Damien Shen

“Entombed in Joy” might be a contradiction in terms, but so are, in some sense, the paintings that it names. In Shen’s most buoyant body of work of his career, cartoon characters and emblems familiar to him as a kid growing up in the 1980s are juxtaposed against punch-coloured shields with patterns of Shen’s Ngarrindjeri clan and Song Dynasty roots. Describing this work to me over the phone, Shen referred often to the notion of “customisation,” a term that is revealing as it’s more commonly used in reference to skateboards than to canvas paintings. 

To customise is to add to an existing, typically mass-manufactured garment or accessory attached to the body. One adds stickers or badges to a backpack, a jacket, a hat or a skateboard, signalling to one’s peers what one likes and, by extension, the type of person one is. Customisation is at once an expression of individuality and one’s affiliation with a collective. It seeks after recognition from like-minded appreciators of, say, Joy Division or Osprey or, as in one of Shen’s recent paintings, Skeletor, that skeleton-faced, muscled supervillain who first appeared in Masters of the Universe in 1981. Inasmuch as Skeletor’s image signals a certain boyish aesthetic, it also represents a singular moment in TV history – and for many the culture that defined the singular event of their youth.   

These connotations take on another dimension when we consider that what Shen is customising in these paintings are shields. There is perhaps already a protective function to the act of customising a denim jacket or backpack, as the wearer shields the naked garment with references to the interests and affiliations that form the armour of their identity. The cartoon characters and symbols in the foreground of Shen’s paintings were some of the first reference points for his identity as a child, predating his awareness of what it meant to be Chinese and Ngarrindjeri in Australia. Whilst in previous bodies of work he’d dealt explicitly with his heritage, this work sees signifiers of his cultural roots visible behind his cherished characters and emblems – signs to which anyone, particularly adults of his generation, might gesture a hang-loose. 

This body of work marks Shen’s return to art after a fallow period through the early pandemic years, not least owing to his mobilisation into the Southern Australian COVID-19 emergency response. Emerging from that dark time, he was impressed by the need for his art practice to be a source, and expression, of joy. To engage with subjects reminiscent of Saturday Morning Cartoons, he turned to the comfortable, meditative medium of canvas painting. Shen referenced painters Henry Taylor (b. 1958, U.S) and Vincent Namatjira (b. 1983, Australia) as recent influences, both painters taking an active, impasto approach, privileging the expression of character over anatomical realism. Taylor and Namatjira’s paintings evidence the time the artists spent making them, thereby rewarding repeat viewings.     

Whilst he’s embracing the indeterminacies of his process more than he used to, Shen nevertheless considers painting – or photography, his other primary medium – as a means of executing an idea. He has said he spends 90 percent of his creative time researching, planning, mulling over and mocking up an idea, and just ten percent making it — in whatever medium best suits the story. In one previous body of work, Shen employed tintype photography to lend an anthropological aura to his exploration of his Chinese and Ngarrindjeri heritage. In another series from 2017, he has superimposed white dots over the painted portraits of his ancestors as a means of representing his sense of their opacity. Shen’s training as an illustrator is palpable in the precision of his rendering, but also in his intent to illustrate a narrative concept through his art. As with “Entombed in Joy,” these bodies of work see a superimposition of pattern and image, though toward very different ends.  

Shen’s new body of work represents an unabashed embrace of his personal affections. Yet what to make of “entombed,” a word we might associate with death? To be “entombed in joy” might mean to be subsumed in it, to die happy and then stay that way. Think of ancient tombs, painted with aspirations for the deceased’s life in the after world. Now imagine someone, hundreds of years from now, excavating a casket painted with an image of Homer Simpson on a red background inscribed with a Ngarrindjeri pattern. Imagine the tomb’s walls customised with pictures of all the things, real and imaginary, that forged the deceased’s identity on earth: with all the things that brought him joy. 

This article was commissioned by MARS Gallery, for their NAIDOC week show Entombed in Joy by Damien Shen. 
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