Chihung Yang:
The Demands of Nature, The Demands of Art

Chihung Yang deals with dualisms that would daunt most of us: abstraction and figuration, Asian and Western legacies, the traditional and the contemporary. Such binary terms seem most effective in art when they are seen as contrasting or opposing each other; it is hard to believe that they might be subsumed under the auspices of a synthetic turn of mind. Yet that is exactly the goal of Yang's long career in art. He has generated a unity from elements of painting and culture that at first seem impossible to merge; his sense of a painting, stemming from both the Chinese calligraphic tradition and the Western practice of abstract expressionism, occurs as a summation of effects. It is true enough that often there is turbulence in Yang's increasingly abstract work, yet that disorder regularly is stilled by the overall impact of the painting: we are in the eye of his storm. The typical lushness of his art refers to a spiritual insight, whereby dissonance is transformed for the sake of unity. Such thorough change may be seen as a kind of conversion process; the painter cultivates a sensibility for which almost any possibility in art remains open.

Yang, who has lived in New York since 1979, knows more than a little about Western painting continuities; his earlier work confirms his mastery of two important genres: the tradition of Chinese calligraphy and painting and the gestural art of the New York School. Although by now it is commonplace to say that similarities between the two ways of working comprise a unified field, or a language in which stylistic effects meet and concur, such a merger can result in paintings of remarkable aura and beauty. Yang's poise in the face of his experience enables him to render images of exquisite form, so that the viewer sees his language as unifying schools in ways that move beyond any particular allegiance. One can see this in the earlier paintings--Yang has moved from quite open quotations of natural form to a more idealized idiom that takes on not only the question of painting and representation but also the more abstract theme of being. While in the 1990s the artist made reference to flowers and plants, as he progressed over time he found himself expressing his thoughts and emotions with a more nonfigurative vernacular. This alteration may have something to do with his maturity, as well as demonstrating a path whereby transcendence is increasingly recognized--as we can see in Yang's titles, for example Past Becoming Future, Spiritual Ascent, and Poetic Stroll.

If we look at a work such as The Book of Mountains and Sea (1998-2006), we can tell it is a painting that bridges Yang's shift from the real to the realm of the void, the as-yet unseen. The title clearly suggests the history of Chinese painting, but the actual work is composed of painterly effects that reference abstract expressionism. The composition consists of two mountainous terrains, suggested rather than precisely defined. The strokes are broad and expansive, consisting of reds and blacks; they build a sense of drama on either side of the work. The center of the painting might be described as an off-white sea, its atmosphere misting upward. Its color darkens at the top of the work, and despite the natural terms of its title, we see that Yang is as interested in pure abstraction as he is in natural phenomena. This duality would suggest a conflict, and it appears that there is tension between the riveting, darker elements of the painting's right and left sides and the vague white threatening to overtake the center of the imagery. At the same time, the emphasis on the sides of the painting also implies the leaves of an opened book; however, one feels slightly disconcerted at so specific an interpretation, seeing that Yang has worked so hard and well on interweaving description and metaphysical ploy.

Soul Rain (2007) shows that Yang has moved in the direction of pure gestural abstraction; this acrylic on canvas--all of his paintings are painted with acrylic--surges with absolute emotion, in a composition whose implications of sky, rain, and transcendence resolve into an imagery of genuine power. Drips and striations of black paint pour down from a gray area at the top left of the work, but in the center there is a white column that moves into a horizontal ribbon after apparently falling from above. Also, in the center, the viewer sees a strip of black, superimposed on the horizontal white, which seems to be a mere smudge on the canvas, but which in fact opens up the strong possibility that Yang is pointing out the strengths of the Chinese tradition of ink painting. On seeing his work, it becomes clear that the artist never leaves his psychic homeland for long; again and again, his audience finds that he is quoting some of the esthetic gains of ink on paper--its transparency, its ability to splash and drip, its deft definitions of natural imageries. Beneath these brilliant allusions to sky and rain lies the earth, abstractly characterized here as a mass of brown with a dark red, nearly a burgundy, at the bottom center. The Chinese legacy in his art at once stands up to scrutiny and partly effaces its existence for the sake of the whole.

The painting appears to be pouring energy from above to below, the middle dominated by a sky blue and the white stripe that descends from above. If it were possible to picture one's spirit in transit, this work would do so. Yang's answer to his bicultural status occurs in his attempt to find an answer that is not a compromise; in light of his ongoing allegiance to habits of painting that sometimes converge and sometimes veer away from each other, he finds solutions that retain the rituals of the institutions he draws strength from. Indeed, it is part of his artistic habit to see in the customs of painting an opening through gesture alone; the self-sufficiency of this sign allows him to quote traditions with impunity. In an era such as ours, in which cultures mix and match and misunderstand all at once, it would be easy enough to comment in a general way on the similarities and disagreements between Western and Asian traditions in Yang's art; however, his achievement is of a unified nature. His spiritual yearning is more universal and less specific than we might at first think.

