Bob Chen

 
Hangzhou, a city of 4 million, is a two-hour
train ride from Shanghai and has long been a hub of Chinese artistic
talent. Its famed West Lake dominates the city center and is a recurring
theme in Chinese art, as well as a constant refrain in the
country’s epic literary history. Today, the city’s hold on
China’s creative life remains strong, as it is home to the Chinese
Academy of Fine Arts, arguably the country’s most important arts
school. That distinction is as surprising as it is unlikely, simply
because of the school’s location outside the pseudo-Imperial orbit
of Beijing, which likes to claim dominance over Chinese cultural life in
much the same way Paris does over the French.

Bob Chen, a graphic
designer with a small independent practice in Hangzhou, is an heir to
this creative legacy. Chen says his early explorations in design began
in textiles and fashion, and that he discovered graphic design by chance
on his first job out of the academy in a local advertising firm. Today,
working independently with the help of five dedicated assistants, he has
established himself as one of China’s up-and-coming graphic
artists.

Like the work of some of his countrymen in other creative
fields—the architect Yung Ho Chang, for example, and the artist Ai
Weiwei—Chen’s design reflects a particularly Chinese
sensibility that evokes motifs synonymous with the country’s
aesthetic, yet does so in a way that eschews provinciality—not an
easy equilibrium to achieve.

“Of course my work is influenced
by the traditions of my culture,” says Chen, who is inspired by
his observations of the quotidian, unremarkable life in Hangzhou:
“I live in an environment that is Chinese, that is Asian.”

It is this environment that drives Chen to embrace a vernacular look
that unabashedly reinterprets the ancient arts framing his cultural
education. Much of his work acutely reimagines the treatment of Chinese
characters as larger-than-life iconography that is at once literal and
symbolic. He is lucky to have inherited a written language rich in
complexity and pictography; it is both a communicative vessel of meaning
and a means of celebrating the purity of the abstract. “I have
realized the character of Chinese design,” Chen declares.

From
his signage to his print design, he carefully balances a seemingly
incompatible duality long present in the Chinese creative arts and built
environment. It bridges the gap between color and energy and the serene
and subtle. An element of the textile designer is clearly visible in the
deep appreciation of texture that one sees in Chen’s graphics. He
fuses the modern with the ancient, and the result is a design portfolio
that befits a sophisticated modern Chinese graphic artist—a
cosmopolitan body of work, but one that is unafraid to embrace
tradition.

 

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