It was not until 2010 did I finally discard what I had learned about paintings in the academy of art and the process lasted for almost a decade. Since then, I’ve come to realize the act of painting is a way to understand myself while redundant concept is not only useless but also draws me further away from my true self. Since then, I’ve no longer been interested in art history, reviews or skills, nor have I been worried whether my works are contemporary. Instead, I have turned to study philosophy, spiritual science, and religion. In two years during that period, I even stopped drawing. At that time, I did nothing every day but eat, sleep, wander about, talk to children, and most of the time I sit somewhere quietly. One day after I sat by a creek for an hour and returned home, I felt the urge to draw everything I had been inspired by the creek scenery with very fine brush strokes. At the moment when I blanked out all distractions on my mind, I was surprised to feel the vividness of everything in the creek—the stones, the running water, everything—as if they were living creatures with souls. Even the images of the drizzle falling from the sky became so clear that struck me with amazement. When I closed my eyes, I could see a greater universe while thousands of hundreds of images emerged on my mind as underground water gurgling out. Even now I still cannot explain why I painted that way. The only explanation I can think of is that there exists a sacred power and order in the nature, and once we turn to find our inner peace we can clearly receive the messages from the nature as if we have tuned to the right frequency. And when I translate these messages through the act of painting, I also discover the limitless inherent sensitivity of human senses. I’m glad to have experienced it—but just a little, unproportionately little.


Chen Ninetzu


  • 1969 Born in Yunlin,Taiwan



  • 1997 Obtained M.F.A from Tunghai University


Solo Exhibitions:

  • 2014    Chen Nientzu x VVG Thinking – Returning to the Source of Light – Chen Nientzu Solo Exhibition, VVG Thinking,
    Taipei, Taiwan Returning to the Source of Light – Chen Nientzu Solo Exhibition, Da Xiang Art Space, Taichung, Taiwan
  • 2010    Sitting On A Boulder, Mogu Booday Shop, Taipei, Taiwan
  • 2000    Wind blowing through the woods, ChinaTime Art Center, Taipei, Taiwan
  • 1997    Wild Weeds, Tunghai Art Center, Taichung, Taiwan
  • 1996    Come Here To Play, Backyard Gallery, Taipei, Taiwan


Group Exhibitions:

  • 2015    Art 15 London, London, United Kingdom
  • 2014    CONTEXT Art Miami 2014, The CONTEXT | Art Miami Pavilion, Miami, USA
    Citizen Art Shanghai 2014, Shanghai Twelve at Hengshan – A Luxury Collection Hotel, Shanghai, China
    Citizen Art Chengdu 2014, Sichuan Jinjiang Hotel, Chengdu, China
    Art Taichung 2014, Taichung Millennium Hotels and Resorts, Taichung, Taiwan
    Young Art Taipei 2014, Regent Taipei, Taipei, Taiwan
    LA ART SHOW 2014, Los Angeles Convention Center, Los Angeles, USA
    Immaculate, Da Xiang Art Space, Taichung, Taiwan
  • 2003    Cross-13, Galerie Pierre, Taichung, Taiwan
  • 1999    Ink Exhibitions, Tunghai Art Center, Taichung, Taiwan
  • 1994    Spring, Apt.2, Taipei, Taiwan
  • 1993    PAPER-ART, Howard Salon, Taipei, Taiwan


