Chihung Yang:
Joining the Mind to Nature

In the art of Chihung Yang, you sense the seasons revolving. Granted, his calendar progresses with more deliberation than the ordinary one, and he feels to rearrange its order. For most of the 1990's, Yang's paintings showed us summer, a time of deeply saturated greens and purples. Ochres were dark, suggesting earth soaked with moisture, and the depths of space were filled with a luminous, humid haze. Or dusk had arrived and Yang's colors took some of their brilliance from the contrast provided by passages of darkness. In his paintings from the past two years, just a few traces of that chromatic intensity persist. The season has changed, and Yang's intensity has become more subtle.

Like several other works in this exhibition, Inner Resurrection was begun last year and finished in 1997. This picture is a play of tones, with black and white and gray modulating here and there to green and beige. Only at the heart of the central form does a bright red appear, and much of it is obscured by a translucent veil of black. Summer once filled Yang's pictures with fronds and tendrils and sheer color. Memories of that time give the hot red of Inner Resurrection the look of an ember that has survived a long period of cold. Its heat -- rather, its life--persisted and now it is revitalizing forms that in their delicacy look ghostly. We have gone from summer to spring.

Hymns to the Earth, 1997, guides us along the same path. Here, even more than in Inner Resurrection, suggestions of leaf and stem are oblique. Plants blend their forms with the clouds of an overcast day, except at the center of the canvas, where a luscious red is becoming decidedly, exuberantly leaf-like. From a cold, quiet time, life is emerging. The weather is still a bit overcast, let us say, yet not so gloomy that nothing glows. Gray turns to translucent pink in the passages that reach from the center of the canvas toward its sides, and even the earth colors spread a degree of warmth along the lower edge of the painting. Maybe it's a wet day, and now is drying off. Or maybe the delicate grain of this picture should be read as dustiness.

Surely, though, we can be sure that Hymns of Earth shows us a day early in the spring. Or does it immerse us in the prophetic iciness that we sometimes fell late in the fall, with winter coming? Suddenly, the red leaves look as if they are left over the summer, and we can't be sure of anything. Or I can't. I've recorded my bafflement because, ultimately, it was so helpful, leading me to the point where it vanished and I could see that Yang has never felt constrained by the cycle of the seasons.

Turning directly from summer to spring, reducing fall and winter to implications, he would rewrite the calendar. He's still doing that, yet I think that in his most recent works he has found a freedom that has released him from the calendar alltogether. In evoking one season, he evokes them all, though of course each canvas is keyed to a certain time of year--or to a certain quality of light, which might appear in any season.

Thus we wonder if the light in Wild Side of a Season, 1996, is autumnal or wintry. Or should we focus on the patch of red at the upper edge of the canvas and conclude, once again, that Yang is evoking the vital smolder that survives the winter and reignites the world in spring? Questions like these are useful not because they guide us to confident certainties but because they lead us beyond the need for certainty, to those regions of the imagination where meanings are manifold and ambiguity is a kind of fecundity. Because Yang's art never lets us be certain precisely where we are in the flow of seasons, there's a temptation to say that his art transcends time. In fact, it does something like the opposite. Instead of taking us out of time, his imagery immerses us in its fullness.

The major forms of Wild Side of a Season are dark blotches of pigment. Twigs, leaves, perhaps sprays of berries emerge from these quiet flurries of brown and grey, yet they defy our descriptive labels. Appearing in all of Yang's paintings, unnamable forms like these might tempt us to see him as something of an abstractionist. Strictly speaking, he is, and yet even his monochrome passages of beige or white have the look of referring to something seen or perhaps remembered--some nuance of light or shadow, dustiness or dampness.

The specificity of Yang's images is more than persistent. In its contemplative manner, it is relentless, so much so that a paradox emerges: in referring so precisely to singular things, everything from the bend in a certain twig to the particular shade of gray in a leaf that has survived the winter, his references multiply. The twig could be a root, the gray and wintry leaf could be a new spring leaf made translucent by sunlight. There is, so to speak, an overload of specificity in Yang's vision, which releases each of his images from a single referent and makes each of them a manifold of meanings.

