Chihung Yang: Paintings and Works on Paper 1986-1987

Chihung Yang’s brilliant color, gestural brushwork, and dynamic surge of forms all give his work the painterly bravura of Expressionism. But his astonishing range of graphic nuance derives from ancient Chinese calligraphy as much as from modern Expressionism: delicate skeins of lines, fragile smudges of charcoal, and scattered webs of pigment create intricate graphic rhythms in interacting with thickly impastoed surfaces.

Yang grew up in Taiwan, where he studied both Western and Chinese art, and moved to New York in 1979. He exploits painterly and philosophical contrasts in his background to create a rich and eccentric poetry.

Like many postmodern painters, Yang shifts continually between representation and abstraction, and his sources run a wide gamut of past styles, with affinities—beyond Chinese art—to Symbolism, German Expressionism, and Abstract Expressionism. Still, an inherent poetry and dual cultural heritage distinguish Yang from what Sidney Tillim has called the “Glitzkrieg Expressionists,” allowing him to use the language of the current artistic scene yet at the same time to stand back from it with some detachment.

The artist says he strives to fuse Western and Eastern values and views of Nature, since the Western approach is “too analytical and lacking in poetry, and the Eastern too naïve.” Through symbols and a symbolic space inspired by Chinese philosophy, Yan’s painting expresses a revealing tension between Western and Eastern thought.

Yang uses a symbolic human figure and varied primeval forms (fossils, Pre-Columbian and African sculptures, primitive masks, Taoist symbols of change and renewal) to fuse distant cultures and history. The diverse imagery in the world surrounding the human figures implies continuity in culture and history, a universal matrix, but his human figures are ahistorical, rootless.

Yang works in at least two different, and seemingly contradictory, modes: one is Symbolist and meditative, with a focus on large-scale and classically drawn figures; though seemingly fragmented, these works are unified by the vital impulse of line. The other mode he employs is fiercely Expressionistic and allegorical. Dense with symbols from history and religion, these paintings are a virtual battlefield of clashing colors and discordant realities.

Confessions Of The Mask, Yang’s vast and enigmatic composition (measuring 98 x78 inches) of monumental female nudes in an abstract landscape, is a haunting Symbolist poem of concentrated power. An entire cosmos is hinted at, yet nothing is made explicit in this painting where Yang’s fusion of classically contoured figures with a curious primitive mask creates an arresting, timeless image. Like both the ancient Chinese and the Symbolists, the artist sees the enigma of humanity’s destiny as profoundly linked to the natural order, but here his theme becomes modern man’s displacement within that system. The painting’s mysterious aura and mood of poetic reverie have a strong affinity to Gauguin’s Where Do We Come From and Te Reroira. But where Gauguin’s landscape is in idealized harmony with its inhabitants, a dream of tranquility and wholeness, here instead Nature surrounds the human forms, but does not embrace them, and is painted as abstract fragments.

Yang’s painting is ambiguous, presenting an embattled harmony between a Chinese vision of beneficent cycles of growth, change, and eternal regeneration, expressed in the arching calligraphic strokes of the tree, and the harsher Western note of discord, as symbolized in the mask—a striking central image that divides the forms of the two women. As in Munch, Ensor, or Gauguin, the primitive mask serves as Freudian id, an emblem of savage emotions hidden behind dispassionate faces. On the one hand, Nature is a unified vital force, as seen in the tree, but Nature is also divisive, as seen in the disquieting imagery of the mask.

Within the cosmos, perpetually in motion, humanity remains mute and paralyzed. Yang deftly uses composition, color, and varied painting styles to set up contrasts emphasizing this disjunction. Inspired by Taoist philosophy, the abstract elements composing the work, set in motion by the Chi or vital force, form circles and spiraling ellipses, symbolic of eternal change. Beautiful abstract passages of thrown and scattered pigment interact with more modeled forms to suggest the potential of movement. Yet in this mobile world, the monumental nudes project a mood of stasis and anxiety. Though one female looks toward the other, they seem disconnected and remote. Their figures are drawn—in the black of charcoal—with deliberate classical outlines, then brushed with thin washes of paint in a delicate terracotta, which slows the compositional tempo and contributes to the contemplative mood. By thickening and varying the accent of the line, the artist suggests the weight of forms, but his line somehow subtly drains these bodies of any suggestion of desire or movement. By contrast, the mask has no linear definition: heavily impastoed with splashes of skin tones in pinks and ochre’s, it becomes savagely animate, more palpably flesh than the human faces. Swift calligraphic strokes make the tree pulse upwards in exuberant rhythms. Juxtaposed to the paralysis of the figures, the tree is a symbol of Nature’s purpose and inexhaustibility. The figures are misfits, pure mythic beings who do not belong; notwithstanding their classical beauty, they suggest the futility of action or commitment.