The development of any painter's esthetic is based upon a thorough grounding in the vocabulary of his or her chosen art idiom, which is, if the artist is good, genuinely original. Too much has been made of the authority of traditions that in a contemporary sense have lost their power to influence--in part because our cultures are presently so mixed, in part because there is no particular school to belong to or react against, and in part because the goal of the artist, the painter especially, is to transcend the legacy he or she has been given. A painting like Soul Rain demonstrates Yang's independence, which advances by expanding its imagery, which includes a new version of two different traditions. Yang's art records a paradox, in which he discovers an accord, even a harmony, in the expressions he brings to us. It is not possible for most of us to forget or go beyond our experience, and so the only possibility we have for surmounting our circumstances lies in a truly individualized vision, one that does justice to the particulars the artist believes in. As its title suggests, Soul Rain attains a specific visual, and spiritual, language by staying true to the details of Yang's mind. Consequently, it becomes hard to speak of his internalization of Chinese or Western culture--mostly because this has already been done by his paying careful attention to the outcomes of his various influences.

I do not mean, however, that the artist must attain freedom in isolation. The legacies of cultures as different as Asian and Western customs offer the artist a structure that may be reassembled to fit the necessities of personal development. This is a truism, but one that is requisite for art. Not much can be achieved by pursuing one's goals entirely alone; instead, we must take the materials of our circumstances and make of them what we will. Culture is properly internalized so that it becomes part of the fabric of a person, and Yang regularly has seen to it that his pleasure in such things as music and art are not experienced as something he has chosen to do. They meld incontrovertibly within the dictates of his art, enabling us as well as him to simply explore the realm of painting, without necessarily ascribing to it those attributes that we have seamlessly encountered in his art. Yang has pushed to a place where his paintings may be known as picture perfect, which means that his expressiveness is at one with his talent. There is, then, an agreement between internal and external worlds, a union between the representational and the abstract, that marks his paintings as entirely achieved.

The strength demonstrated in Yang's paintings adds to their purely lyrical status. Yang is an artist capable of raw force just as he is capable of visual poetry. Part of the strength in his work stems from the fact that he regularly presents powerful feelings, suitable to being expressed through abstraction alone. Yet Yang's art is never purely abstract, as we have seen. Nature and the figure play important roles in his intuitively constructed balance of categories of art--it is as though the artist is not satisfied with one way of being, proving himself with aspirations that conjoin types of painting. One can see, for example, in the very large (200 by 200 cm) work entitled The Warrior (2007), in which strong gestures in black and red encircle what could easily be noted as an aggressive, mostly black figure in the center of the painting. In The Warrior, Yang asserts an independence that borders on the aggressive in visual terms, a way of working full in keeping with the title of his painting. Splotches of red, bits of color really, come up through the overpainting of black. The forms seem nearly to rotate around the middle figure, which haunts the painting with its dramatic power. Yang is, here, a master of his domain; he has never succumbed to mere decoration, and here his presence is utterly assertive, subordinate to none.

In Painting within a Painting (2006), another large acrylic on canvas, Yang returns to images that remind us of his earlier works. Good-sized leaves both float in the bottom of the picture plane and are attached to what seems to be a tree trunk; the elongated ovals of the leaves are beautiful in their own right, capturing both the heart and mind of his audience. One of Yang's best achievements is the composed nature of his work, which convinces us by virtue of its ardent embrace of interior and exterior worlds, linking both by virtue of technical detail and a large, even a grand, outlook. The dark shapes in Painting within a Painting echo each other on a light-tan ground, which offers a neutral tonal value against which the leaves are active. The viewer comes across these forms as a matter of fact, so that he or she is completely convinced by the internal structure of the composition. Yang mostly constructs his imagery as carefully as an architect puts up a building; but in this case he also offers spontaneity, which acts as a seduction. His improvisatory attack allows us to admire the elements of color, tone, and structure. The leaves, mostly black or dark green, address the artist's love of nature, while the title Painting within a Painting suggests a metaphysical bent, directed toward an art that quotes itself. That the two concepts are coordinated in lyric harmony communicates to us the painter's abiding wish to generate a holistic work of art, one that touches many bases in order to arrive at an integrated composition.

The force of differing elements unified within an effort like Painting within a Painting tells us just how much Yang has achieved, within a career that has lasted close to forty years. Yang has successfully delineated his drive toward spiritual unity by paying exact attention to the commands of his imagination. While his paintings are filled with feeling, he is hardly sentimental; while he uses his intellect to strengthen his rhetorical effects, he is by no means overly cerebral. There is a constant effort to put together a gestalt that does justice to the way life is now lived, its emphasis on several competing ways of knowing. In the sense that he does not commit himself to one particular outlook, Yang refuses to be lured into cultural statements that dominate his esthetic. At the same time, we can see how brilliantly he has accomplished his task; the paintings combine differing outlooks within a field impressive for the unification of its various components. The high mode, in which the artist seeks a common ground unharmed by excessive oratory, remains his interest. Such an orientation does not result in isolation or the effacement of self; instead, it brings to the surface those emotions and thoughts we all are prey to. This means that his art is deeply biophilic, attractive for its sincerity and authenticity. We can't ask for more.

~Jonathan Goodman

Jonathan Goodman is a teacher and writer who specializes in writing about Asian, particularly Chinese, art. He writes for Art in America, Sculpture, and Yishu (the latter a publication dedicated to articles on contemporary Chinese art). Currently, he teaches at Pratt Institute and the Parsons School of design, both of which are in New York City.

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