Phillip Chen
Picturing States of Affairs: The Art of Phillip Chen

Phillip Chen’s art portrays the dynamics of memory – how it shapes the present. Each work occasions an interaction between appearance, reality and record. Within the flat space of the picture plane, personal reflections, cultural objects and historical narratives intertwine and recombine in a dizzying array, creating the space of memory. Because of its virtuoso play with the cultural signification of multiple visual languages, Chen’s work provides an encounter platform that deepens our understanding of how we read the visual.

In Chen’s prints, medium and image collapse into one indissoluble visual experience. Unlike art whose goal is to create a single view of history, in Chen’s work diverse meanings arise from distinct images systems. And each method of representing becomes part of the voice of the representation. For instance, the seemingly negative or empty space of the black background is in fact the positive applied layer of ink. It is the delicate linework and the photographic half tone that are the raw paper underneath. Often in artworks, the constructedness of the image is meant to be unnoticed. Instead, imagistic realism is seen as a gesture of “pointing at,” or calling attention to, a particular object existing in three dimensions. But Chen’s images do more: they point outward to an existing object and also to themselves as coded markers recording that object. This is similar to the Heart Sutra saying: “Guided by the finger, gaze at the moon, the finger is not the moon.” While a cursory reading might interpret this to mean ‘look only at the moon and not at the finger,’ the verse’s distinction of the two has been more delicately comprehended as discerning both.

Seen in a glance, Chen’s combination of images is unfathomable, destabilizing interpretation through so many disparate objects and different ways of telling. The dark velvety ground conjures up photographic images, accompanied by schemata, grids and mathematical equations, and is spliced by arabesque lines slicing the blackness in their wake. In Souvenirs of the Voyage, a photograph of a large rock, a line drawing of a Dogon chain, and a schematic image of a baby stroller jostle against one another as each asserts its own code and history. But Chen’s is not the surrealism of a “fortuitous encounter on a dissection table of an umbrella and a sewing machine...” His choices, however incongruous they might first appear, are neither arbitrary nor accidental. Chen’s collaging is a purposive selection of signifying elements. Each print deliberately constructs a network out of disparate signs, becoming the site of intersection of numerous visual communication systems. Unpacking his works meanings doesn’t demand erudition or scholarship but instead asks for a willingness to look, to allow associations to gain primacy over classification and for interpretations to remain open.

Different ways of conceptualizing the world require different visual languages. Contradictory systems overlap, colliding and interpenetrating in each of Chen’s prints. His art gives voice to competing ways of recording and viewing history. And, after all, why should widely divergent world views, incompatible systems of power, be expected to be coded in the same manner?

But our era likes signs and it likes them to be very clear; we exalt the precision of templates and rubrics. Chen’s art is more confounding: aspects of history which we have imagined to be distinctly compartmentalized once again encounter each other – as they did in reality. But their association takes us by surprise, it’s disorienting. Chen shows this friction as dynamic, creating ruptures that dislodge us from our comforting clichés about the past. His art requires our participation in the process of making meanings and reworking our histories. Wittgenstein said “don’t think, but look!” not to de-emphasize ideas in art but to reorder our inclination to pre-think before looking at what is actually shown. Looking first lets us see new possibilities being created. It leads to viewing art, not with a passive eye, but in an embodied encounter.


The past is neither finished nor feeble but a riot of possibilities that threaten to unfold. Stuart Hall discussed how, far from being eternally fixed in some essentialized past “which is waiting to be found, and which, when found, will secure ourselves into eternity,” we are instead “positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past.” The power of the past lies in the story we tell of it in the present: it is inseparable from the story of us, now. And that story is not linear nor complete: each new insight rips through previous ways of telling. Thinly covered by a dominant narrative, new versions interpreting the past can be only temporally restrained before they cease being submerged and assert their presence; their force displaces the narrative that overlaid them.

Any record of the past occurs in present time. Chen emphasizes that his art embodies “the idea of collapsing time, the idea of the past being now.” Embedded in this is the idea of yi wu. Art historian Wu Hung defined the term: “any object that points to the past is an yi wu because it is a surviving portion of a vanished whole; by arrangement or accident, it has been severed from its original context to become part of contemporary culture. An yi wu is thus characterized both by pastness and contemporaneity: it originated in the past, but it belongs to the here and now.” While not itself a past object, Chen’s artworks reveal the vital presentness of artifacts.

