Tommy Chen (Chen Tao-Ming), a rather unfamiliar name in Taiwanese art, has spent most of his life negotiating with time. A devotee to abstract painting and a founding member of Ton-Fan (Dongfang) Art Group in 1956, he had to halt his visual art practice in the mid-1960s to support his growing family. Once he officially picked up his paintbrushes again around 1978, he resumed the pursuit in abstraction, a style that was considered “traditional” amidst the emergence of new media art in Taiwan. His persistence in exploring the possibilities of the painting medium seems to be making up for lost time, uninhibited by his age, his hiatus from art, or the conditions of Taiwan’s artistic environment. In his paintings, time is suspended and stretched as his vibrant concoction of colors and textures lures him and his viewers deeper into the picture. They soon discover the intricate patterns, grains, and stains that are culminations of the intimate exchanges between his psyche, hands, and the material. With a strong emphasis on process—not for the purpose of exposing the painter’s action but for his own pleasure of engaging with the material—his paintings become a documentation of his mind’s travels. An important contributor to Taiwan’s modernist painting movement in the postwar era and the first in his generation to commit to abstract art, Chen has never settled on any signature style, as many Modernist painters would, but is committed to explore the possibilities of prioritizing process and the demands of the material. His work is fraught with tension between Chinese and Western pictorial strategy and material attributes, harmonized through his incorporation of the element of time in his methodology and treatment of the medium. His paintings from the past five years and works on paper from nearly two decades, on view in this exhibition, demonstrate the painter’s diverse approaches and tireless experiments to communicate his painterly impulses and psyche with the outside world as he pushes the limits of the material and the two-dimensional art form.
Chen’s work exudes a sense of urgency from the very beginning of his career. This tendency, along with his outlook on life, is perhaps a result of an early life interrupted by events in war-stricken China in the 1930s and 1940s. Born in 1931 in Jinan, Shandong Province, Chen’s childhood was cut short by the Japanese invasion in 1937 and his family’s move to Chengdu, Sichuan in 1939. At age 8, his family relocated to Lanzhou, Gansu Province, where he began his first art lessons with an old ink painter, Pei Jianzhong. Pei’s first assignment for Chen was to grind the ink, a common assignment for a young person to harness patience. The disciplined engagement with the material and the invested time on such tedious yet crucial task left a strong impression on Chen, giving him a special sensitivity to his material. Lanzhou, a city surrounded by the monumental scenery of the Yellow River and Huangtu Plateau, which he spent much time sketching in ink, became an important backdrop of Chen’s consciousness and inspiration for his later work. Chen also visited the Dunhuang caves and absorbed the rich colors of Buddhist art that enriched his repertoire of artistic devices.
Ten years of training in traditional Chinese art and aesthetics gave Chena solid foundation in developing his own art. After leaving the mainland and arriving in Taipei in 1949, Chen enrolled in the fine art department of Taiwan Provincial Normal School (Today’s Taipei University of Education) and concentrated in Western-style painting. His sustaining desire for finding his personal voice is fueled by frustration—and hence an urge to make up for lost time—by the unsatisfying experience he had at the university. He felt suffocated by a monotonous, uninspiring instruction in the academy that favored copying that championed painting styles already exhausted by older generations. He and many of his future Ton-Fan cohorts poured over limited numbers of Western art publications in libraries and bookstores and tried to absorb Western painting movements of the early twentieth century. The unfamiliar territory of painting in Western medium became their hope to find a visual language suitable for their generation and a new modern Chinese art in Taiwan. A turning point of Chen’s career came around 1950 when he began private lessons with Li Zhongsheng (1912-1984), an innovative teacher and mentor to many Ton-Fan painters. Li, a Cantonese painter who participated in avant-garde painting groups in Tokyo and in the experimental Storm Society in Shanghai in the 1930s, implemented a non-traditional teaching method that de-emphasize copying and traditional skills but encourage personal expressions. It was a breeze of fresh air for young painters who felt stifled in the conservative Taiwanese academic environment.
Abstract art in Taiwan became a full-fledged movement with the launch of Ton-Fan Art Group in 1956 and their inaugural exhibition in November 1957. Chen and seven other co-founders of the society, who were all Li’s students, were nicknamed “The Eight Highwaymen of the East” (bada xiangma) by the literary pages of the United Daily News, signifying support from the cultural heavyweights and illustrating the pioneering nature of their work. Chen’s foyer into abstract art in this early period is represented by works in Surrealist and Analytical Cubist styles. The Mysterious Flutist from 1956 directly references Picasso’s iconic series of work in Analytical Cubist style of the 1910s, from the orientation of the musicians, the geometric reconfiguration of multiple bodies and instruments, to a subject matter and title associated with music. Chen transforms a dramatic scene from a work of his preferred composer, Mozart’s The Magic Flute, into an abstract painting. However, he employs rounder shapes and more fluid lines than Picasso in his deconstructed figures, with more recognizable bodies and architectural elements. Chen’s “personalized,” Cubist-inspired style, especially the curved lines, reveals a rooted calligraphic training in steering the brush. The result of which seems appropriate as they construct a melodic scene. While his early abstraction is still dependent on representation, it shows a young painter’s self-awareness of his own cultural traditions and cautious attitude in not blindly copying an established foreign style by inserting his subjectivity into the experiment.
