Is there a kind of art gene that is essentially deterministic? Or a constellation of such genes? Surely the inclination to create is within all humans, but the ability to fashion things from the imagination gradually tapers off with time for most people. Those who retain the creative bug we tend to call artists.
Perhaps it is something within the recesses of the biological coding of certain individuals that serves to resist any and all attempts to quash creative efforts. It is a defense against what in most people is seen as a natural and healthy form of atrophy.
The speakers for our August brainstorm, Chen Xi and Zejian Shen, certainly support such a hypothesis. Thinking of the potential role of “nuture” in the eternal N/N debate, I asked the artists about their experiences with art instruction and support for their formative creative practices prior to art school. Were their parents artists? Were they taken to museums when they were young? Did adult role models put colored pencils, boxes of crayons, and papers next to the crib, as it were? Both speakers could remember nothing that really stood out in their minds. They each drew often as children, but could offer little contextual explanations for their doodling efforts.
As Chen Xi said, “Kids draw all the time.” UFOs, trucks, spaceships, and so on, he said, are the natural products of children’s desire to realize their special dreamscapes. Having grown up in a military armaments factory-town, Chen Xi made do with what he could find as a budding artist; scraps of design paper and tiny bits of metallic detritus used weapons production were parts of his toolkit. Zejian Shen grew up in California, far in distance and (presumably) aesthetic from Chen Xi’s factory-town home, yet she built her own dream environments, often comprised of kittens of various personas and self portraits.
“We are all time travelers,” Chen Xi offered the audience, attempting to address the oftentimes unacknowledged private thought-space to which all humans have access. People go forward and back again in their minds, often within a very short period of time. Strands of real and imagined pasts can weave seamlessly with those of alternate futures. Part of existence is to play with existence itself, and part of one’s identity (one could argue) lies in the attempt to play with and continually refashion identity. So, in Chen Xi’s current work, we can still perceive the machines and astronauts of his boyhood, as we can see cats and portraits in Shen’s. With age, these icons have likely assumed different meanings and greater texture for the artists, but the penchant to continually revisit such symbols reflects an interest in revisiting earlier visions. Time travellers we are all, but those who (can’t help but) assume the mantle of artist must especially hold an intimate dialogue with the past.