Chloe Chen (Yanran Chen)
Emerging illustrator Chloe Chen (Yanran) is only 17 years old, but her surrealist drawings have already led to collaborations with brands like Moleskine and Balenciaga. Studying in Japan, the young Chinese artist first picked up a paintbrush at three. By 13, she had started to create extraordinary illustrations rich with imagination and creativity. Most of her work excavates the dream world, where time and space have no limitations.
At first glance, Chen’s artistic universe might seem playful and light, often featuring girls submerged in the intangible space between childhood innocence and jaded adolescence. But lean closer to the canvas and you’ll plunge headlong into a quizzical realm where nightmares and mysteries swirl alongside soul-deep ruminations on the self. Chen’s colorful, modern, manga-leaning style is entirely infused with feelings of anxiety, fear, and horror. “I love the old horror comic artists like Kazuo Umezu, Shintaro Kago, and Suehiro Maruo,” says the illustrator of her inspirations. “I like the mysterious feeling of their work. I’m always fascinated by horror comic stories.”
Chen’s work is gentle and probing, a delicateness to her pen belied by the difficult themes and existential questions she probes in each piece. In Vertigo, there’s the presence of warped abstract eyes, a surrealist touch that nods to Salvador Dalí’s melting clocks, and a swirling horror-tinged dynamism that calls back Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Meanwhile in I Met a New Friend there’s a poignant, tongue-in-cheek observation that we choose different faces, with mechanical robots serving up choices akin to how we swipe through filters and stories in the digital world.
Her piece Nightmare seems particularly concerned with teenage anxiety, perhaps mirroring Chen’s departure from childhood naivety into the roiling chaos of adolescence, spiraling into a deconstructed world of toyboxes and ladders that pull apart who we are at our core. Meanwhile Nowhere feels sharply personal, alluding to time, wisdom, history, connectivity; the search for oneself in a place one knows, all under the watchful and knowing gaze of a brilliant and haughty brown owl. There’s interconnectivity in Chen’s pieces, an idea that multiple worlds exist within one another, and that everything ultimately returns to itself.
A surrealistic style
“I enjoy creating unexpected scenes,” says Chen of her surrealist dreamscapes. “Whenever I dream of some interesting fragments, I try my best to recall the scenes and piece them together in my work. I get easily fascinated by scary and mysterious things. I’ve been sensitive to objects that spin since I was a child. My heart beats fast every time I see them. I’m drawn to rotating gears, clocks, and owls. They linger in my head. They’re very important concepts to me.”
Chen’s works mix the beautiful and ugly, the bizarre and the real. Opposing forces and concepts don’t fight for dominance in her art. They all simply coexist. This observational approach to life’s realities and dichotomies reflects her worldview as a teenager and artist. “We all face situations that we can’t do anything about, we just have to keep moving forward,” says Chen. “It’s not a bad thing, it’s just life. Life is like a ball of yarn. Art helps me unravel it.”
Artist: Yanran (Chloe) Chen @yanran_chen_
Words: Melissa Legarda
Harper’s Bazaar Vietnam