While still a student at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts in 2003, Chen started creating cover-work for Vision, a prominent monthly Chinese art and fashion magazine, spending a lot of time retouching each image to create her inimitable style. She has spun this in two directions, as both a photographer for mainstream fashion and advertising and a creator of fine-art prints. While her commercial work has appeared in Vogue and Elle, and has included such corporate clients as P&G, Adidas, L’Oreal, and Motorola, she also creates signed limited-edition prints that sell for hundreds of thousands of yen.

The ease with which she can straddle the gap between art and commerce is revealing of the way the international business and art worlds view China. From a cultural point of view, there seems to be an inclination to welcome the likes of Chen Man as proof of China’s increasing cultural openness; while, from the business point of view she represents the idea of economic liberalization and localization, an idea that has strong appeal for global corporations keen to enhance their local appeal in the vast Chinese marketplace. A Western artist who so blatantly married the Muses to Mammon might expect a rougher ride.

But the combination of commercialization and art that permeates Chen’s career also echoes another melding of opposites that gives her work its visual power and aesthetic bling. Like Lady Gaga and her team, she is skilled at blending beauty with ugliness. In all her best works, the two opposites come together to create images that are more potent than pure rarified beauty would be.

In works such as “Red Lotus” (2008), the airbrushed perfection of the female form is filtered through a delightful tackiness. The same can be said for her “Double Mickey” series (2006), where the girls are given a tragicomic look with hair tied into mouse ears and mascara smeared down their faces from sad deadened eyes. Without her comical twist on things, the beauty of the models would perhaps veer towards the coldly beautiful or the softly pornographic.

In “Vision — Year of the Monkey” (2003) and “Vision — Golden Fish Goblin” (2003), Chen concentrates on the female face, but here again we see beauty conjoined with ugliness to create works of aesthetic impact. In the second of these, eyebrows become manga-esque squiggles, while the excessive shine of the skin gives the image a reptilian feel, proving the Chen Man is clearly an artist who knows how to have her cake and eat it.

“Chen Man: Glamorous Futurist at Diesel Art Gallery runs till May 11; open daily 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Free admission.