Thoughts on Painting
For the painter, this space is not speculation; rather, one must accurately reflect one’s treatment of space on the canvas or paper. This challenge is the final dividing line between wisdom and physical dexterity. That art is more than just empty talk is proven on the surface of a painting. Modern artists have found a number of ways to get around this problem, as with Picasso’s division of cubes into planes, Cezanne’s elimination of depth, Matisse’s employment of strong color contrasts, Kandinsky’s overlapping alignment, and the juxtaposition of real and imagined spaces.
Zao Wouki, who is after all Oriental, is just the opposite - applying layer upon layer of thin color in search of a depth not found in traditional Eastern painting. The so-called language of painting must be expressed by some type of method; otherwise, for the artist it is nothing more than empty talk.
As for my own painting, naturally I intend to find my own solution. Perhaps, because I am after all still Chinese, I am accustomed to the free expression on two dimensional surfaces in traditional Chinese painting, while the depth of Western painting has always been especially appealing to me. Consequently, even if I am using ink for free expression I look for this depth of space, albeit one which differs from Western perspective. There is a component of modern Chinese painting theory called “diffuse point perspective” which borrows Western art theory to interpret traditional Chinese painting - something which naturally makes sense.
By setting out from traditional Chinese freehand painting and attempting to achieve a depth of space, I am not coming from observation of actual depth of field, but rather depth which is visualized from within; it seems to have a feeling of perspective, but does not agree with perspective with a focus, and it is not poli-focal. When one maintains a certain inner vision, one finds that so-called “distance” shifts and floats, much like a camera shooting in the dark whose auto-focus lens moves in and out in a herky-jerky fashion. This is merely a simple comparison, as when one closes one’s eyes and views these images of the mind that appear at times, they are there before one’s eyes but have no clear distance - not following the law of smaller objects further away and larger objects closer. How to capture such inner visions in the picture, yet without resorting to strict perspective, is the challenge I seek to resolve.
For my current purposes, I shall call this feeling of depth in inner visions “false perspective”- and treat inner visions as different levels and different viewing angles. However, I shall place them in what seems like the same space, using different levels of space to create a feeling of perspective and compose an overall picture (rather than separate parts). This is a space conceived at will on the spur of the moment, not according to rules of perspective, and without particular focus or diffuse focus - yet still creating depth of field as if shot by a real camera. However, rather than objects or scenes, shadows are described - revealing themselves in the mind in unexpected places. Although the tangible feeling they have is illusory, such visions can definitely be achieved.
All painting attempts to do is to turn the seeds of these visions into pictures. Although these visions sometimes have colors, as they flash by in an instant they are difficult to grasp, making them murky. This is why expressing them with ink is closer, and why I only use monochromatic ink and not colors. I first began painting abstract paintings with ink, as the brushing and spread of ink on rice paper in Chinese ink painting holds a definite kind of enjoyment and interest. My earliest abstract inks came from Zen paintings, where I sought not images but states of mind. Still, I hope that what is left on the paper can be made out as pictures after some time.
The ink left on the paper by the masters of traditional Chinese ink paintings is full of inexhaustible interest itself. Kandinsky’s studies of points, fields, and lines did not mean removing the pure form of implication, which has its similarities to the spirit which is sought after in traditional Chinese ink painting. There, brush strokes and ink marks are not merely means to create forms, but their implications are equally important. My abstract ink paintings are not only imbued with a certain kind of form, but at the same time intend to let brush strokes and ink marks carry feeling and implication.
I gradually came to realize that the dividing line between the abstract and the figurative is not necessarily cut and dry, and that for me such a dividing line is increasingly unnecessary. As a result, some people see figurative images in my works, while others might see abstraction; it’s images and forms at the same time. This is that quality of painting for which I strive – contained within the brush and ink, but also existing beyond them. Points, lines, and fields must contain the feeling of the brush and ink, and must in themselves form pictures. So for me, the dividing line between the figurative and the abstract is unimportant, which allows me to work spontaneously without any constrains.