Art Works
Post-Recovery – A Discussion on the New Ink Paintings by Chen Nien-tzu

Department of Fine Arts, Tunghai University         Wu Chao-ran


Preface ︰
Twelve years ago, I went to Hualien to visit Chen Nien-tzu for the purpose of writing Taiwan’s Contemporary Art Series (Media Installment): Ink and Calligraphy. I met Chen at Ji’an Studio, which is about a half-hour drive from Hualien City. There, she set stunning works on paper before me one by one. Viewing these mysterious images interwoven with fluid lines, I began to feel that the art history and review methods I had previously learned seemed to be severely limited.
Twelve years later, I went to visit Hualien again. This time, Chen took out a stack of ink art on standard-sized Xuan paper. I noticed that the originally exotic colors were gone. Instead, they had seemingly transformed into extremely light ink lines and smudges. Furthermore, the images of people she developed during her time as a graduate student at Tunghai University had also vanished without a trace. Instead, stones, bamboo forests, and flowing streams and lines had taken their place.
During those twelve years, Chen had seemed to disappear from Taiwan’s art scene, living like a hermit in the mountains. In our conversation, she revealed that she had been experiencing a period of inexplicable hardship and fatigue. Pain had rendered it difficult for her to pick up a brush to paint. At one time, she even put away most of her tools, intending to bid farewell to painting. During this most difficult time, however, she did not give up on calligraphy.


Works Composed by Calligraphy and Lines
Oracle bone script is known to be the oldest written form of the Chinese language. According to Chang Kwang-chih, “When people discovered writing, text became an integral part to a tool used to communicate with the world.” (*1) And so, after Cangjie invented Chinese characters according to ancient legend, a stunning scene of “raining millet and weeping ghosts” is often depicted. However, examinations of excavated Chinese paintings reveal that the earliest known drawings were Chu Man’s Dragon Picture and the Witch’s Dragon and Phoenix Picture from the Warring States Period of China. Both of these works were composed by sketched lines. Compared to the development of text in the Zhu Kingdom of that period, the lines of painting and those of calligraphy were actually independent of each other. Their courses of development did not actually interfere with each other in any way. It wasn’t until the eleventh century, when Su Shi (1037-1101) and other North Song literati started to dabble in painting, that literati were able to integrate calligraphic lines into their paintings after some training. Since then, two crucial developments appeared in Chinese art history: the emergence of literati painting and a close relationship between calligraphy and drawing.


In fact, it is almost impossible to find any close relationship between drawing and calligraphy (or writing) in the art history of other countries around the world, and not just China or those influenced by Chinese culture. However, a key point here is that the tools for drawing and calligraphy in China are commonly integrated, while separate and independent in most other civilizations. With this understanding, Chen Nien-tzu practically gave up on painting, but remained determined to continue with calligraphy. So, in essence, she had never actually stopped working with ink. The seemingly simple composition of this portrait was actually one of dozens of Chen Nien-tzu’s careful imitations of Imitated Tang Dynasty Painting (2005, the original is part of the collection at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art) 【Figure I】 which she deemed satisfactory and retained. In addition to the color configurations, the biggest challenge lay in the depiction of ink lines across Xuan paper. Admittedly, current portraits of people from the Tang Dynasty court mostly consist of iron wire strokes. But, in reality, when looking at Tang royalty tomb murals (such as the tomb of Princess Yongtai), these so-called “iron-wire strokes” do not appear to be even, mechanical lines. After all, how can lines guided by human hands not be affected by a person’s rate of breathing? How can it achieve just the right amount of force yet not appear to be stagnant? An ink brush leaves traces across paper. At the same time, it also leaves behind the rhythm of ink. The right grip between light and heavy is even more of a challenge. Shitao (1642-1707), who lived during the end of the Ming Dynasty and the beginning of the Qing Dynasty, stated in his Hua Yu Lu, “Ink is ineffective without chaos, and brushes are worthless without life.” Under this standard, Chen Nien-tzu’s 2005 calligraphy of Imitated Tang Dynasty Painting and Diamond Sutra 【Figure II】 serves as an important milestone in refining her skill with calligraphy and lines.


