Authenticity is Beauty:
Huang Yen-yung’s Neo-Abstractism as I see it
Peter S. Chiao
【Editor’s Note: The reviewer, Dr. Peter S. Chiao, himself a pioneer of abstract painting in Taiwan, ROC, and a lifetime dedicated educator in art. Ms. Huang, his able disciple, is a blossoming artist in neo-abstract painting. This essay was adopted as "Preface" to her newly published album, Free Display of Utmost Love: Huang Yen-yung and Her Art of Paintingt, June 2004, Taipei.】
For forty years have I dedicated myself to abstract paintings. From theory to practice, from exploring abstractism to creations of abstract works, I have undergone through three stages: from imagery nature, to abstract nature and, finally, to spirito-symbolic nature. (Cf. "My Creative Experience: An Abstractist’s Self-Account" in The Artists, No. 162.) I still enjoy my adventures in the organismic abstractions of this third nature. But, for a certain period of time, I had an fantastic experience in sur-realism, winding up in the expansion of my scope of creation, and opening up for me another new world of abstractism. On my part, therefore, it arouses certain reflective thoughts in my mind.
Semi-Abstractism and Abstraction
In the West, a century has passed for the abstract school of paintings since the lyrical abstractism of Wassily Kandisky (1866-1944). Now, interpretations on the meanings of its primordial concepts are forgotten by many of its practitioners. It is no longer the "universal" nature for them. All abstract images are but certain psychological symbols of perception, in terms of which the abstractists tend to interpret and paint the dreams, or to attempt at the hermeneutic interpretations of no dreams.
For this kind of symbolic language, form is content. In spite of "organismic" activities involved, there is no theme; hence pure (of content), and metaphysical (or trans-material).
In Taiwan, the so called "semi-abstractism" has been thus developed along this very guideline, except that it does contain the concrete in miniature, hence implying certain contents.
Semi-abstractism differs from abstraction, in that the former means abstracting from the concrete all its unessential elements, making it symbolized, and linking it to objects of variant space and time for re-organization, highly suggestive and symbolic in character, thus transporting the viewer to a certain directional space, whereas the latter means the process of abstracting, that is, a process aimed to reduce and simplify the concrete images into abstract expressive forms.
The East and the West have shared in common the use of the semi-abstract mode, though variant in outward forms, yet essentially homogeneous in substance and content, e.g., the neo-Abstractism recently developed in America.
My view of abstract art: I always feel that we should better work for the fulfillment of human nature. For reasons that:
An excessive formalism is devoid of life, hence without the human note and tone;
An excessively materialized art is devoid of soul, like a block.
The above observation, of course, is not advanced from the American point of view.
Representation and Restrain
Ecstasy is the spirit of representation. Without authenticity in ecstasy, there would be no beauty in representation.
With regard to the representative art, therefore, its energy source is authenticity; and authenticity originates from the psychic sun-energy.
By "the representationist art in Europe" we mean the predominantly subjectivist art of the early 20th century in general, which is the necessary consequence of the main tendency of thought in art. In the wake of the World War II, abstract representationism emerged in America; its intense mode of ecstatic language provided a channel of strong emotional expression for those who were frustrated and suffering at the time. It is because it is thoroughly authentic, free from any traces of artificiality, that it could dominate the artistic thought in America sweepingly and form the main strains thereof.
In China there is also a story about the representationist. It was said of Wang Chia of the Tang Dynasty, who, "once utterly drunken, with a bunch of his hair on the head richly dipped in the ink, had painted (a masterwork) on the silk scrolls." (Cf. Records of Famous Painting in History.) This suggests that an artist, on the spur of the moment when his creative impulse is started from within his authentic being, his true self, he can well make use of the movements of his head, his hand, his feet, or his body as instruments of representation, to complete his creative work. This is the beginning of the "method of dausing." To paraphrase in our contemporary terminology, he was the mobil-painter with bodily actions, an initiator of representationism indeed!
By such examples, ancient and modern, we can well illustrate the thesis that the motivating factor of art remains authenticity of the ecstatic representation in human nature. Free from artificial actions, it is the primordial beauty of the heart of the innocent child. Hence, authenticity is the inner source and origin of art, developing spontaneously from within. In this sense, authenticity is (the ground of) beauty.
But, authenticity does not necessarily conform with the socially acceptable norm of human conduct and behavior; it tends to involve the impulse of explosive transgressions, even charged, to certain extent, with aggressiveness. For this reason, the Easterners stress on the importance of restraint. Restraint, by nature, is a kind of cultivation by virtue of the discipline in self-control, rationally and peacefully; it is the virtue of utmost gentleness and graciousness. We fail to perceive it outwardly, but it dominates our human thought and feeling. This very spirit of restraint, once fully represented in the life of art, is what is called the full-round state of perfect consummation, made possible by the inter-complementarity of the vigorous and the gentle, the masculine and the feminine. (A leading contemporary American contextualistic philosopher of art Dr. Lewis E. Hahn chose to term it "Principle of Optimal Effects.")
