Chihung Yang: Now and Forever

A moment — singular, isolated, a bit of passing time in the vast indifference — and yet, lyrically, it lasts forever, at least in the memory which art is: this is what Chihung Yang draws and paints, usually in the form of a sprig or flower, that fragile yet consummate growth, nature at its most vital yet transient.

The problem we - the artist and audience, welded together in their longing for some saving grace of experience - now face is to come out of modernism, which has destroyed so much for gains, that, however great, seem diminishing. The gains are abstract, in more senses than one: an abstract method involving the work's and artists' self-disclosure, but also a certain sense of remoteness from the real, which has been rationalized away into an intellectual myth, an ironical necessity of thought. Art's self-analysis in modernism ended in self-defeat, the loss of art's own reality - art's decay into the glorified nothingness of an idea, purified beyond reason as well as feeing (as in minimalism and conceptualism) - and the question now is how to get beyond the end: how to begin again.

Chihung Yang shows us the way, and it is an age-old way: the celebration of the moment of experience in which the real is born. It is the moment when the world seems real beyond its means, when some detail of the world invades and indelibly imprints itself upon us, when some stale appearance becomes unexpectedly immediate, and thus exalted and precise beyond its actuality. Such epiphanies of experience are more rare than we care to admit. They deliver us from the everydayness into which life inevitability dwindles. They are the ultimate source of our sense of value as well as reality. They make life seem to be worth the trouble, even as they seem to transcend it. Art's task, at those rare, and unpredictable times when it is not serving some ideology, be it secular or sacred, or for that matter its believe in its own a prior character, (1) is to preserve such epiphanies for posterity. Art is an amber in which they continue to be fresh and consummate, protected from the decay inflicted by analysis as well as time. Immunized by art, they endure innocently and inscrutably, with an unselfconscious absoluteness of being. And art, once again of use to real experience, no longer seems synthetic or tastes manufactured.

Chihung Yang's pictures are epiphanies of nature, more exactly, of flowers, those particularly triumphant moments of nature. Temple of Flora, 1994-95 makes the point gloriously: a variety of flowering plants are arranged around the perimeter of the canvas, with a ghost-like leaf - a fading petal? - in the center, suggesting a void. No horror of the vacuum for Yang: it is filled with a remarkable luminosity, the source of the flower's life. Indeed, each flower is surrounded - outlines - by an aura of inordinately intense light, making it a mysterious revelation. At the same time, a subtle gloom suffuses the painting, fought off by the center's luminosity - but then it infects the leaf or petal that floats there, enhancing its givenness as much as the light. The interplay of light and darkness is a constant of Yang's imagery. Sometimes they form a startling, epic contrast, as in Hymns to the Night, 1994-95, and Requiem and Eclipsed Dream, both 1995, where they seem at odds, indeed, at war. At other times each lyrically blends into the other, creating a sensually rich yet delicate atmosphere, as in Ascension and Tundra, both 1995. Yang's light and dark are not entirely natural, and, for all their immateriality, seem to have a certain density and weight. Yang's dynamics of light and dark may set the stage for his flowers, but it does far more than serve as local atmosphere. It is the abstract basis of the picture - a drama in which the flowers are caught up, but which has a mystical life of its own. They too become mystical surfaces - half material, half immaterial.

Yang's chiaroscuro surface shows the heightened awareness of the medium typical of modernist painting. But the medium is now a means to an experiential end - a perceptual and emotional epiphany - rather than an end in itself. Similarly, Supremacist geometry appears in Yang's pictures - Interplay, 1995 and Aurora, already mentioned, as well as Four Pages, 1994-95, are prominent examples - but no longer as self-sufficient, pure, altogether definite form, as its atmospheric character suggests. Rather, geometrical form serves, as it did in traditional art, as an emblem of eternity, that is, of art's process of immortalization of life. In a sense, the process of embedding an epiphany in esthetic amber concludes in a sense of unchanging "geometrical" perfection. Thus Yang redeems the best features of modernist abstraction, giving them a new eloquence - esthetic and emotional significance - by subsuming them in a traditional rational for art, a somewhat less involuted idea of art than the modernist emphasis on purity offered.