Compared to other paintings in this show, Joyful Dialogue, 1997, is a smallish painting. Yet all the elements of Yang's universe are present. The pink of the blossom reaching in from the right is dense and fleshy, like a green or purple in one of his nocturnal paintings from a few seasons ago. Earth colors migrate to plant forms, and the dense black shape at the center of the canvas appears to have sprouted stems and leaves of its own. Or are these shadows? Luxuriating in the uncertainties like these, the eye returns to the pink form.

Am I really so sure that it is a flower? Couldn't the shapes I have taken for petals be, in fact, leaves? Possibly, for I seem to remember having seen pink leaves somewhere. Somehow, though, questions of fact are not entirely pertinent, for these painting have persuaded me that I can't begin to see them fully until I notice how unrealistic they are. This realization administers a shock because, at first glance, Yang's forms are so recognizable. Quickly, we feel at home in his paintings, surrounded by familiar things. Content with this pleasure and wishing to prolong it, we may well choose to understand him as a particularly subtle sort of realist. But this is as much an error as labeling him and abstractionist.

In fact, there is nothing truly leaf-like or petal-like about the pink form in Joyful Dialogue. It is, first of all, a richly textured configuration of paint. One could say this of any painted image, of course, though it needs to be added that a realist wants us to look past the fact that the image is painted to the fact to which the image refers. Realism tries to distract us from itself. Yang's art--the very grain of his brush work--demands our attention, but only the the most tactful way. Think, for comparison, of a Pollock drip painting or a slab of monochrome color. Works like these insist aggressively that they are, first and last, painted. So, of course, are Yang's images. Yet they allow us to notice this fact for ourselves, amid the elaboration of light and form that sometimes comes very near to persuading us that he is practitioner of a oblique realism.

As they refer to natural processes, Yang's works refer also--and even more immediately--to the processes that produce them. These paintings are self-referential, which is to say that they are, in part, about their own coming into being. Thus they join the tradition of modern painting in the West. Within this tradition, a painting addresses the tradition itself--the contested tangle of ideas about the medium that gives it whatever definition it may have as the painter turns to the canvas. In the attempt to clarify this definition certain theorists of modernism have argued that painting is legitimately concerned only with itself. Its references must all be internal, and its goal must be pictorial "purity."

Superannuated now, that modernist extremism is remembered chiefly for its vehemence and for the simplicity it promised but couldn't deliver. Even the color-field paintings that looked--to some eyes--as if they were, indeed, "pure," now seem to be filled with allusions to light and space and event he human figure. Despite its self-referential habits, modern painting can't help referring to much else beside its own history and processes. The question is: what else? We've seen how Yang answers that questions. Painting emblems of seasonal change, he makes a subject of the seasons themselves--and of time. What remains to be said is that his emblems are haunted by the tradition of Chinese calligraphy.

Born in Taiwan, Yang studies Western drawing and painting at the National Taiwan College of Art. He has made drawings from plaster casts and landscape paintings in plein air. His formal training in calligraphy is not extensive and yet, as he notes, its forms and traditions are second nature to him. This is evident, especially in the left-hand section of Debussy, 1996. Here, flurries of black struggle to escape a calligraphic meaning, against a field of white that inevitably suggests paper. The escape is successful, though traces of the calligrapher's brush appear on the right side of Debussy--or so one imagines, under the influence of the black-on-white forms to the left.

Throughout Yang's oeuvre, one sees the gestural concision of the ideograph--but no trace of ideographs themselves, those inherited, slowly evolving forms. Attending closely to the forms of nature, blending perception with memory, Yang is forever starting anew. Each painting draws us into a particular moment. It takes a while to see that he fills a canvas not with images of things observed but with the atmosphere of observation.

Joyful Dialogue shows an interchange between the bright and the dim, the moist and the dry, the living and the dead. Though that interchange generates and array of intricately liked motifs, it is not what the painting is about--or not exactly, for what holds one's attention is the sense that Yang is somehow improvising the dialogue, reinterpreting it as he recapitulates it. The dark form that symbolizes death is, in its velvety way, as lush as the leafy flower pink. This may be a dialogue between life and its opposite, yet the darkness in this painting is anything but deathly.