Therefore, we maintain that the ecstatic (the Dionysos Spirit) is the fountainhead, the source and origin, of art-creations, yet too much inclined towards the masculine, it must needs be inter-complemented with restrain, feminine and gentle in character (the Apollo Spirit).
Laotzu remarks: "Tao is manifested in the mode of successive operation of yin and yang." This theory of Tao as equilibrium and harmony manifested in the mode of successive operation of yin and yang is the ground of the totem of the ultimate ultimacy, known as tai chi. Thus, we see that Tao is the substance of art; nay, it is simply art by itself. This is the concept "abstract" in the supreme order. Tao is eternal. Hence, art-creation is like the Ch’an experience. One’s dream can only be completely fulfilled in the enlighentment under the aspect of serenity. The light of Tao can only be seen in the mental state of pure sunyata, as if sheer whiteness is generated in an empty room.
Organismism and Vitalism
In 1988, when I wrote "My Creative Process," I stated: "We shall so aim as to impart into the organismic what is vitalistic." There these two terms were not adequately clarified.
Actually, the term "organismic" or "organic," as I used there in the contexts, is not any philosophical terminology. It was adopted from my painting titled "Organisimic Abstraction." The term "organismic" refers to the psychological motivating factor in the subconscious, and, for lack of an apt term, a kind of un-nameable organismic symbol. I call it the Original-Ego of Life, a spontaneous primordial language, which I have employed as the media material for abstract art-creations.
The theory of vitalism refers to Tao as the creative matrix in Eastern art. But I refrain from using this kind of philosophical jargons, known as terminologies, rendered so mysterious, so lofty, and so profound. To put it simply, "imparting the vitalistic into the organismic" means just "my yearnings to return to the human world and, starting from humanity as a point of departure, to embrace an ever living Life Itself ." My art-creations now is the actualization of such an ideal.
Tao as the Fountain-Spring of Art
Though based on my recognition of art-creations now, such an idea sounds like a truism, without novelty at all.
But I wish to stress: The fountain-spring of art can be never separated from authenticity. The artistic thought capable of expressing authenticity is what the Taoist philosophers have called Tao, in the sense of reverting to the Simple and restoring to the Authentic.
Thus, I have drawn a sketch, an outline for my art -- by no means a frame!
To take a path of the meta-physical and infra-physical in one is at once abstract and concreate.
I desire for beauty: I need the masculine; I need the feminine, too,
My art is the most authentic record of my feelings. It is the world in the mind’s eye of an Easterner.
It is really difficult to fulfill one’s dreams in the kingdom of art; but that is the springtime for the artists.
Implications of Yen-yung’s Neo-Abstractism
The motivating factor for art-creations as her commitment is authenticity as the fountain-spring of Yen-yung’s threads of thought, in addition to her application of the method of abstraction -- meaning thereby to preserve concrete forms within abstract forms. Thus, she states: " Nature is the motif of creations, the matrix of art. I never exclude these; let them take their own courses to develop." "Nature," referred hereto, is used in the broad sense, meaning pan-Nature or pan-Life in general: the art-forms are the forms shattered to pieces but reconfigured by recombining; they are those restored forms become mind.
She continues, her paintings are works wrought from the visually formed objects into the perceptually non-formed "Nature become Mind." This is the common goal declared by all the 20th century revolutionary artists, and the common path pursued by them all, as well. She re-started with the same goal as a point of departure.
Yen-yung is now a professional painter. In her early career she has served in education. After her retirement, she should have been able to enjoy her life, travelling far and wide to visit the great mountains and rivers. But she has been dedicated whole-heartily to works of painting, all her dress being smeared with multi-colored oil paints, a sure sign of her motto "Free Displays of Passion." In view of her commitment to art, nay, an attachment nearing a divine madness, we are glad to be convinced that age is not necessarily a factor of limitation.
Her greatest strength consists in her acute perception, and her explosive power of artistic representations. I have classified her paintings under two categories:
(1) Concrete Nature – Originally concrete, Nature becomes abstractized, concurring with the above mentioned concept of semi-abstractism; yet she differs from the current average semi-abstract painters, in that she is not one confined to scenic spots abstraction, reduction, and reconfiguration; in stead, she resorts to misplacing the objects in space and time, skillfully exercising the color functions and, finally, super-adding to them symbolic forms, so as to transport the viewers into her inner worlds. Thus, you see, her "Nature" is a reconfigured composite, hence post-modernistic.
(2) Abstract Nature – Non-formed Nature is the abstract representationism of post-abstractism: ecstatic, erratic, explosive, and transgressive, thus all techniques of dippling, dausing, painting, coating, and grazing , etc., being employed without restriction.
Art no longer represents Nature as She is; rather, it is the representation of one’s inner beauty of spirit and body, and of materials. Yen-yung has committed herself to this ideal; but she has also sifted therefrom the kind of artistic language she endorses to, and has it well transformed into her own media, e. g., the subconscious she has grasped from contingencies, or accidentiality. She says, these are the moments of authenticity in her inner world, the "forms" condensed from her primordial Life, her transcendental reality. These make the consummate parts of her ideas of art-creation.
