Far away from the big names and backbiting of Beijing’s art world I found local Shanghai artist Chen Hangfeng. He works out of a modest, sunlit studio in a complex on Weihai Road. It’s a residential area that has become home to a handful of studios over the last few years, some of which were relocated from the commercial art zone, M50, on Moganshan road, where an increasing number of galleries, trendy stores and coffee shops have been steadily pushing up rental prices.
Chen’s recent artworks deal with the pervasiveness of commercialism in Shanghai. Using Shanghai’s obsession with branded products that confer instant social status (or “give face”, as the Chinese expression goes) as a point of departure, he combines logos from China’s contemporary popular culture with traditional folk art to create subtle juxtapositions. His striking red handmade papercuts show a China still in touch with its ancient roots, but on closer inspection the intricate designs morph into Shanghai’s favourite logos: Nike, McDonalds, Louis Vuitton, Chanel. The artist built on his Logomania series by designing furnishings adorned with the logos, which – as with the papercuts – are subtly hidden in a beautiful design. Wooden screens, wallpaper and plush carpets now all bear the emblems of our age; at once disguised and pervasive, they work on our conscious and subconscious mind.
Chen is a conceptual artist. For him, the development of an idea is an in-depth process, throughout which he reevaluates, refines, and refers back to his original idea. But unlike other conceptual artists, unless the work requires a skill set he doesn’t have, he creates everything himself. Conceptualising and designing something printed using a computer is not a method he respects. After graduating from art school, he worked as a designer in the advertising industry for several years before focusing his energy entirely on conceptual art in 2005.
Pragmatism may not be among the more romantic of artists’ qualities, but it has been essential to Chen throughout his career. He has made a point of furthering his education through artists’ residencies abroad, and gaining experience in a variety of artistic media. Since his Logomania series, Chen has explored a range of other themes in his work, from cultural dominance, to issues of public versus private space in the context of urbanisation – a topic close to the hearts of Shanghai residents. For now, Chen Hangfeng’s studio – a creative working space brimming with energy – is safe from the erratic removal and displacement of urban Shanghai.
– January 2011, Shanghai
This excerpt was originally written for my recently published book, Paint By Numbers, but was not included in the final version.
The collection of studios in Shanghai’s Weihai Lu were relocated within a few months of writing. Chen has gone on to create more thought-provoking art, some of which you can view on his website.