When it comes to painting, I ascribe to no conceptual doctrines and belong to no school. The thing I fear most is the attachment of some new fashionable label to my work. I believe that the most important thing for an artist is to stay as far away from others as possible in order to avoid getting mixed up in some trend. If one is able to fine one’s own distinctive artistic expression, there can be no greater reward or joy. The reason is that, in real life individual freedoms are invariably subject to constraints, and only in the realm of individual artistic creation can one achieve the freedom to truly express oneself. Yet this freedom depends on whether or not one can find the necessary form of expression, without which freedom of artistic expression is meaningless.
For the artist, freedom of artistic expression, more than the strict will, lies in the ease with which one employs one’s chosen devices to achieve this freedom. This means that in addition to having (or not having) one’s own thoughts, the artist must study the materials and tools he or she uses to see how much freedom can be achieved. Specifically, how else can the paper, brush, and ink be employed in ink painting? This depends on the investigation of the performance of materials and techniques of application. The more I investigate, the more I discover that the potential of ink painting is far from being exhausted, even though this art form has been around for at least 1000 years. This art is expressed differently in the hands of each individual artist, which is also why ink painting is continually invested with new life. So I’m perfectly happy to keep working away in the realm of ink painting.
Actually the same is essentially true for oil painting. Nobody can say for sure when oil painting will be unable to come up with anything that was not painted previously. Granted, nowadays any material or techniques can be used in art, including computers and lasers, but I’m perfectly willing to manipulate monochromatic variation of depth with ink and paper within the bounds of two-dimensional surface to create my pictures. Broadly speaking, any kind of art is about striving for limitlessness under given restricted conditions.
What should art express? There is a different answer for each different artist, and exactly because of the different answers do we have a variety of artistic pursuits. Moreover, no answer is universal, or the only correct answer. In art, there is no judgment of right or wrong, or morality, because artists do not accept other people’s truths. Because there is no god and no master in art, artists are free to throw themselves into their endless pursuit and never notice how hard it is.
At the same time I adhere to the possibilities and interest of the ink and brush, I search for textural quality not found in traditional ink painting in the attempt to fuse the grace of ink painting with emotional quality expressed in oil painting. Not only do I place particular emphasis on the effects of ink saturation, but I also employ this to give images a different textural quality. As a result, ink not only has layers, resulting from contrasting qualities between images, but abstraction and concreteness follow composition and result from variation in the qualities of various images.
I also use light to enrich the expressive power of ink. My particular angle is that I do not set the source of light, unlike many Western paintings. I believe that light can be wherever there is life or spirit. When a person looks inside to see a vision, the image or the image’s border emits a lustrous light, an effect created where ink meets ink.
Having also studied photography, I bring the viewing angle, depth of field, and focus of photography into my ink painting to look into the images of the mind, naturally resulting in images that cannot be captured with a camera. Art attempts to reach a realm that is unattainable in reality. Otherwise, why go through all the trouble?
I always listen to music while painting, waiting for the music to strike a chord in my heart before setting out. Once moved, images flow from me, and with the movement of the brush and ink, the music gives my painting a certain kind of rhythm. Music gives the respective components of painting (points, fields, and lines, or brush strokes) even more feeling, so why not use it? This method of creating shapes and images allows the various colors of mood, giving a painting a living presence.
I do not consider painting a pure expression of form. Form is admittedly important, especially in the plastic arts, where one cannot achieve expression without it. However, modern painting this century has progressively approached purity of form, making pursuit of form into the ultimate aim of painting. Pure form, which is constantly losing expressiveness, has become increasingly close to decoration, to the extent that it has become a white wall, or a field of oils, a few blocks of color, or several lines, which is signed by the executor. This is the result of fruitless play with form, yet art has not been destroyed because of it.
If the self-expression of an artist becomes the direct expression of self, then one’s art will be a mess. As the self (or ego) is a chaotic mass, or a black hole to begin with, unless an artist exercises self-knowledge and removes himself for dispassionate observation of the world (including the self), then what is there to see?
More than self-expression I see art as a case of self-purification - observing with a pair of somewhat sober eyes the ever-changing world and one’s own mainly unconnected self. And although he may not understand the riddles of life, the artist can leave behind a surprise or two.
Paris, 14 July 1995