Sat 14 Oct 2023 to Sat 13 Jan 2024
Artist: Chen Ke
Perrotin presents Bauhaus Gal – Theatre, Chen Ke’s first solo exhibition at Paris gallery. For this new exhibition, the artist created a series of portraits of young Bauhaus students and architectural photographs presented in a theatrical scenography.
Chen Ke has been creating paintings based on photographic portraits for several years. Some feature celebrities like Marilyn Monroe or Frida Kahlo, while others show lesser-known people like painter Helen Torr (1886-1967), who inspired Chen Ke’s 2020 exhibition The Anonymous Woman Artist. Torr exhibited very little and received mostly negative critics unlike her husband, the American painter Arthur Dove. Yet their works shared many formal similarities. Torr stopped painting entirely after Dove's death in 1946. And like so many other women artists, her so far under-appreciated work was rediscovered long after she died. In her latest exhibition, Chen Ke continues this “appropriationist” practice with a series of portraits of young Bauhaus students and architectural photographs taken from a sourcebook entitled Bauhaus Mädels (Patrick Rössler ed., Taschen, 2019).
Experts may recognize the features of artist and designer Marianne Brandt on some of the paintings. Yet most of these figures are likely to be perceived as brilliant representations of brave and determined young women who embarked on a career that was closed to them a century ago.
The subject of the series is historically charged. Founded in 1919, the legendary school of architecture and applied arts is increasingly seen in a critical, if not dark (1), light. Ke even abandoned her original title for the exhibition, Utopia, which she deemed too out of touch with the reality of life at the Bauhaus, especially for women. Her aim is neither to capitalize on the historical aura of the famous institution nor to deconstruct it but to use existing images to express her own emotions. She says she was “touched” by these young women, who reminded her of her own early struggles as an art student and female artist on the Beijing art scene of the early 2000s.
Chen Ke's choice of colors powerfully reinforces the subjective dimension of her appropriation. The paintings are strangely chromatic versions of the original black-and-white images, sometimes dreamy, sometimes sinister. They trigger a sensation of vertigo similar to those colorized photographs that have gone viral in recent years: the Champs-Elysées in 1900, Claude Monet in his garden, daily life in a trench, or, closer to our time, Ke’s own series of paintings based on photographs created in the early 2000s. Rather than adding realism, this transformation produces a powerful derealizing effect, dreamlike and disturbing. The artist explains that the use of non-realistic colors in the exhibition also echoes the “surreal” period of the global COVID-19 pandemic and its extremely harsh lockdowns.
Unlike the Bauhaus, Chinese art schools do not typically teach non-figurative practices. Chen Ke became interested in abstraction after researching Helen Torr and the Bauhaus, and the exhibition features a series of abstract paintings on aluminum sheets of varying thickness. Despite the radical gap that seems to separate the two sides of her pictorial work – perfectly methodical on the one hand, highly “impulsive” on the other – they share a kind of material and conceptual kinship. The small abstractions on metal are painted with the same palette of colors as the canvases, often on the same day, like an improvised sequence, in a freer style. And like the paintings, they are formal, colorful transpositions of the artist's emotions.
Chen Ke's emphasis on theatricality is not only a theme but a scenographic principle that permeates the entire exhibition. Certain paintings are designed to create a spectacular frontality through their lighting effects and depictions of bodies. In the first room, a screen- like work blocks part of the view and directs the visitors’ movement through the space. A series of portraits hung in a line on the wall creates a sort of exhibition opening in the next room. Further on, a large, colorful, suspended sculpture rotates slowly, reminding viewers of their physical presence. The entire exhibition itinerary is designed with great precision.
Exploring the concept of theatricality, the artist references the epic poem Bhagavad-Gita, one of the founding texts of Hinduism, particularly Krishna's transformation from human form to devouring monster. For the artist, this monstrous figure is “perhaps what we might call the true face of the world, the truth hidden beneath the pleasant things of life. We sometimes come across this hidden side, but we are quick to turn away from it”. According to the artist, “Theater is a place [where] you can shed your skin, to hide or to show another self, perhaps a truer version of yourself.” The notion that theater's chaotic, inverted, cruel world can be the bearer of truth is part of the very principle of dramatic art in both Eastern and Western traditions. Chen Ke applies this principle to her pictorial art. The images she appropriates through painting are masks, and all her works are self-portraits.
1. See art and design historian Alexandra Midal's recent lectures on “Dark Bauhaus,” in which she dismantles the mythology surrounding the school, highlighting the misogyny that reigned there and the various forms of collaboration with the corporate world and the Nazi regime.