This presentness is explicit in Prairie Breaker. Our eyes are drawn first to the photographic fragment of a simple unadorned Woodland pot on the lower left of the picture plane. It rests motionlessly in its own space, almost buried in the deep black ink Chen uses as his ground. Above it swirl a host of various images. These move as if they had been tightly coiled and are just now released: as our eyes scan across the paper from left to right, the objects appear to move faster and become broader, clearer. Our gaze follows the trajectory of the curving pattern formed by ever more complex implements: Chen’s sinuous line becomes surveyor's chains, then harvesting machines, and drafting tools. They hover above the pot, threatening its sanctuary with their tumbling dance. A tension radiating from them into the blackness between renders them no longer innocuous and merely utilitarian. Among these schematically rendered objects, a a pick-axe emerges, conspicuous through its photographic rendering, mirroring that of the Woodland pot. Departing from the spiraling boarder, it penetrates into the inky quiet of the middle space surrounding the pot, poised to smash it. Through Chen’s presentation, history is not linear but becomes seen as a kind of cross-section: things from different times in the American landscape are not imagined as a succession but are gathered here, vying for the same space. But then he disrupts this reading with another. The entire work reads as a depiction of the cosmos: the pocked surface of the pot as also a moon or planet and the linear diagrams as a constellation swirling with planets and stars. His deep black ink covers the paper with a texture of velvet, an almost infinite depth. It takes us from human culture and temporal history into cosmology. And neither reading subsumes the other.


Print media is called the democratic art, but never has the content been so democratic as in Chen’s depictions – objects from disparate times and places appear together, enmeshed in the same matrix of space.

In Fiji Mermaid, the circus tent spike forcibly links the various artifacts by a rope – dragging them into the same spatial frame, towing a costumed Chinese hat and a Native American choker into a visual and spatial equality with abstract line drawings of sea creatures.

Wittgenstein seems almost to anticipate Chen’s work in his description of a picture as a “complicated network overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail. I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than ‘family resemblances.’” Chen’s images utilize such “family resemblance,” forming alliances through visible continuities and likenesses and then shattering them, breaking them apart through disruptions and inconsistencies of visual codes.

In Mounting the Machine, both the photograph and the schema coexist in the same airless shallow space and repeat the same form: similar radial lines weave in and over one another. The bicycle portrayed in photographic realism appears more concrete than the diagrammatic drawing of the accoutrements foisted on women in the 19th century: the fan, the bustle, the parasol. Yet through their linear elements they become intermixed - the photographic spokes of the bicycle’s tire, at the bottom left of the print, become entangled with the drawn lines describing the ribs of the bustle, while similar diagrammatic lines break away near the center to form a fan. Towards the top of the artwork, the lines become increasingly sparse and schematic: the attenuated ribs of a no-longer-functional parasol seem to fly apart. Chen’s entire elaborate structure breaks apart even as it is constructed; linear rigidity collapses in a whirlwind of fractured forms as the bicycle machinery spirals forward. The freedom offered by this vehicle, forgotten in our time of rapid cars and Concord jets, comes into view again in Chen’s print. Women’s subjection and all its accompanying paraphernalia are shattered: umbrella, bustle, fan – they are flung away, spiraling into ever more pale, more ghostly portrayal. As the bicycle bursts into the scene, it forces them all to be shed and asserts its momentous victory.

Paper Culture

Chen’s work reminds us the that the first photographers accurately saw their work not as an act of replicating objects but, as William Henry Fox Talbot stated as early as 1839, as “the art of fixing a shadow.” Although the photographic image recalls the three-dimensional object, it resolutely inhabits the same two-dimensional reality as lines and graphs and equations. In sharing this airless space, artifact, equations, and ciphers are revealed as all equally culpable in construing and promulgating historical events.

Chen’s art gives precise voice to a plethora of visual languages: derived from the fine arts, from documentary photography, from diagrams, architecture, even including figures conceived through mathematical formulae. All are seen to have their own historical voice and affinities with systems of power. As Michael A. Fuller observed in regard to text, even the plainest one cannot escape the problem of the commitments made by its language. Similarly, Chen is aware of associations with each visual language and uses each mark intentionally as a member of that language set. But in his work, the collision of these alternative ways of categorizing memory, history, the present, engenders a collusion – their voices are unified and intensified through sharing the medium of paper.

And Chen shows us exactly that. Through the diptych Men of Action, he creates a world that not only exists exclusively within the confines of paper but leads us to the fundamental insight that paper is how we know most things in the world. It is not just the medium but is also the matrix of knowledge, inseparable from the meaning. For centuries, understanding of the world has been shaped by paper. Most often, in our lives we do not experience other nations, we have not known other cultures except through reading about them or seeing them illustrated. In Chen’s Men of Action the figures, all male, are ciphers, paper dolls. Constructed of newspaper, then photographed, etched into metal plates and printed, they are complete embodiments of media, as well as embodied by media. Dressed in 19th century Western attire, they appear in acts of diplomacy, statesmanship, discord, all conducted within the grid-like schematic architecture of a steamship. In the past their actions, their negotiations, were known and publicized through the newspaper articles. Wryly, Chen builds their reality for us out of the newspaper. How flimsy they are and yet what enormous consequences such paper constructions have had in actuality!