The Life and Meng-Yang of Ink
Shitao stated that “life and meng-yang” is actually a kind of internal and external development, which elevates the ink brushes of artists to a masterly realm of “godliness” and “spirit”. In the ten or so years that have passed, Chen Nien-tzu’s life in Hualien was so simple that “everydays she would just eat, sleep, stroll, and chat with children. She devoted much time to just sitting in tranquility…”(*2) Compared with the colorful urban lifestyles of many contemporary artists, this mundane and monotonous state of life seemed to be one that focused on spiritual development. Of course, critics can retort that there are plenty of people in this world that live in such simplicity. In Shitao’s statement that “brushes are worthless without life”, however, the “life” here does not refer to just being a kind of walking corpse going through the routine of a scheduled lifestyle. Instead, it refers to a bright and clear state throughout an inwards life that is both simple and lively. In addition, Laozi said in his Dao De Jing, “The follower of knowledge learns as much as he can every day. The follower of the Way forgets as much as he can every day. Through attrition, he reaches a state of inaction. Wherein he does nothing, but nothing remains undone.” This verifies that Chen Nien-tzu’s decision in the past ten or so years to intentionally avoid art magazines and books on art theory was indeed a conscious choice. After all, she chose to live a life “for Tao”, so discarded all irrelevant accumulation of knowledge. Yet, artists need a constant source of creative nutrition. Shitao’s concept of “meng-yang” is similar to the present saying of, “Using the air of the earth to cultivate ourselves. (*3) With this concept, the following is Chen Nien-tzu’s realization of her experience sitting quietly by the stream:
When I let go of the distractions in my mind, I perceived the scenery before my eyes as being alive, be it rocks or flowing water. They were like souls filled with consciousness. Even the recollection of a drizzle descending from the sky felt magical. When I closed my eyes, it was as if I saw an even greater universe. The images emerging from inside were like groundwater pouring outwards. I am unable to explain why I draw like this. All I can say is there is a divine power and order to the natural world. (*4)


Isn’t this the “meng-yang” that Shitao mentioned? However, the real premise of the matter is actually whether the artist can become “enlightened” (Chen Nien-tzu uses the phrase “tuned to the right frequency”). Otherwise, nature is right there but senseless people will still be unable to enter it.”


Analysis of Works
The twenty pieces of art on display at Da Xiang Art Space include new ink paintings that Chen created from 2011 to 2014. If we consider 2010 to mark her recovery and rise from complete apathy, then these three years of works must be able to withstand the rigorous review of viewers. The titles she chose for her works – Rainy Day, Valley, Little Stream, A Turning Point in Landscape, and Spots of Light in a Stream – illustrate the profound impact that Hualien’s landscape and natural scenery had on her. In addition, her other series, which includes Converging Void, A Larger Context, Inner Space, and Descending Strength, express obscure and private inner experiences and realizations. In fact, not only can these two series be considered case in points internally and externally, the connotations between them also mutually complement each other. Historically, a dialogue with nature or the healing energy derived from it has produced outcomes, such as Tao Yuanming’s pastoral songs, Jing Hao’s Paint Stroke Records, Henry David Thoreau’s advocacy of naturalism and writing of Walden, and even the science-fiction film, Avatar, which depicts an alien paradise. The numerous landscape artists throughout Chinese art history also provide testimony to this. Amongst the bustling ecology of Taiwan’s contemporary art scene, Chen’s creative themes are not particularly provocative, lacking the intensity of contemporary issues. However, after confronting the bravado and exaggerations of “pseudo” contemporary works, she went to spend ten years contemplate issues regarding life. So, the resulting manifestations of these contemplations in her works are, in fact, even more worthy of our attention.


The styles exhibited with Rainy Day, Valley, Little Stream, A Turning Point in Landscape, and Spots of Light in a Stream all contain the characteristics of a “dynamic and static” coexistence. Flowing streams and specks of light shining through forest trees are interwoven with static rocks to unveil a fresh and lively scenery. In A Larger Context, Shifting Space, and Inner Space, Chen uses a style consisting of two circles that overlap yet remain independent from each other. Its visual imagery brings to mind the dry landscape of Ryoan-ji in Kyoto, Japan, causing people to bow down their heads in contemplation. Indeed, it seems that this series of artwork calls forth philosophical or religious connotations for the existence of multiple truths. Regarding the technique, the most compelling aspect in the works displayed is still Chen’s use of lines. Each circle in the Inner Space series is completed with one brushstroke, requiring full concentration. She admitted that the process for creating these works drained her physically and strained her eyes. In addition, for Micro whirlpool, Rising Water, and Afar, she stacked many layers of extremely thin ink lines before finally composing them into a complete work. Looking at Chen’s liner dye brush, people are generally unable to imagine how much time and effort were spent, as well as how much persistence was required to finish these kind of works. 【Figure III: Chen Nien-tzu’s small letter ink brush】Additionally, it is worth mentioning that the gaps in the circles and lines of white light in works like Spots of Light in a Stream, Stream, or A Turning Point in Landscape, are not reserved in advance with tape. Instead, she had to constantly pay attention while painting to reserve white space (Only one piece made use of white pastels as advance coating to preserve white space). It is only after understanding the steps of this creation that one can understand the high level of concentration and awareness needed in Chen’s process of painting. Full focus and concentration was crucial. One small slip was cause to start all over.