Yang is not naively traditional - unwittingly regressive. Rather in his determination to make art once again relevant not simply to experience but to the deepest experience of being, he consciously takes an Oriental attitude to experience. Modern Western artists, from the time of French Japonisme to John Cage's dependence on Zen, have used Oriental ideas, however generalized to counteract their own society's positivistic attitude to experience, which seems to stay on its surface. Yang does something similar: he infuses Western abstraction with the Chinese landscape ideal of meditation on natural plenitude. But he gives us fragments and souvenirs of landscape, as it were. He meditates on the contraction of nature, its plenitude apparently gone forever, except in the limited, transient form of a flower. Nature is not taken for granted by Yang, but at risk - caught in a mithridatic struggle between the forces of light and dark. Reconciliation rarely occurs, as I have suggested - a stand-off yes, peaceful coexistence no. Yang has a modern sense of nature: it can never again be whole, only acknowledged in all its vulnerability - its ambiguous state of near ruin and desperate flowering. Thus the strong note of melancholy in Yang's images, for all the beauty of his nature: it is as though nature was a haunting memory - a persistent obsession ultimately more fantasy than reality, more emotionally than physically tangible. Nature comes From a Distant Place, 1995, as Yang says, where it is a morbid object of desire.

As befits such a mood, Yang's handling involves a contradictory mix: as a content, nature is tenderly represented; as a form, it is approached abstractly, with a deliberate tough mindedness. This seems to me particularly evident in two wonderful drawings, Begonia and Interplay, both 1992. The plants have become abstract arabesques, as though hermetically twisted upon themselves. Schematically and flatly rendered they are suspended in abstract space, like constellations in the sky. No longer rooted in the earth, they have ascended to artistic heaven. Nonetheless, their curves are vigorously defined, black as the earth, and exquisitely erratic rhythms. They still surge with the sap of life, as the yellow and red blossoms of Interplay and the even fuller leaves of Begonia indicate. The flowers are both abstract and real, partially pressed yet alive. The economy of means - placing the plant on the empty surface of the paper, where it triumphantly floats, a black yet lively ghost - is a strategy that Yang brilliantly uses again in the 1995 painting, Interplay.

On the flat surface, which is no longer defined as atmosphere, and so all the more infinite - a plenitude of light for all its emptiness, the emblematic, cosmic character of Yang's flower becomes transparent. They hold their own, as both spiritual symbols and abstract forms, with Mondrian's chrysanthemums, and are more dynamic, if equally isolated: Mondrian's flowers seem on the verge of wilting, while Yang's continue to grow. Nonetheless, the canvas' emptiness is the ultimate amber, and Yang, in embedding his fragments of nature in it, turns them into memorable relics. But they seem more uncannily alive isolated in the void than as part of nature. Surrounded by absence, they acquire a larger-than-life presence and spiritual potential. Without the emptiness, they are only partial epiphanies. It is only as lonely abstractions that they can mark the origin.

1 I am using ideology in the sense in which Charles Hanly does in The Problem of Truth in Psychoanalysis (New York and London, Guilford, 1992), p. 28, where he describes "ideological thinking" as "deriving reality from a priori principles." The ideology of art for art's sake, which is at the core of modernist abstraction, derives the reality of art from supposedly a prior principles of form. Ideological thinking is typically blind to any evidence - reality - that contradicts its a priori assumptions. It is a limited outlook, that, when it becomes a dogmatic system, which it inevitably does to defend itself, compels attention, despite itself, to the facts of reality it excluded, thus unwittingly undermining itself. Its own intransigence forces the return of suppressed evidence, in the case of art, the evidence of experience.

~Donald Kuspit, New York City, January 1996

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