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The Playful Universe of Stanley Chen: Exploring the Freedom of Childlike Imagination
NCO 022

Stanley Chen's paintings exude childlike wonder, portraying his animated self and exploring identity, perception, and curiosity. In this feature, Chen shares his background, artistic development, and the inspiration behind his self-portraiture.

N: Hi Stanley, how are you feeling, and what inspires you these days?

S: To be honest, I am feeling exhausted these days. I moved back to China last year and have been readjusting to my life recently. I was renovating my studio here in Foshan for the past couple of months and have finally settled in and started making new paintings. Therefore, I am also excited to see what I will create in the future here.

N: Can you tell us a bit about your background? Where did you grow up, how did you "find" art, and how did your love of art and painting develop?

S: I was born in Sydney, Australia but grew up in Foshan, China, a southern city near Guangzhou. It is also an industrial city where lots of tile, lighting, and furniture factories are located. If you are familiar with Cao Fei’s work, Whose Utopia was filmed here in Foshan at a local lighting factory. There weren't any galleries or museums here, but folk art can be seen sometimes in the old central areas.

I've been drawing random things since I was little. My textbooks never had one page without random drawings on them. However, I didn't receive formal training until high school. I took some drawing classes outside of school and started to learn how to draw still life. After that, I went back to Sydney and studied there for two years.

That was when I was introduced to art history and art theories. After learning about Andy Warhol and Pop Art, I wanted to study in New York, so I did.

N: Many of your paintings feature you as the central subject. What draws you to self-portraiture?

S: I took inspiration from artists like Frida Kahlo, Cindy Sherman, and Claude Cahun. I am interested in how others perceive me as an individual and what information people can gather from looking at me. It is my attempt to understand others and to learn what they see in me, whether correct or not.

N: Correct me if I'm wrong, but sometimes you paint a grown-up Stanley, and other times a baby version of you with giant hair. Can you elaborate more on that? How did that character come about?

S: I prefer it to be called the animated version of me. One reason I created this character is that I've always loved Japanese Anime growing up, and the influence is evident from the very beginning. But more specifically, I created this character during COVID-19 in 2020.

After graduating, my US visa was expiring, and China closed its borders, so I couldn't return home. Therefore, I had to relocate to Australia and ended up moving four times within a year.

This animated version of me helped me make small little drawings during this unstable time. It was easier for me when I didn't have a stable place to live.

N: There is definitely a sense of child-like innocence in your images. How do you pick your subject matters?

S: I guess I'm drawn to the idea of being a child, ignoring rules and disciplines, being straightforward, and always curious. I don't have a very specific way of choosing the subject; the thought always comes spontaneously without too much planning. Usually, the painting feels better when I do less planning.

N: What are some other artists that have influenced you? Your style reminds me of a mix between classical Chinese art and the manga I"s by Masakazu Katsura.

S: I am a huge fan of David Hockney and Alex Katz. I value how effective and simple their paintings are. I am always trying to learn the way they use colors.

I do think there is a certain Asian aesthetic in my painting. I water down acrylic paint and use it almost like Chinese ink, so a lot of staining and bleeding are involved in the process. It makes the image look more ambiguous.

N: Lastly, what's next for you, and how do you see your work evolving in the future?

S: I am planning to make fewer portraits recently and just wanted to reexamine them from a distance for now. I am considering making more still life in the future, and the subjects will be more metaphorical and narrative.

All images courtesy of Stanley Chen.
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