The ink works by Chen Nien-tzu displayed in this exhibition can be summarized through the following characteristics: (1) Her lines not only take breaths, but also convey extremely subtle emotions and power. (2) Lines are like a ubiquitous protagonist behind the scenes of this exhibition. Not only do they compose the shapes of flowing water, forests, circles, and cirrus (or flames), even the stones are comprised of lines and brush strokes. (3) Mobile and tranquil energies coexist in each painting, such as the flowing water and rocks in Little Stream, or the stones and flowing stream in the bottom with the upper flames of the sun in Rising Water. (4) Lights and circles appear in many of her works, which seems to imply some sort of mysterious and personal cultivation.
It has been fourteen years since her last formal solo exhibition (2000, Times Arts Center). Now, Chen reveals twenty artworks for this exhibition. This arduous process is similar to the completion of difficult trials by ancient ascetics, finally being able to clear one’s heart and return to humanity from the calm mountains. A line might just be a style of depiction, or a trace left behind by the movement of a brush. Yet, when looking back at her life experiences, a line actually turns out to be a process of self-confirmation and refinement, which bestows a sense of life upon them. Considering her calm, hermit-like life in Ji’an Township, I believe that not only can her works cross the barrier between classic and contemporary, but also stand firmly within a niche of the contemporary Chinese ink scene.


1.Chang Kwang-chih Art, Myth and Ritual. Taipei; Daw Shiang Publishing, 1993, p.83.
2.Chen Nien-tzu’s Creative Autobiography
3.Zhouyi – Meng: Education is the root of moral conduct.
4.Chen Nien-tzu’s


Clarity for All Things: Discussing Chen Nien-tzu’s Path of Tao and Art

By Chu Ting-yi (Deputy Curator of Asia Museum of Modern Art, Asia University)




When I first met Nien-tzu, we were both in our twenties and studying as graduate students at Tunghai University. In addition to the few classes we shared, we would always find the free time to talk about everything, such as art and love. Young and frivolous, we looked upon life with a sense of arrogance as time flew by. She was quite precocious, and possessed a vast spiritual intelligence and seemingly endless well of talent that materialized through her brushwork. Her works would never fail to receive the praise of teachers and senior classmates even if they were just a picture drawn casually with pastels.


In our early years, we all viewed life as dynamic, wild and exciting. These sensations eventually become a source of nourishment for artistic inspiration. Paintings serve as testimonies for that passion of life, and works of art are the children borne from the passionate lives of artists. Artists dedicate their entire lives to art. Throughout history, many litterateurs and artists completed their lives through a dedication to art. Art has become a type of completeness and salvation to life. If not for this, how would art be able to touch our emotions and beautify our lives? And, how else would artists attain an achievement of themselves? It is this path that had deeply inspired the young artists from my generation.


Along with the passage of time, all things are constantly changing as life opens along its own trajectory. Through twists and turns, life is an experience of peaks and pinnacles, frustrations and lows. After profound and peaceful contemplation, a light dawns for Nien-tzu, who carefully sketches figures across rolls of paper. The vivid colors already serve as the yellow flowers of yesterday. Life at this moment has already crossed over thousands of mountains to the edge of a murmuring stream; there is only heaven and earth near the water, only the proof of nature, and the whispers of all things of this world… As a friend of hers for all this time, I have always marveled at Nin-tzu’s pursuit of life and art without regrets. Passing the trials of life, she finally touches upon the heart of Tao to present the purest essence behind life and existence.


