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Zhong Chen © Self-portrait on a horse. Finalist 2011 Archibald Prize.

Standing in front of Zhong Chen’s self portrait at the 2011 Archibald at Tarrawarra Museum of Art, I saw a confident, brave painter.  I pondered this with him, when I met him at his studio last week.  He says that he’s taught himself to be confident in front of a canvas.  He learnt that from de Kooning and Warhol. Another key to his work and this self portrait in particular, is that Zhong Chen is passionate about pushing out the boundaries of portraiture and painting in general. 

I’ve had to work quite hard to get a grip on his 2011 entry, but like all the best things in life, now I’m really glad I made the effort. Contemporary Art is only doing it’s work if it challenges and makes you think! So I’ve been thinking about how I might respond if I moved from my country of origin at the age of 19, to another country with a totally different culture. I’m sure I would want to preserve something of the culture of the country I was born in.  I would no doubt be affected by the culture of my new home.  I suppose if I were a painter, I would want to express this cultural amalgam through my painting.

Zhong Chen moved from China at 19.  He came to Australia as a burgeoning artist.  He studied art in South Australia and went on to the Chelsea College of Art in London where he completed his Master of Fine Arts. His work has made the Archibald final cut before.  In fact, in 2007 he not only reached the finals, but made the final five. 

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Zhong Chen © Self Portrait 2007 Archibald Finalist

His later entry, a portrait of Charles Blackman, was a turning point for Zhong.  He realised on completing this work that there was nothing more for him to explore in the figurative portrait. He wanted to explore a new way of capturing the person in the painted portrait.

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Zhong Chen © Charles Blackman 2008. Winner of the 2009 Salon des Refusés People’s Choice Award.

Fast forward to 2011 and his self portrait demonstrates his preparedness to experiment.  It draws on traditional Chinese ink wash painting,  shui-mo hau, but is not confined to it.  Drips and dribbles of paint add to the visual drama. Other Chinese influences are Chinese folk art prints, folk paper cuts and Ming and Qing porcelains. The background is contemporary, simple (minimal) with colouration that’s unexpected and vibrant. This is a contemporary portrait which says something important about the artist in particular and multicultural Australia in general. Zhong sees the work as part Chinese and part Australian, just like himself. In it, he sits on a horse that hints of Banjo Paterson’s iconic poem, The Man from Snowy River, amidst a miriad of Chinese references.

Zhong wonders how painting can compete with the excitement that surrounds the contemporary art of the installation. (Look at the overwhelming interest that has surrounded Tasmania’s MONA). This is where his confidence is his greatest asset.  I’m reminded of the line from The Man from Snowy River,

 “Ride boldly, lad, and never fear the spills,”

It’s a bold artist who is prepared to break out of the mould and try something new. With works like his 2011 portrait, it’s good to know that the art of the painted portrait is alive and well in Australia.  Hurrah for the Zhong Chen and the Archibald Prize!

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The 2011 Archibald Prize will be on show at Tarrawarra Museum of Art until the end of July.
 

Zhong Chen lives and works in Melbourne. For more information go to his website.