The earliest painting in the exhibition, The Natural Garden, 1995-96, has the deep tones and crowded surface of previous seasons. As branches proliferate and the light thickens, it look as if space itself were ribbed. In more recent paintings, the flow of bright light dissolves much of that ribbing. Enough remains to suggest the paths of Yang's gaze, and to guide our looking. Eventually we see his paintings as images of nature imbues with the attention he pays to it. Bright patches suggest the smolder of consciousness, of reflectiveness, and of spring--its sheer, biological vitality. Yang has made painting into a medium for joining the mind to nature, our being to the energies of the world where we live.

Intimate Agitation, 1996, is a horizontal painting roughly four feet high by five feet wide. On a surface of these dimensions, Yang can work with his arm stretched to its greatest extent--see, for example, the pale bands of paint that reach from the central form to the edges of the canvas. These are marks made by a painter working at full scale, as if he were in real space. Of course he has entered the space of canvas, in imagination, yet this constricts his presence not at all. However large his gesture, the canvas registers its energy with no diminution of scale. And however large the canvas, Yang's gesture reverberates in every corner, because the canvas is never so big that it absorbs and overwhelms the gesture.

His paintings evoke natural forms at a scale that preserves our scale, our sense of ourselves at those moments of balance when we feel that we are fully in the world, at one with it on shared terms. Another way of putting it would be to say that Yang's art poises the world at precisely the point where it seems commensurate with us, with our presences as individuals. Then a calm is felt and certain freedoms of scale are granted. We can focus on the textures of Intimate Agitation--powdery, papery, luminously impalpable--and read the painting as a microcosm, the world's variety compacted into a tangle of natural forms. Or, letting vision drift past the foreground of familiar shapes and textures, one sees this painting as an opening to unbounded depths.

When Intimate Agitation is understood as an image of an immensity, the painting's long, limber streaks of pigment take on a life independent of any suggestion of branch or vine that they might make. One senses the energy of Yang's gesture, as he reaches across the canvas and into the imaginary space of the image. And one begins to perceive the rhythm that organizes this universe, whether microcosm or macrocosm--a rhythm at once so simple and so complex that it might be better to call it something else, perhaps a cycle of evolution. I'm referring to the repetition one feels in scanning the surface of this painting. No form is repeated in detail. Rather, an idea of form is elaborated to the left, then taken up with variations of the right. The effect is subtle but inescapable, like the flow of time when one's attention is directed elsewhere.

The transition from left to right is of course more abrupt in Debussy. It is far less so in Stage of Void, 1997. Here curving bands reach across the space between the painting's two clusters of form. These bands are faint, almost like inflections of the light they are passing through. And in the regions connected by these ribbon-like forms, color has evolved into a range of luminous tones. Those tones reappear in String Quartet, "Autumn," 1996-97, and here they are even brighter--so much so that the darkest forms of this painting seem to be filled with light, as living things are filled with moisture.

Though String Quartet is a diptych, it generates no dramatic clash from the juxtaposition of its panels. At certain points along their abutment, a shape reaches from one canvas to the other. Thus the two surfaces are united in a single unfurling of form that looks panoramic, for this is a large painting filled with large gestures. At the same time, the division between the two canvases often looks absolute--a barrier impossible for some forms to cross. And so, from the sweep of this diptych's imagery comes a doubleness haunted by the idea of unity.

It's almost as if the two panels of String Quartet show one configuration of leaf and stem from different angles--or at different stages in the season. To make this point in pictorial terms: the formal links between the two panels nearly overcome the division between them, so that String Quartet seems to show us the same painting at two stages of its coming into being. For here is a sameness that allows difference, a play of difference that never denies the possibility of equivalence--and ultimate unity.

String Quartet reverberates with the themes that animate Yang's art. In particular, this painting gathers up and clarifies the seasonal currents that we have followed through his exhibition. Thus it shows in full the consequences of Yang's liberation from the calendar. For the "Autumn" in the subtitle of String Quartet implies all the other times of year. In the intensity of its brighter tones is a memory of summer's blaze and of the bright, icy chill of winter. And a faint, spring like green appears at the upper edge of the right-hand panel. Spring's rebirth implies winter and death. In life, an equivalent of death is inattentiveness. Its opposite is the state of intensely focused contemplation that Yang's paintings invite with their grandeur and quietude.

~Carter Ratcliff

        All rights reserved. © Chihung Yang 2008