Life and Art


In her early years, Nien-tzu loved Dream of the Red Chamber and Eileen Chang, and developed a sophisticated insight into human nature as well as a keen and meticulous mind. From an early age onward, she began working with ink. She did not paint enshrouded landscapes, forest peaks, insects, flowers, birds, or other still life attributes. Instead, she often employed sketch-like brushstrokes to draw light outlines, filling them with smudges of color, and sketched imitations of women figures from ancient paintings. During her graduate studies, she focused on the development of ambiguous relationships through various postures, smiles, and gazes of figures. This offshoot perspective of femininity and yin in China’s extensive pedigree of painting is actually very worthy of attention and re-examination.


After leaving the context of an academic dialogue, Nien-tzu went to live alone in Hualien. With almost no contact with the outside world, she created new works intermittently for ten years. Every day she would just eat, sleep, take walks, or chat with children. For several years, she did not paint, while devoting much time to just sitting in tranquility. “If the painting process is a way of understanding ourselves, then the excessive accumulation of concepts will further remove us from our true identities.” (Note 1) Over those ten years, she attempted to relinquish every painting concept she had acquired from the fine arts department. No longer interested in exploring related topics of art history, technique, critique, or contemporary issues, she turned to pursue various knowledge regarding philosophy, the science of spirituality, and religion.


During this period, few works were being produced, most of which were filled with surreal images and symbols. Some are images from dreams of the deep night or those that suddenly emerge, while others reveal stories of life. They transform into images after a hundred thousand turns and twists of the heart. The elements of the surface are more chaotic and unpredictable with the emergence of exotic plants, animals, or human bodies with multiple hands and feet, alluding to the muddled realm from which humanity is unable to escape. The painting is an ornament, a surreal, exotic, and fractured manifestation of a mysterious Eastern ambiance that presents viewer with the impact of imagery while drawing out anxious emotions and a sense of inner turmoil.


In 2010, her works began to feature compositions of concentric circles. Their outermost layers are embedded with a naturalistic style consisting of sprawling plants that encompass the core, much like in protection of a garden. Through meticulous layers of ink smearing, this carefully drawn greenery presents an obscured visual dynamic. At the core, there appears an enormous lotus along with people and animals, or leopards lazily playing atop flowers, or someone hidden in the flower bathing with the petals, or maybe a rotating figure born in the stamen. Lotuses and petals serve as ineffable symbols for religion and purification. Whether they are leopards or people, they enjoy wandering, playing, purifying, or transforming in this protected, secret garden. The momentum of external flowers and innate energy construct a self-contained little universe, indicating change and the birth of new life.


These large scale works are stacked with mysterious narratives and illustrations that unfold a curious and unusual psychological space. The pursuit of an individualized and unique contemporary art world includes Eastern characteristics and temperaments along with original images and styles. They serve as testaments to the refreshingly new talent of Nien-tzu.


One year later, however, Nien-tzu contacted me with a number of new works in hand. She spread out her works, which were filled with vivid and colorful landscapes. I was immediately shocked and surprised as I viewed a brand new appearance to her works. Completely pure and translucent, these tranquil and natural works abandoned the inner bonds and nostalgic temptations of emotions, as well as magnificent appearances and the dependence on images. Complex imagery and piles of layers were abandoned, and the ingenuity and operation of the works by the artist were let go. All that was left was a pure simplicity in the wake of magnificence and ingenuity – an inherent appearance after an excluded pretense and form.


At the same time, I am pleased that Nien-tzu has arrived at a different realm of life.
Drawing upon a different backdrop of life, the works serve as projections of a bright and translucent inner landscape. The surface is strewn with lines of ink, sometimes like gossamer threads, and other times like iron wires. Like an intertwined fate, it distinctly clarifies the territory without a single moment of hesitation. The delicate marks of brushstrokes mark the moments of the artist’s intentions; they are without past and without future. The brushstrokes are dense and diluted, long and short, or maybe independent and interwoven, as they construct a tremendously detailed landscape across the paper. Whether it’s a pale desert valley, faint halo, shifting universe, dry stone of Zen, lively trace of water, or a blurred swirl, it is sometimes serene and other times vigorous. In this set world, everything expresses themselves vividly, directing viewers towards a spotless spiritual realm.