Chen’s artworks move between objects, images, notation and ratios, to the conceptual ideas we have with our world. He depicts ways we record and archive thought and history, collapsing spatial and temporal realities into one picture plane. Through visual affinities he shows that tradition reframed becomes innovation, because the past is never read but re-constructed. Through his play with visual languages, we become aware of the powerful force of memory in constructing the present.

Lenore Metrick-Chen
Art and Cultural Historian

Phillip Chen

“Origins and Destinations”—Phillip Chen’s ongoing series of relief etchings—suggests the many dualities that reside within the artist’s complex compositions. These oppositions include the past and the present, the public and the private, historical subjects and current events, darkness and light, East and West, and modes of drawing and photography. Even the slow and methodical act of printmaking itself relates to this dualism with its inherent “process of delays” —starts and stops—that Chen finds satisfying in its rhythm. The many steps between idea and method—from developing a concept to actually printing the etching—provide ample time for reflection, which ultimately enhances the final work.

Chen combines elements of documentary photography with diagrammatic drawing to create strong conceptual works imbued with a ghostly elegance. After developing an initial concept and “thinking in images,” the artist begins with photographed objects—the unusual and inspiring anonymous objects from his diverse collection, which range from a vintage corset and old Chinese padlocks to a late-nineteenth-century bicycle and an interesting stick encountered on a walk. Simple and exact contour line drawings of other fascinating objects orbit, intersect, and extend from the photographic elements in a dynamic conversation. Both photograph and line drawing hover in a warm glow against a rich, dense, velvety-black background. Their combinations establish enigmatic narrative dialogues.

Chen’s subject matter covers his varied interests spanning the past to the present and into the future. The artist imparts personal journeys made into the past investigating his Chinese heritage, as well as experiences in the present as a passionate reader, avid traveler, and politically-engaged American. What he knows through experience and reading combined with time materializes the concept of each piece. Diverse but often interrelated subjects include his family’s Asian heritage, feminism, African race relations, mathematical principles, and creation theories. In his art, Chen visualizes these topics with expression and formalism in clean and precise but emotive compositions.

The diptych Lucky 8 (2008) grew out of Chen’s visit to Beijing last year. In the print, the artist reflects upon China’s political power while also taking up the significance of the number eight in Chinese culture, in which it symbolizes prosperity. As the host city of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, Beijing capitalized on the use of the traditional lucky number in scheduling the opening ceremony for August 8, 2008 at 8:00 pm—more simply 8/8/08 at 8 pm—bidding a string of eights for good fortune. At the top of the image, the line drawing includes eight swirling coins or talismans representing China’s monetary wealth. Eight also invokes American swimmer Michael Phelps, who set a new Olympic record by earning eight gold medals in the competition. Directly below the coins, a photographed stick becomes the stem for an opening flower. Its drawn petal-like forms (resembling boat keels) were derived from the deconstructed curved framework of the Beijing National Stadium—more commonly know as the Bird’s Nest—that quickly emerged as a major international architectural icon. The lower panel of Lucky 8 may be viewed as the “underworld” of China with intricately-drawn, peculiar, insect-like Chinese locks to conceal dark secrets, such as the poached animal horns used for medicinal purposes that are sold on the black market.

In another work, Chen tackles the subject of feminism. Mounting the Machine (2003) relates to the life of American feminist and social reformer Frances Willard (1839–1898) who wrote A wheel within a wheel: how I learned to ride a bicycle and some reflections along the way (c. 1895). In the 1890s, bicycles were all the rage, but not an acceptable leisure activity for proper women. However, Willard was determined to mount and master the physical and metaphorical “machine,” both the bicycle and gender equality as a female citizen. Chen imagines her story with a photographic image of a nineteenth-century bicycle and drawn emanations of distinctly female accessories, which include a hand-held fan, a corset, and a hoop skirt construction. The shedding of these items represents a release from the mental and physical bondage under which women lived in the Victorian era.

In his relief etchings, Phillip Chen looks backward in order to look forward. Within the exhibition, Chen’s prints will be thematically grouped across the length of a single long wall. In order to view the installation, the visitor must physically travel back and forth along the length of the gallery, generating a parallel experience to Chen’s journeys into the past and present. With specificity and universality, the artist’s visual contemplations are personally informed but engage social and political issues of unceasing relevance. Chen looks thoughtfully to the past and the present with an eye toward the future: “Life is grievous. It contains a lot of angst, guilt. I attempt to learn and understand in order to surpass.”

Patricia Hickson

Emily Hall Tremaine Curator of Contemporary Art
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art