Chen Fei - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale Hong Kong Friday, October 6, 2023 | Phillips
  • “An encounter with a Chen Fei painting is likely to evince an instinctive wince, or a smirk depending on the viewer’s age, gender, and sexual persuasion. Shame. Hatred. Impotence, ennui, despair. A certain hostility. These emotions suffuse the paintings.” 
    — Karen Smith


    If Chen Fei’s art should read like storyboards, or film stills, it would be thanks to the artist’s training at the Fine Arts Department at the Beijing Film Academy for screenwriting. Having been denied entry to the Central Academy of Fine Art, the young artist pursued another route, one steeped in cult movies, cinematography, and screenwriting. The present work—with the Chinese characters for 'Goodbye' blazoned across its centre—is immediately reminiscent of the final Credits of a movie: ‘So long now, folks, this is The End, Fin, we are finished, goodbye now!’ it seems to comically scream. Except that even in this final scene, as the proverbial curtains are soon to fall, the main character is hardly finished. We have caught him mid-act despite coming to the story’s finale, and we are met with sheer irreverence. With his back turned, our star is depicted either relieving or pleasuring himself, fully naked on a rooftop, unperturbed and unashamed despite his nudity, vulgarity, or even surroundings. One soon realises that the work is entitled Life is Porn, after all.  



    Movie Buff, Maverick, or Madman?


    Exhibited in the 2016 show, The Day Is Yet Long at the Galerie Urs Meile, the present work formed part of a collection of comic strip-like paintings that were each autonomous snapshots with individual narratives. All ambiguously autobiographical (the likeness of the artist and his girlfriend repeatedly feature), the pieces not only captured Chen’s personal life but also served as intriguing representations of a post-80s generation. Distilling a rich cinematographic language into a gripping visual vocabulary, Chen Fei’s paintings can be readily digested, absurd though his scenes may seem. Each work is immaculately rendered with careful attention paid to realism, and with a keen eye for graphics and colour, the artist successfully creates what are, in essence, movie scenes. In the present piece, for instance, we are greeted with cascading hills and sunset-backlit silhouettes of trees clashing with the startling modernity of a solar panel and contemporary houses, the weight of the protagonist warping what seems to be a precarious metal rooftop. We feel a confused, lost, even angsty energy latent in the character, as the tableau is vaguely evocative of a movie we may have once seen—and yet, the man is purposefully turned away from us, refusing psychoanalysis.


    Coming of age in the advent of anime, manga, and other animated movies, it is unsurprising that Chen’s works are not only ‘cartoon-like’ in their delineation, but also downright farcical. Drawing heartily from the wisdom of comics, the artist’s oeuvre often deals with heavy subjects with a characteristically sarcastic lightness, as if refusing to take himself seriously. In such a way it is not difficult to group Chen Fei with the likes of Takashi Murakami, a proponent of Superflat, i.e., the conflation of high and low art: though in Chen’s case, a conflation of heavy and light matters is perhaps more accurate. In the artist’s universe, arbitrary scenes, objects, words, all flow together frivolously in an attempt to make sense of the world.


    One also draws pictorial links to Ed Ruscha: in Start Over Please, the consequence of failure and rejection meet the (willfully blind) optimism of its imperative: START OVER PLEASE. Each word lands on its own particularly symbolic band of colour that makes up the sunset in the background, each gradient representing an increased sense of keenness and proactivity, perhaps. The typeface makes no sense against its backdrop, but perhaps this is entirely the point—in a post-modernist, nihilistic, even millenial sense.  


    Ed Ruscha, Start Over Please, 2015
    Artwork: © Ed Ruscha


    Similarly, Life is Porn is equally deliberately nonsensical, forcing its viewer to draw their own conclusions. As Karen Smith notes about the work, ‘Goodbye to what, we can only guess; Chen Fei is not quite so obvious in his delivery. The farewell is maybe a lament to seed spilt on infertile ground, but equally is the perfect, punkish parody of 'The End,' both as phrase and the final scene of countless movies, which rest on a utopian optimism for the future, even following devastating adventures that amount to an apocalypse. That glorious sunset sky, with its 'happily ever after' message, works so well against the aura of desolation or alienation that is embodied in this figure of the solitary male on a rooftop looking out to a non-entity landscape.’ i In the face of an ever-changing, confounding world, perhaps sardonic wit is our best cure: ‘who cares if this is goodbye forever?’ the central character seems to ask.


