Roadless Road


When we think about the art world of the 1980s, many images come to mind – events, personalities, and phenomena that are difficult to reconcile, impossible to bring within any single point of view. Naturally, when one speaks of the artists of the ‘80s, one can’t help thinking of those who dominated the pages of the fashionable press and brought down the gavels of the marketplace. But they only tell one side of the decade’s story, one that is likely to seem less consequential as time passes. My 1980s were lived in a different part of the forest and, chances are, so were yours.

For me, Chihung Yang, who moved from Taiwan to New York in 1979 and whose work I first saw in 1984 – the year I began working for art magazines – and first wrote about in 1985, is one of the artists who represents the spirit of the decade as much as any of the more-touted names of the time. His paintings when I first knew them and on through the decade represented an intensity, a feverish eroticism, a tremendous anxiety about the relevance of history (not only art history) to the possibility of living one’s life and making one’s art in a present that seemed equally open to opportunity and menace. At times they seemed to represent as well a certain sense of perversity, a carnivalesque overturning of order that remains inseparable from my sense of what it was like to live in New York in the mid- ‘80s.

Back in 1985, my claim was that “Yang implicitly contests the unity of any culture.” Despite the difference in emphasis between contestation and affirmation, I must have had in mind something like the optimism with which John Yau would write the following year in a catalogue introduction, “Yang has chosen to affirm… the interconnectedness of history and the present, ancient cultures and modern civilization, East and West.” What retrospection now allows me to surmise is that Yang was presciently intimating less an interconnectedness than the utter inadequacy of both history and the present, of both ancient wisdom and modern knowledge, that his clashes of imagery exposed the absolute limitations at once experienced and disavowed on both sides in the confrontation of East and West. The sense of heat emanated by Yang’s paintings of the ‘80s would index, on this view, the friction among these opposing forces, and the fury of the effort to integrate them; the spirit of ruin and decadence that emerged with such insistence in those paintings signifying the melancholy self-consciousness of a mind sophisticated enough to have detached itself form one sphere without wanting to assimilate itself to a new one. It is the state of mind of someone like Salmon Rushdie saying, “I have always to some extent felt unhoused.” From such a standpoint, the future just as much as the past can only be viewed with nostalgia: as an empty ruin.


Cut to the present. We’re well into the 1990s, a decade that can be said to have begun in anticipation of itself, in 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall. New ruins are being made. We are witness to early stages of what could well be one of the world’s great periods of mass migration, an unheard of flux of human beings across boundaries that begin to seem less and less fixed by any lived reality. Cultures, religions, histories are being compacted with a speed and abundance that appears unprecedented.

And the painter, pushing forward in his studio according to promptings that come, unbidden, from both inside and out? We may be surprised to discover that, impassioned as his brush remains, his imagery and palette have to a great extent unburdened themselves of their violence, their stress, their heat. The world has not quite caught up with him; he’s already somewhere else, conjuring other futures.

Most notably, he is no longer painting the human figure. But did he ever? The figures Yang painted were always at one remove—not so much representations of the figure as representations of painting of the figure, of sculptures of it, perhaps simply of memories of it. Those memories still haunt the silent spaces of his paintings, but just this side of recognition and distant from any souvenir of narrative; present rather through the sense of bodiliness that is always capable of arising in a leaf or a stone as Yang paints it or even in the suddenly fleshly texture of a smudge or streak of paint as it surrounds and contours some such image. (Yang is one of the few painters I know who can lend acrylic this organic quality that comes so much more naturally to oil paint.)

One painting of 1993, essentially an exalted still life in which a central stem-like vertical draws the eye upward to a marvelously kinetic evocation of the stillness of leaves within the flux of their atmosphere, insistently recalled for me, on my first view of it, a Crucifixion. This was not only because of its essential cruciform composition or even the skull form, distilled from the more descriptive images of animal skulls in Yang’s earlier work and alluding beyond that, I’d guess, to the human skull often shown at the base of the Cross in traditional representations of the Crucifixion – but more generally because of the unexpected air of massive solemnity, even mourning, contained by such anodyne imagery, its sense of some nameless yet momentous transaction occurring between upper and lower realms. Only when I remembered that Yang had in fact painted a Crucifixion back in 1987-88, a rather Bacon-inflected warp of tradition to one side of which the head of a symbolic sacrificial lamb remarked the viewer, could I reassure myself that this subject was indeed part of Yang’s terrain. But comparison of the two paintings shows just how much Yang has modified his approach: the earlier one, though without disrespect for the artistic or religious traditions the image represents, amounted to a personalized profanation of the icon of suffering, while the recent painting, tellingly titled Another kind Of Halo, goes in the opposite direction, drawing a religious pitch of empathy out of imagery that is tendentially decorative, mute, and quasi-abstract.

Or look at Black Flowers (1993), one of the most beautiful and most daring of Yang’s recent paintings. I’ve never seen him expose raw canvas like this: almost the entire right side of the painting lies bare, set off only by a pair of headlong, upward-speeding slashes of intense black, one of them leading to a pool of jet in the upper right corner. These two strokes seem to cut right into the flesh of the canvas, that “voluptuous void” (to reappropriate the splendid title of yet another of Yang’s paintings of 1987-88). To the left, this fluid blackness slowly blooms into the flowers of the title, drawn back by and into the green and earthen ground of the bottom left quadrant but exhaling, above, a radiant blue-white atmosphere that flares like a cool flame. Silently, this painting says so much: it speaks, for instance, of the contradiction in Yang’s work between the seductions of color on the one hand, which his paintings so often communicate as a soothing and enveloping thickness, and on the other a graphic line that cuts and divides or even, when condensed into an image, seems seared into the space of the canvas – and of how this conflict can play itself out as a commanding equilibrium. If we also think of these tow stylistic elements as indexing two of the deep sources of Yang’s art, namely Venetian painting and Chinese calligraphy, then it becomes possible to see in this work the image of a way of holding together radically distinct cultures – in neither synthesis nor hierarchy nor opposition, but in a radical tension that diminishes neither, though wisely, perhaps resignedly, acknowledging their partiality.

I said before that Yang’s work had unburdened itself of some of its violence, stress, heat. That hardly means they have been eliminated. Yet, paradoxically, it is just because they have been placed at certain contemplative distance that they now feel even more intensely immediate and penetrate more deeply. Fossils are now more to the point than ruins. So if Yang’s paintings appear to have cooled down, lowered their emotional temperature in the last few years, it’s just that the tensions they embody have become more internalized. Before, it would have made sense to speak of Yang’s paintings as containing various images; more and more now, in paintings like Black Flowers or Another Kind Of Halo, the image (however complex or constructed) demands to be understood as coextensive with the painting as a whole. In that sense the tendency of the recent paintings is to become more abstract – or perhaps I should say, to work more abstractly. The painting becomes an image of Painting, and one which recalls the French poet Joseph Guglielmi’s evocation of the Book envisioned by his book (the translation is Rosmarie Waldrop’s):

It is but passage, a crossroad of meanings where fragmentation opposes constraint and openness, flow and suspense… A road (tao), the roadless road of exile…

~Barry Schwabsky

        All rights reserved. © Chihung Yang 2008