When asked to participate in the Chinese Character Cultural Festival (漢字藝術節) two years ago, he first thought he’d make a wall piece using thumbtacks.
“But then I thought, ‘I’ve already done this type of thing, I’ll try something different.’”
Like many young Taiwanese interested in art, Chen had studied traditional Chinese calligraphy and landscape painting while a student. In 2008 he began an old-fashioned, modern-day apprenticeship with “semi-cursive-style” calligrapher Chang Kuang-bin (張光賓). Chen started experimenting with tools from the museum and ended up using the nail gun to write calligraphy. The series he created for the Chinese Character Cultural Festival is on display at Tina Keng, but the 60cm-by-60cm canvases are dwarfed by the “paintings” that followed, the largest of which is 1.7m wide and 3.45m tall.
DRAWING ON TRADITION
Riffing on Chinese calligraphy and traditional landscapes — called “mountain water” (山水) paintings — isn’t anything terribly new.
From the Cursive productions of Lin Hwai-min’s (林懷民) Cloud Gate Dance Theatre (雲門舞集) to the colorful new abstract paintings of Huang Chih-yang (黃致陽), Taiwanese artists have long drawn on the country’s reputation as the preserver of Chinese culture.
Chen’s take on this shows a healthy appreciation for an art form that isn’t just the domain of retirees or the bane of young people forced to spend hours practicing how to properly cradle a brush or worm its goat-hair tip around the start of a stroke. He adjusts the density, the firing depth, and the size of the nails depending on the artist and painting he’s “imitating.”
For 2010 Imitating “Early Spring” by Kuo Hsi in Sung Dynasty 1072 (2010 臨摹北宋郭熙早春圖 1072), he used a longer, 2.1cm nail because he wanted the shadow that the pins cast to help simulate the subtle shading of the original.
His most labor-intensive piece to date, 2011 Imitating “Travelers Among Mountains and Streams” by Fan Kuan in Sung Dynasty 1031 (2011 臨摹北宋范寬谿山行旅圖 1031), is composed of about 750,000 1.8cm nails that he spent three-and-a-half months driving deeper into the canvas for more contrast between the nails and the white background.
“When I started this, the nail gun was just a nail gun,” Chen says, “and now it’s turned into a brush.”
To be honest, I’m a little skeptical as to whether he can keep driving hundreds of thousands of nails into these works without wearing himself out. He’s not.
“I’m only ‘practicing my kung fu (練功期),’” he says with a smile.