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Chinese artist applies ancient technique to the modern world

Chen Hao painting of the Colorado Capitol

"A Far View of Denver" by Chinese painter Chen Hao

For a different view of many of DU’s iconic buildings, one need just visit the on-campus studio of Chen Hao, a Chinese painter and visiting scholar who came to the University to share his expertise in urban landscape with students and faculty.

Chen grew up studying his country’s traditional method of painting. But unlike his ancestors, he spends most of his time in the urban world, not the world of nature. Using a hand brush, Chinese ink and rice paper, he creates delicate visions of the modern world as beautiful and evocative as the ancients’ depictions of trees and mountains.

“Why not use traditional Chinese painting to express [feelings different than those of] the ancient people?” says Chen, who lives and paints in a studio apartment in DU’s Nagel Hall. “We are not ancient people. We can learn the techniques of the ancients but we can express our feelings about the modern world.”

Chen, an associate professor and deputy director in the painting department of the Xu Beihong School of Arts at Renmin University in Beijing, received a scholarship from the China Scholarship Council to come to the U.S. as a visiting scholar. Through connections with Elizabeth Owen, DU assistant professor of Asian art history, he chose to come to Denver.

The 38-year-old artist started his one-year residency at DU in April, and by summer he already had completed numerous paintings of DU buildings. He also ventured into downtown Denver in the spring to sketch snow-covered streets and buildings.

“As a modern painter in traditional styles, Chen uses painting modes, spatial features and other characteristics of the past to re-invigorate and inform the art of the present,” Owen says. “In this, he adds his own modern twist by incorporating modern, urban settings, skyscrapers and other city scenery within his subtle and nuanced landscape images.”

You’re likely to see Chen carrying a sketchbook around campus, but rarely a camera. Working from a photograph, he says, doesn’t allow an artist to access his emotions about a scene.

“If I see something, it’s more accurate and more exciting than cameras and videos,” he says. “If I’m just walking through campus and see sunlight or a sunset that’s so beautiful, I will remember it and when I get back to my studio I will try to paint it.”

Chen is well known in China. His paintings have been collected by the China National Museum and foreign dignitaries, and he has written two art textbooks, including a 2007 book on urban landscape. He also designed two commemorative postage stamps in honor of the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics.

“I don’t think the DU community is really aware of what a young, famous ‘superstar’ we have in our very midst,” Owen says. “Professor Chen’s scholarly and artistic talents are definitely an asset to our students and faculty.”

During his time at DU, Chen will visit studio classes and courses on Asian art history, and he will give a lecture this fall. In addition, he will demonstrate his technique and exhibit his paintings.

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