Tao and Art


In her biography, Nien-tzu states that, “One day I sat by a small stream for an hour. After I got home, I automatically began to outline everything I felt by the stream with thin brushstrokes. When I let go of the distractions in my mind, I perceived the scenery before my eyes as being alive, be it rocks or flowing water. They were like souls filled with consciousness. Even the recollection of a drizzle descending from the sky felt magical. When I closed my eyes, it was as if I saw another even greater universe. The images emerging from inside are like groundwater exuding out. I am unable to explain why I draw like this. All I can say is there is a divine power and order to the natural world. When we turn our hearts towards inner peace, it is as if we tune to the same frequency in which we receive clear messages from the natural world. In the process of translating these messages via painting, I discovered that the amount of ingenuity to the inner senses of humans was limitless. Currently, I have only experienced just a small bit…” (Note 2)


People are a part of the natural world, included in the motions of the universe and enclosed within the innate nature of Tao. Through a continuous and pure practice of austerity, this world may gradually revert to a sense of completeness after we let go of all its burdens and complicated delusions. Close to a natural essence yet filled with an endless supply of power, we may become one with the universe, alongside everything.


In Nien-tzu’s paintings, momentary brushstrokes are made without advance planning and painted without complicated thoughts nor apprehension about the results. And so the Tao extends toward itself, dominated by the brush, so that the works become their own natural selves. We marvel at how the delicate lines of ink display such boldness and energy, and how a simple and tranquil picture manifests an attentive realm and vigorous spiritual strength at the same time. If viewers gaze at the artwork or perceive the calls of the artist, they can see the detailed tranquility of everything. Vivid scenery of dharma and nature appear in the midst of meditation.


From eliminating obscurity to attaining oneness with heaven, the Eastern realm of philosophy and aesthetics and the Tao of art pursued by Chinese literati have always revolved around the insignificance of individual existence and a reverting to the Tao of nature. Painters come to realize the nature and ways of the universe through the practice of art. Conversely, they also exude the Tao of nature through their paintings. Speaking of pen and ink, the core tools and methods developed by Chinese culture and tradition inevitably ends with the realization and pursuit of art and Tao, rather than form-style methods and innovation. I think the recent works by Nien-tzu over more than a decade serve as good reminders and examples. They also let us have faith in the practice of Eastern aesthetics amidst the creative context of contemporary art. Facing the mainstream while using ideology to guide the route of creation, they do not regard art as a means or tool, but rather an introspection of life and a return to the body of human nature, where it presents profound spiritual strength amidst tranquility.



The creative process of Nien-tzu is closely related to her pursuit and practice of life. If she had not been able to give up all worldly matters with resolution and sincerity, and if she had not wandered to the end of Heaven and to the bottom of Hell to seek Tao and a sense of determination, she would not have arrived at this spiritual realm. In her early years, her innate talents and sentiments came from her rumination and mapping of passionate life experiences. Thus, this enabled her to become exceptionally good at developing a unique style of imagery through a touching and emotional poetic quality. However, a clear understanding of the impermanent volatility of joys and sorrows momentarily constructs an artificial creation of imagery, ultimately short and ever changing. So she turned piously to nature to seek a more authentic state of existence, courageously going beyond the birth, death, and rotation of inherent ignorance to finally attain an epiphany of the mind. If an artist cannot let go of indulging in their achievements, persevering with natural talents and habits, and the burdening of secular values and superficial appearances to honestly and tirelessly conduct an exploration inwards towards the unknown, it would be impossible to reach the core of art, materialize the Tao of art, and expand upon the state of self-existence.


The paintings express the spiritual essence that remains after removal of extravagant and impure qualities. Aware and luminous characteristics are therefore presented – brilliantly clarified and filled with spiritual strength.


Notes 1 and 2 are cited from Chen Nien-tzu’s Creative Autobiography

Empty section. Edit page to add content here.