For examples: "The Tale of Tales," p. 29; "On Recollection," p. 34; "The Order without Order," p. 52; "Expectancy," p. 96, etc., all belong to this category.
Collages: A Way of Recognizing Novelties by Going over the Old
To be able to completely fulfill a painter’s dream is not a matter of premeditated planning or programming. For creation originates from intuition and meditation: Yen-yung enjoys travelling, she enjoys, too, to do paintings and meditations at the Mountian and Sea View Villa, another of her residence in Ki-lung (a suburban area northeast of Taipei). This location is marked by landscape scenic beauty and surrounding atmospheric serenity as well. Her paintings of the glowing mountains and shadowy clouds are all done here. Viewing new scenic objects in foreign lands surely stimulates her sense of beauty; visiting great museums amounts to attending art classes. A couple of years ago, she saw the collages of Pablo Ruis Picasso (1881-1973) in Paris; she was deeply impressed. Until now she still keeps using the waste prints for media, and quite adequately, for sure.
She has a painting titled "Love of Mountains and the Sea," p. 17, wherein the oil paints are blended with acrylics, plus print cards, dark green in tone, thus making a collage with un-nameable forms. It "sounds" like telling a graphically touching story one never gets tired of listening to. Here lies her everlasting fascination!
Moving forwards towards the Third Wave of Abstractism
It is rather difficult to distinguish the formal imports of art, especially of modern art. The search for the imports is aimed at the constructive nature of forms. Description of imports also determines the art forms.
Yen-yung’s paintings are the products from her spontaneous nature; hence there is no definite form to pin down, so to speak, though all belonging to the abstract series. The motif source varies with the ebb and flow of her moods. Which is the case, really? –the changing views of natural scenes impacts on art creations and determines thereby the tendencies of art? Or, simply, "Existence determines Consciousness?"
Such topics are my concern here. I only wish to point out that I am amazed at the quick growth of her art.
Yen-yung took the normal path to start with the traditional art, and from there to move into modernism (abstractism). But the whole course of her development is not one of gradual transmutation; but one of suddenly emergent mutation! By this I mean that, in the short span of a couple of years or so, both her art styles and her art ideals are elevated all the way upwards, in a remarkably swift way, towards an unprecedented height in order. She has developed a "neo-abstractism," aimed at the deepening of abstract ideals, in hopes of stimulating the third wave for abstract art in Taiwan. How did she come to such an idea?
In the Western world, abstractism has never disappeared from the field of art. It represents the main trends of thought in contemporary art. In Taiwan, however, abstract art began to bud in the 50s until its decline and down-going in the 80s. Numerous reasons can be cited for the phenomenon. To sum up:
(1) The vicissitude of fashion;
(2) The impact of nationalism and provincialism on art and literature tending toward realism;
(3) The commercialization of art – to the effect that the artists themselves have deviated from their normal path as pursuers of authentic beauty.
(4) The false abstractism (or pseudo-abstractism, in the expression of the art critic Kuan Chi-chug) is so prevailing as a fashion that it well passes for genuine abstractism, just as the fish eye balls could do for genuine pearls!
But competent critics disagree. Admittedly, the above statement holds, but not absolutely; What holds absolutely is the observation, that with the lapse of time no efforts have been made to enhance the qualities of abstract works. How can you take the early products of "the abstract impulse," works of the period of apprenticeship, as the final guidepost of art? How can that satisfy yourself? and be recognized by the readers?
It was under such context of reflections that Yen-yung had started her career as an artist; she has undergone certainly a rather long period of experimentation, from the unconscious depiction of formed objects to the perfecting process of refinement, until finally her own art style takes shape! Thus, it has exhausted every moment of her life, night and day. I am inclined to be convinced that this holds the key to the puzzle of the amazing swiftness of her emergent mutation -- so to speak.
"Novelty" as the Ever-running Fountain-Spring
Whether abstract art is able to initiate a third wave in Taiwan? I dare not say. But, I dare say, for sure, that it is absolutely possible to re-elevate abstract art to an ever higher level of excellence. For Taiwan art in the 50s, abstractism is like the sparks of ignition. Once thus ignited, all of a sudden, there emerged great flames. But, soon afterwards, for lack of a sufficient refill of the fuel, and supply of nutrition, it failed to take root and get deepened in the fertile soil for further development. Nevertheless, if considered under the aspect of the characteristics of art in the Eastern cultural background, it is our firm belief and deep conviction that there remains, absolutely, great spaces for abstract art here in this country.
So far, for the moment, Yen-yung’s abstract paintings are not completely immune from the Western modes. But her Eastern cultural background, her spontaneous impulse, and her potential instincts will, certainly, be brought forth, further develop, and flourish. I, therefore, have ventured to suggest a prefix "neo" to her style of abstractism, so as to mark it off from the customary genre, hoping it remains truly an ever-running fountain-spring for her art creations._
Peter S. Chiao, Ph. D.
Professor, Department & Graduate Institute of Art
National Normal University
Yung Ho, Taipei, Taiwan, ROC
April 2, 2004