China, in the Abstract

Chinese artist Chihung Yang has been on a decades-long search for the primal essence of painting. At the age of 15, Yang read Irving Stone’s classic biography on Vincent van Gogh, “Lust for Life,” and duly inspired, thus set out on his own journey into the magical realm of art. Yang’s deeply complex abstractions are the result of his search for the existential origins of painting, an attempt to rapidly backtrack through time, capturing the strokes and colors of both master artists and early cave painters alike, yet in his own hand. In reading Yang’s sweeping brushwork and engaging color palette, the viewer is able to escape into a universe informed by art history, yet ruled by the Chinese tradition of the ephemeral, historically defined through the notion of “floating clouds and flowing waters.” Indeed, in standing before Yang’s work, it seems as if the universe has come to a standstill, that his clouds and rivulets of paint have been frozen in time, yet always, seemingly, ready to undulate at a moment’s notice. Chihung Yang hence becomes a magician of sorts, or perhaps a modern day literati granted the impossible ability to halt motion through the tactile application of paint to canvas.

As abstract painting, Yang’s oeuvre stands its own in comparison with the great names of the tradition, whether Western or Chinese. Here, it is important to note that his initial inspiration lies not in the work of his Chinese forebears and their strong tradition of ink painting, a mode of expression that vastly inspired the Abstract Expressionists in the West, but in Impressionism, namely the work of van Gogh. All too often, those writings on contemporary Chinese art fail to mention the fact that Western art history was both known and enthusiastically studied in art academies across Asia for much of the 20th-century. Many schools set up a division in their pedagogical methods, one focused on traditional ink painting, and the other on oil painting, deeply rooted as it was in the West. As a result, students in China and Japan (to name just a few places) who embarked down the road of working in oils were fully tuned into the history of the medium as it played out abroad, and were equally familiar with how their own predecessors used it to new ends. It is therefore correct to posit that a new and distinctively Asian mode of oil painting developed that was equally swayed by the tide of European and American art history, just as it found inspiration in the centuries-old methods of ink painting at home. Yang is a prime example of these two traditions seamlessly coalescing into one, and as such, stands as one of China’s most successful abstract masters.

Over and above the historical and theoretical underpinnings of Yang’s inspiration, the artist’s technical application of paint is exceedingly skillful. The dialectic marks he leaves behind combine together into perfectly balanced compositions that hint at the grandeur of nature, or perhaps chaos unleashed and then reigned in. As a colorist, Yang mixes subtle monochromatic hues with bright bursts of paint used to accentuate. This fleeting appearance of color results in a feeling of life breaking through soil, or of rays of sun peeking through clouds. And in fact, certain organic structures do emerge from the otherwise abstract nature of Yang’s painting: floral imagery in the form of buds, roots and veins seem to break through his otherwise lyric brushwork, life once again yearning to shoot forth. Although these traces of flora are by no means figurative, one must view them as the natural progression of Yang’s project to capture the intrinsic nature of painting: he gives life to painterly form, just as Mother Nature gives birth to life. And in basing his abstractions in the vocabulary of nature, Yang thus creates paintings that seem to stand in for the birth of painting itself. Each picture thus become an allegory for the existential nature, indeed the very origins, of the medium of paint, and Yang in his own way becomes Creator, ruling over his own universe of line, form and color imploded into the abstraction of nothingness.

Relating Yang’s paintings to the current state of contemporary Chinese art, one might at first look assume that his work is an anachronism to the much sought after Social Realism and Mao-infused Pop Art that so dominates the market today. However, as with all nations, the stereotypical or popular mode of art production at any given time is just one facet of a truly diverse art system in which all styles and methods are vastly represented. Yang stands out from the pack of his contemporaries working in the above-mentioned styles simply because he aims to negate style first and foremost. Yang notes that he endeavors to work in a “styleless style” so as to move beyond the static terminology and modes of painting that have come to define the medium. As mentioned above, he seems to swirl the history of painting into a wholly new composition that touches on the point of the medium’s origins: de Kooning and cave painter alike redacted into ideas, touch and line, these elements themselves then reformulated via Yang’s tactile intervention.

If one were to compare Yang’s work to any of his contemporaries, it might be most fruitful to speak of him as working along similar lines as master artist Cai Guo-Qiang. Cai, best known for his gunpowder drawings, explosion events and massive installation art, has been called an alchemist cum artist thanks to his experiments with gunpowder as artistic medium. By laying down gunpowder on paper and using cut-out forms to achieve a given motif, then igniting the gunpowder so that the chosen forms literally burn into the paper below, Cai leaves a great amount of the actual “making” of his work to chance. Imagery is thus born of fire, one of the four primary elements of the universe. Thinking along these lines, and thanks to his stated desire to reduce painting to its primary and existential origins, Chihung Yang shares Cai Guo-Qiang’s desire to boil contemporary art production down to its lowest common denominators. Although one works in fire, and the other in paint, both of them yearn to create works that are universal, and perhaps more importantly, that compel the viewer to think about such diverse subjects as creation myths, art history and life itself. In this light, both artists may be considered as modern day sages who channel the energy of history and life into visual compositions radiating in the existential and the sublime.

~ Eric C. Shiner

Eric C. Shiner is an independent curator and art historian specializing in Japanese contemporary art. He holds two Masters degrees in the History of Art, one from Yale University and the other from Osaka University. An assistant curator of the Yokohama Triennale in 2001, Shiner is an active writer and translator, a contributing editor for Art AsiaPacific magazine, and adjunct professor of Asian art history at Pace University in New York City.

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