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Hard as Nails, Soft as Water

Chen Chun-hao’s daunting art unconventionally juxtaposes the delicacy of Chinese ink paintings with the robustness of iron nails

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The interplay of lights and shadows evokes the essence of ink wash paintings, while the arrangement of the nails creates a layered effect.”
—Chen Chun-hao

Taiwanese artist Chen Chun-hao has pioneered a new form of art using an unexpected tool. Armed with an air nailer, Chen transforms ordinary finishing nails into striking three-dimensional artworks that appear to morph and evolve when viewed from various angles. His work showcases the idea that creativity and an appreciation for beauty can transform any material into an artistic medium.

As Chen meticulously spaces nails and strategically arranges lights to cast shadows, he pays homage to masterpieces of ancient art: Chinese ink wash paintings. His innovative approach remains faithful to the originals while also offering a fresh perspective. Masterpieces like Guo Xi’s Early Spring (ca. 1023–1087), Fan Kuan’s Travellers Among Mountains and Streams (ca. 950–1032), and Li Tang’s Whispering Pines in Myriad Valleys (ca. 1049–1130) emerge afresh in Chen’s hands.

Taiwanese artist Chen Chun-hao used iron nails to masterfully reproduce the celebrated 8th-century work Court Ladies
Adorning Their Hair with Flowers by Tang Dynasty artist Zhou Fang. (Fragment)

While at first glance his creations might resemble ink wash masterpieces, upon closer inspection we realize their elegance doesn’t stem from ink but rather from the interplay between countless nails and their cascading shadows.

Chen dedicates extensive time and effort to his art as a way to pay homage to and express reverence for the ancient masterpieces that inspire him. “My pieces often demand hundreds of thousands or even millions of nails, all meticulously secured by my hand with an air nailer,” he says. “When replicating these ancient paintings, it’s crucial that I do it personally. It’s my way of honouring these ancient sagas and capturing the spirit they embody.”

Upon closer inspection, the unevenly spaced iron nails and their shadows create the impression of overlapping mountain ranges.

Innovative replicas

For students of fine arts in both Eastern and Western traditions, imitating the works of masters is a fundamental part of training. Chen, who pursued ink wash painting at the Taipei National University of the Arts, devoted his first three years as a fine arts student to replicating masterpieces from Chinese history.

“Over time, I grew bored of the traditional approach to ink painting, so I ventured into experimenting with decorative arts,” Chen says.

Even though Chen had shifted away from using ink, his dedication to ink wash paintings remained at the heart of his artistic process. He soon discovered that the shadows cast by nails could change in intensity and form depending on how the lights were positioned. He also recognized a resemblance between these shadow effects and the ink wash paintings he had diligently studied.

Order the Magnifissance print edition to read the full story.

This story is from Magnifissance Issue 124

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Inspired for a Beautiful Life

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