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Photo courtesy Mao Kun Chen

U of C student hosts first abstract art exhibit

By Troy Hasselman, December 2 2018 —

Fluid Me, the first solo exhibition by Calgary-based artist and University of Calgary masters student Mao Kun Chen, showcases of her abstract artwork currently showing at The Bridge Gallery in downtown Calgary.

The exhibit explores themes of identity and cultural diversity with an emphasis on an aesthetic hybrid between Asian and Western cultural influences. The paintings serve to represent individuals from an abstract perspective by omitting key facial features.

“I was thinking of how I could represent people without drawing their nose, or ears, or mouth,” Chen explained. “Because people are judged on their appearance and I feel like that doesn’t make sense.”

This theme goes back to Mao’s childhood in China, which she saw as an appearance-focused society, especially as a girl.

“If you were not pretty, you could be bullied,” Chen says.

She found this focus on appearances, and the male gaze, is an engrained part of the culture in Canada upon moving to Edmonton to study at the University of Alberta. To combat this, her art looks to capture an individual’s essence, as opposed to their physical appearance.

The exhibit also takes inspiration from East Asian kawaii and manga culture, which Chen says inspired the bright colour palettes of her work. She described kawaii culture, which roughly translates to “cute,” as a means of rebelling against the traditionalism and pressure to conform to East Asian culture by celebrating the freedom of childhood and its innocence and sweetness which juxtapose the structured and high-pressure environment of adulthood.

“It has become an important element in my work because I believe cute stuff provides a long-term escape,” she said.

While Mao has worked in a variety of mediums including video, installation, drawing and sculpture, she says painting is her form of choice.

“I find painting to be the most enjoyable form of expression,” Chen says. “You are starting from nothing and there is a problem solving process. I also find that it is very meditative.”

Photo courtesy Mao Kun Chen

Chen had little art education growing up in China — her education was primarily science-based with a focus on horticulture — with creative endeavors being mostly discouraged.

“If you did art you were seen as not a good student,” Chen says.

Science was not her interest, however, and she found herself jealous of people she saw with art supplies. Upon moving to Canada and enrolling in university, she quickly transferred to an art major.

Though Chen initially found herself experiencing culture shock upon moving to Canada eight years ago, she grew used to life here and eventually found herself experiencing culture shock upon returning to China. This theme of culture shock plays into the title of the show, with Chen finding herself to have a fluid cultural identity having grown up in China and currently living in Canada.

“I’m somewhere in between,” she said.

The Bridge Gallery can be found at 718 8 Ave. SW with the exhibition taking place on the third floor of the building and running until Dec. 16. Chen’s artwork is as well showcased on her Instagram profile @Mao_Project.

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