Chen Ke - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale Hong Kong Thursday, March 30, 2023 | Phillips

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  • Arresting in scale, brimming with thought-provoking motifs, and otherworldly in its pastel hues, Outside the Window is a defining example from Chen Ke’s repertoire. A glimpse into Chen’s Bauhaus Gal series and a first from this body of works to come to auction, the present piece depicts the artist’s mastery of portraiture and unique spatial delineation, one which captures converging snapshots: the series’ titular Bauhaus references, the artist’s own memories, and cinematic and photographic cues, all whimsically interweaved with surrealist undertones.


    “The type of Bauhaus girl,
    The star among actresses.
    She knows what she wants, and will
    make it happen too”
    Taken from ‘Mädchen wollen etwas lernen’, Die Woche, 4 January 1930  


    Bauhaus State of Mind


    In 2021, Galerie Perrotin presented Bauhaus Gal / Room, a solo exhibition which showcased Chen’s new series. It aimed to unite two seemingly divergent creative strands: one half presented figurative portraiture on canvases featuring characters thematically similar to Outside the Window; the other half was made up of abstract-shaped aluminium plates painted over with impasto, some with fissures or craquelures, others reminiscent of Bauhaus-inspired shapes. The artist explained that the bifurcated show and her double medium choice aimed, among other things, to explore the alternating softness and toughness she believes exists in all women, the latter of which Chen believes comes to the fore in times of adversity.



    A page showcasing the article entitled ‘Mädchen wollen etwas lernen’ (Girls want to learn something) in Bauhaus Mädels (2019 - unpaginated).
    Article originally published in Die Woche, vol. 32, no.1, 4 January 1930, pp. 30-32.


    Though the present work was not exhibited in the aforementioned show, its thematic concerns predate the exhibition, and it can be seen as a powerful precursor to the Bauhaus Gal series, having been conceived in 2019, and latterly completed between 2020 to 2022. The series takes its roots from a photo-book the artist owns entitled Bauhaus Mädels (‘Bauhaus Girls’), a volume which recorded the files, oeuvres, memoirs, and portraits of lesser-known female Bauhaus students. Accompanied with the subtitle, ‘A Tribute to Pioneering Women Artists,’ Bauhaus Mädels also includes a spread that focuses on the phrase “Girls Want to Learn Something”, taken from a 1930 article published in Die Woche, which showcased the zeal of the underrated female pupils. Admitting that she hadn’t previously known so many women were involved in Bauhaus, the artist commented,’[t]he first time I saw the faces of these girls, [they were] like sprouting buds, with a sense of aspiration, as if they [were] running towards the future, a kind of vitality…We may be able to abstract a spirit of the time from them, or a kind of temperament.’i In its chronicles of the almost era-defying work and lives of the undervalued women operating under the Bauhaus aesthetic at the time, Bauhaus Mädels  encapsulates their powerful avant-garde spirits, all of which were boldly forward-looking and rebelled against its epoch. In these women, Chen Ke found affinity, recognised in them her own past, and sought to transform their photographs and archival material into painting form, allowing her to layer their key memories with her own.

     “These girls found their spiritual utopias in the negotiation with the outside world, and so did I. We were all lucky.”
    — Chen Ke

    A Refuge for the Spirit


    In the dual-titled show Bauhaus Gal / Room, the artist hints at the relationship between an inner and outer psyche: ‘The title ‘Bauhaus Gal’ is composed of two parts: with a subtitle of ‘Room’. In fact many of my works deal with the relationship between the individual and the external world, so I think the room here becomes a dwelling point for your spirit, the idea of a shelter [of sorts].’ ii Fittingly, Outside the Window shows exactly this: a snapshot of an interior overlooking an outside world. A faceless woman sits cross-legged on a ledge peering out of a window framed by hazy outlines of tree branches (Alex Katz’s feathery, wispy shoots come to mind); the room she is in is curiously furnished, a banister juts out to the left of the frame, an armchair and table littered with books rest atop a Bauhaus motif rug beside her. To the right of this, a lamp on the ground glows inexplicably in front of open French windows that seem to overlook a tranquil seascape. Finally, an oddly shaped tear featuring a scene depicting a man and woman—not unlike a Robert Rauschenberg collage with its jagged ripped edge—sits to the right of the painting, reminiscent of torn underlayers of old wallpaper emerging from the past. The over all effect is dreamlike and mysterious, as if a fading palimpsest of memories revealing itself to the viewer.


    “There is a gap between reality and dream. Our impression is so different from the real person. It’s about tackling the gap. It’s about finding our own dream. We live for nothing in the end, but still we must have some hope.”
    — Chen Ke

    Outside the Window is undeniably rich in its sources. Drawing from both Bauhaus Mädels but also film, photography, and of course art history, the work is a combination of divergent layers of the artist’s variegated interests.