While the figures express alienation, the painting in its abstract and linear elements communicates an Oriental sense of eternal opposites in cosmic balance: fecundity and decay, activity and repose. At the center of the work, veils of luminous yellows and whites magically evoke a resonant distance. The entire composition, with its concise symbols of tree and mask, subtle interplay of movement and stasis, lush contrast of darks and lights, is both a sensitive fusion of Eastern and Western thought and an unsettling image of modern man’s inactivity and dislocation. The work is innately Symbolist in its refusal to yield explicit meanings, fulfilling Mallarmé’s goals of allusiveness and musicality.

While Confessions Of The Mask reveals mankind’s uneasy truce with a dynamic if silent Nature, Life And Death Triptych (included in the artist’s solo exhibition in London, 1986) and the The Myth Of Natural Cycle (to be included in the Chicago installation) embody what Yang has called “Nature’s scream.”

Color rather than line dominates here, in a cosmos where an almost brutal Western Nature would appear to rule: harsh colors and images of skulls, weapons, and dead animals move in angry and cataclysmic rhythms across large canvases. The classical females of the first-named painting have given way to erotic, sinewy superwomen. Vegetal nature is luxuriant but ominous, with spiky swordlike leaves that seem to threaten and entrap in a manner recalling Max Beckmann. Despite his use of bold gestural brushwork and other Expressionist devices, Yang has again organized his somber and menacing forms into Taoist ellipses and spirals around a magnetic, light-emanating center. This luminous space, with its layers of ochre, pink, and grey, recalls Redon and suggests an infinity beyond the canvas.

The artist uses the large works on paper (most measure 50 X 38 inches), in his own words, to “discover a feeling for an image” and “build up his vocabulary of images.” His lines are sometimes very delicate, sometimes bold and very black. Often he breaks the line with passages of oil stick, usually pale pink or grey. His most recent drawings show a beautiful, newly invented technique of oil stick applied over charcoal, in which forceful black lines laid down above a richly textured ground delineate the forms of seeds, roots, pods emerging through layers of pastels or charcoal. These images of gestation and growth seem themselves to be germinating or evolving before our eyes, like elemental natural forces in the very process of becoming. In these works on paper, the artist’s line transmits the life-giving impulse from one form to another, and a sense of buoyant rhythmic energy informs the whole.

Yang’s distinctive artistic sensibility lies in his personal merging of aspects of Expressionism and Symbolism with his Chinese calligraphic heritage. Certain themes—the anxious disjunction between humankind and Nature on both physical and metaphysical levels, the seeming futility of positive action—are concerns that are modern and Western, as are such qualities as the figures’ large scale and the aggressive brushwork. But Yang’s reliance on line, and the sensitive graphic touch that charges his work with a subtle energy of pace and texture, are oriental, as are the drama of light and dark and the symbolic space.

This fusion of discordant traditions and ideas is difficult to bring off; in some works the symbols are overly dense and overly literal, as if not yet possessed by the artist. While it is too early in this young and still-evolving artist’s career to predict what aspect of style will ultimately claim his vision, for now Yang seems to me at his powerful best in the meditative mode of Confessions Of The Mask. Here, he translates a complex and emotional vision of humanity’s existential predicament into a distilled poetic whole. In this quieter Symbolist mode, Yang’s cross-cultural melding of images is more felt and internalized. He has made his symbols his own, as compelling visual metaphors for the eternal enigma of our relation to the natural world, our inner and outer landscapes, for modern man’s perplexed relation to the possibility of action, and the precariousness of our place on the earth.

~Margaret Sheffield

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