    Eric Fischl, Sleepwalker, 1979
    Artwork: © 2023 Eric Fischl / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York





    What is so successful about Chen’s art is its ability to disarm its audience: we are often made to feel like intruders upon scenes, witnesses to human foibles perhaps best kept secret. Yet it is also this stark honesty that makes his art so compelling yet perplexing. One is instantly reminded of the art of Eric Fischl: though painted in an entirely different manner, Fischl never shied away from voyeurism, and often captured intimacy in all its awkwardness. Sleepwalker, painted shortly before the artist’s rise to prominence in New York, catches a young man standing in a small paddling pool with his genitalia in hand. Whether he is truly sleepwalking as the title may suggest, or whether he is urinating, or even engaging in some brazen prepubescent sex act is a mystery to us. The setting is all the more baffling, set against the banality of some deck chairs, in an unassuming backyard. We may turn away in disgust, but the effect is palpable: we partake in the boy’s vulnerability; we feel a tinge of his youthful recklessness. In a related but different direction, one also thinks about Andy Warhol’s provocative Oxidation pieces from the late seventies, where the artist invited his studio hands and other acquaintances to either urinate or splash sexual fluids onto primed or copper-coated canvases. Such experiments can be interpreted as bold interrogations of morality, masculinity, and social etiquette, and were perhaps even more satirical and controversial given the climate of Abstract art that was prevalent at the time. 


    The same triggers exist in Chen’s works, and as succinctly summarised by Smith, ‘[f]or Chen Fei, the bad taste that we might at times sense in the visual elements of the works is intentional.’ ii In his bold executions, the artist forces us to confront often uncomfortable truths. In his self-deprecation and mockery (the artist is often the butt of his own jokes), he shows his audience that all is well, and the day is yet long, so there is no need to take oneself so seriously. As remarked upon by art critic Zhang Yizhou, ‘Under Chen Fei’s brush, the content in his paintings are all simple things around him. They might be familiar people or details, a simple scene, a classic movie scene, a fairy tale or a painting. With his interpretation, these things are not the same as what we have gotten used to. He uses his strange imagination to add a kind of weird, illusionary and attractive imago to the plain and ordinary things. Meanwhile, this gives people a kind of pleasant sensation similar to peeling off a hypocritical mask.’ iii



    Collector's Digest


    • Chen Fei was born in 1983 in Hong Tong, Shanxi Province, China, and studied cinema at Beijing Film Academy, before choosing to focus on painting. His most recent exhibitions include the solo shows Morning Market and Reunion, at Yuz Museum in Shanghai (27 February 2021 – 9 May 2021) and Perrotin in New York (2 November 2019 – 21 December 2019), and the group shows Glitches in Love: A New Formula, at the University Art Museum (Chinretsukan Gallery section) and the Tokyo University of the Arts, Tokyo, Japan (24 March – 9 April 2023), On|Off 2022: Carousel of Progress at HEM - He Art Museum in Shunde, Guandong, China (4 February 2022 – 5 June 2022).

    • Chen's artworks are part of the collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, of the Franks-Suss Collection in London and the DSL collection in Paris, France, among others.



    i Karen Smith, ‘Borrowing from Batman’, 2016, online

    ii Ibid.

    iii Zhang Yizhou, ‘A NIGHT DIALOGUE WITH DEATH - CHEN FEI’S PAINTING’, 2012, online

    • Provenance

      Galerie Urs Melle, Lucerne
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Beijing, Galerie Urs Meile; Lucerne, Galerie Urs Meile, The Day Is Yet Long, 12 March - 30 July 2016 (illustrated, n.p.)


Life is Porn

signed and titled '"Life is Porn" Chen Fei [in Chinese]' on the reverse
acrylic on linen
180 x 240 cm. (70 7/8 x 94 1/2 in.)
Painted in 2015.

Full Cataloguing

HK$1,200,000 - 2,200,000 

Sold for HK$2,032,000

Contact Specialist

Danielle So
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+852 2318 2027

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong Auction 6 October 2023