    Film still from Hiroshima mon amour (Hiroshima, My Love), 1959

    Donning an eggshell blue cardigan and determinedly striding away from a suited male protagonist behind her, the female that commands so much of our attention in Outside the Window is based on the character ‘Elle’ (‘Her’) in the 1959 French New Wave film, Hiroshima mon amour. Psychedelic, nonlinear in its narration, and flitting between memory and reality, Hiroshima mon amour was directed by Alain Resnais and written by Marguerite Duras, and follows the tale of a Japanese architect and French actress who are involved in a brief tryst while in the Japanese city. The film begins with incongruous imagery: bodies in the throes of passion melt into shocking and heart wrenching footage of maimed bodies in the immediate aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The weight of this tragedy bleeds into the tale of the two nameless characters, as the film expands to follow their love affair. As they grapple with a post-war reality—both weighed down by painful, ineffaceable memories of their own individual pasts—the impossibility of their relationship mounts as the story unfolds, crescendoing to a painful parting that leaves both parties irreparably changed. Taking this into consideration, perhaps Outside the Window offers us a fleeting glimpse into Chen’s own spirit and thoughts.



    Film still from The Lorry, 1977, directed by Marguerite Duras
    Showing the setting of her living room, which is also seen in the present lot


    Technicoloured Reimaginations


    Outside the Window’s recoloured imagining of the movie scene brings to the fore Chen’s ability to use colour to create her signature pseudo-sculptural style when it comes to portraiture. Layering warm tones that build to create three-dimensionality, Chen’s figures are at once reminiscent of Renaissance frescoes in their physicality and forms, and yet also startlingly contemporary, calling to mind the Art Deco boldness of Tamara de Lempicka’s oeuvre. The chiselled angularity of her figures juxtapose with the sensual tenderness of her paintings, and yet, they somehow come together to present a coherent narrative. When asked how she transitioned into this style when it came to her Bauhaus Gals and their sharp features, the artist noted the importance of empowerment: ‘This time I want[ed] to highlight the sense of power, a bit like a sculpture. I want to draw the ideal woman in my mind, [one] who is tough and not weak.’ iii Once again recalling Chen’s comment on female strength and meekness in flux, one might infer deeper meanings in the contemplative Outside the Window.


    Tamara de Lempicka, Woman with Arms Crossed, 1939
    Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 
      Artwork: © Tamara de Lempicka / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    In the clashing of reverie and rigidity, Chen also dips her brush into the realms of Surrealism. A sense of surrealist influence permeates her works, as traces of artists such as René Magritte and Liu Ye are detectable. Gazing into a metaphysical anomaly in which a window onlooking tree branches can mysteriously extend itself into a calm ocean, Chen’s sedentary solitary figure is not dissimilar to the individuals that gingerly peel back hefty velvet curtains in Liu Ye’s works, revealing foreboding fleets of warships; or, indeed, the mystifyingly illogical creatures and scenes that inhabit Magritte’s canvases. Contrasting with the modular Bauhaus shapes of the rug—characterised by a lack of ornament and a focus on function and clean lines—the over all scene shown in Outside the Window is altogether paradoxical.



    Left: Lot 33, Liu Ye, Flagship No. 1, 1997, Phillips Hong Kong Evening Sale, 30 March 2023
    Estimate: HKD 4,000,000 – 6,000,000
    Right: René Magritte, The Human Condition (La condition humaine), 1933, Collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Artwork: © 2023 C. Herscovici / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


    The artist has been quoted as saying, ‘There is a gap between reality and dream. Our impression is so different from the real person. It’s about tackling the gap. It’s about finding our own dream. We live for nothing in the end, but still we must have some hope.’ Chen’s works epitomise the maxim ‘Life is but a dream’, and tiptoe in precisely the ‘gap between reality and dream’iv she mentions; in the twilight zone between being asleep and awake. In her evocation of the phantastic undertones of Surrealism but also the rigidity of Bauhaus, Chen forges a visual language that is distinctly her own.



    Collector’s Digest





    Born 1978 in Tongjiang, Sichuan, Chen Ke currently lives and works in Beijing. She recently held a solo show at Galerie Perrotin in Shanghai (15 June – 14 August 2021). Chen obtained a BA from the Oil Painting Department of Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts in 2002 and an MFA in 2005. Recent exhibitions include: For the Children, Long Museum, Shanghai, (2020); The Unknown Woman Artist, CNCNM, Beijing (2020), and The Real Deal Is Talking with Dad, YUZ Museum, Shanghai (2018-2019). Her works are in the collections of  enterprises and museums alike, including the Franks-Suss Collection (London), BSI art collection (Lugano), M+ Sigg Collection (Hong Kong), the Shenzhen Art Museum, and the Minsheng Art Museum (Shanghai), amongst others.



    i The artist quoted speaking about ‘Bauhaus Gal / Room’, 2021. online.

    ii The artist quoted speaking about ‘Bauhaus Gal / Room’, 2021. online.

    iii Translated from the Chinese article ‘Chen Ke: Turning Point’, Hi Art, 16 July 2021, online

    iv Chen Ke, quoted in ‘Contemporary Artist Chen Ke Sees Herself in Marilyn Monroe’, #legend, 1 June 2016, online

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    • Provenance

      Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner



Outside the Window

signed and dated 'Chen Ke 2022' lower right; further signed, titled and dated '"Outside the Window" Chen Ke [in Chinese] Chen Ke 2022' on the reverse
oil and acrylic gesso on canvas
180 x 250 cm. (70 7/8 x 98 3/8 in.)
Painted in 2020, signed in 2022.

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HK$2,000,000 - 4,000,000 

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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong Auction 30 March 2023