During the same period, Chen dived into exploring the potential of abstraction in oracle bone characters (jiaguwen), further immersing his art with the element of time — with history. His investigation in the modern potential of ancient script is connected to similar efforts by Chinese artists of the early 20th century (such as painter-scholar Huang Binhong, 1865-1955), who were driven by nationalism in rediscovering and reinserting the essence of ancient Chinese seal script into their ink paintings. Postwar diaspora artists like Chen harnessed a desire to find the universal modernist, abstract language in their traditional calligraphy to reclaim cultural legitimacy internationally and a sense of belonging in Taiwan. Moreover, Western modernist artists’ interest in Eastern aesthetics, brushwork, and pictorial arrangement in their own abstract undertakings further pushed Asian artists to look into their own roots for inspirations. Chinese-born, Paris-based painter Zao Wou-ki is the first to effectively employ this postwar antiquarianism. In a series of paintings around 1953 and 1954, Zao loosens the pictographic structure of oracle bone characters to break down their linguistic mission and hinge on their abstract, mystic quality as a form of communication with divinity. He provided a successful model for synthesizing Chinese logic of the stroke with European mid-century lyrical abstraction and is admired by Chen and his generation of Taiwan Modernists.
Chen’s Work 1957is executed a few years after Zao’s series using a different strategy. The oracle bone characters are intensely layered, forming a dense cluster centralized on Chen’s canvas. This arrangement squeezes out the space in between characters to disrupt them from performing its original linguistic mission. The overlapping characters seem to transmit an anxiety of dealing with the frame and compositional balance and with the suffocating burden of tradition, revealing a young painter’s path of exploration. The anxiety perhaps also stems from a desire to be associated to and validated by the historical past and a daunting responsibility to update tradition. By openly experimenting with new directions of abstraction, Chen weaves the ancient codes of knowledge into his work, forming a sense of historicism that infuse “time” into his visual expressions and artistic practice.
Before Chen took a break from painting in the middle of 1960s, his work explored several directions of abstraction in favor of self-expression and breaking the compositional conventions of Chinese art. Though it was evident that the artist struggled with transforming Chinese visual conventions into a pictorial language inspired by Western, external devices, his strong sense of self-expression is undeniably visible. The paintings in the late 1970s, after Chen’s return to painting, show a stunning maturity and ease in handling the material without much inhibition. The artist seemed to have come to comfortable terms with his cultural background and his objective in painting, which is self-enjoyment. This relaxation comes through in the colors of his paintings and works on paper and the fluid arrangement of his strokes. He also has abandoned descriptive titles, requesting his viewer’s undivided attention on the dynamic nature of his material and showing his confidence in the amorphous shapes and fluid lines he concoct. Compare to his early work, his palette since the 1980s have become brighter, warmer, and sweeter, which not only is the result of using the lighter and more transparent acrylic as opposed to heavy and dense oil, but of carrying a lighter mood and openness in dealing with the pictorial frame.
To decipher Chen’s abstract paintings after 1978, which often have almost no reference points of entry as they are devoid of representation, one has to understand the role of “time” in the Chinese painting tradition. Landscape paintings and images of mountains and water (shanshui) are meant to represent the movement of the cosmos, which in Chinese Daoist philosophy consists of both space (yu) and time (zhou). Time, thus, is one of the most vital and overarching, yet understated element in the art form. The first law of Chinese painting, as Chen very well knew, is to “engender movement through spiritual resonance” (qiyun shengdong). In the act of painting, artists engage in a dialogue with the natural world and strive to maintain a balance of their qi with that of the cosmos. That struggle for balance translates into the placement and relationship between all elements within the picture frame. Natural elements such as water typically appear in ink landscapes in the form of a waterfall at the top of the painting, turn into opaque water vapor in the middle ground, and then reappear as a stream in the foreground. The cycle of water within the constructed landscape not only activates the energy and defines the space in the painting but also creates movement. As the viewers’ eyes follow the meandering trajectory of water’s many forms, a fourth dimension – time – is also integrated into the experience. To add another layer of drama, the viewing of hand scrolls or hanging scrolls requires the action of unrolling, revealing a scene in sequence, extending the “frozen” time into the viewer’s present. In other words, everything happening in an ink painting is actually a representation of a compressed moment, orchestrated by the painter and activated by the viewer, to achieve the requirements of qiyun shengdong: energy, rhythm, liveliness, and movement. Chen’s challenge is to synthesize all these dynamic elements through Western medium of oil and acrylic.
Chen’s subscription to the concept of qiyun shengdong is not expressed through directly depicting nature, but an impulse to transform it through expression. To diversify the look of his abstract paintings while pushing the boundaries of the lyrical characteristic of modernism, Chen tries to transfer the physical and visual attributes of the surface of certain objects and materials to his two-dimensional work, especially paying attention to their interaction with light. Unlike postwar Western abstract painters who concentrated solely on the materiality of painting for painting’s sake, Chen focused on reinterpreting Chinese painting principles. For instance, Chen’s experience as a clothing designer and maker in the 1970s during his hiatus from painting contributed to his keen interest in capturing the effects of the delicate folding and creases of fabric. At the overlaps of cloth lay an ambiguous space that can be both two and three dimensional, which adds surprises to the otherwise tranquil, predictable painting surface. The way light gets caught or reflects off of the tricky, uneven spaces became an interesting source of image and movement for Chen. In 06062009-1 from 2009 (Fig. 1), the bottom half of the painting seems to mimic folds of fabric while the top is a web of linear, irregular crease. The two together, making a landscape-like imagery, not only possesses three-dimensional depth beyond the surface of the canvas, but also invites our eyes to focus the flat surface itself. This clever double-effect shows the artist’s acute sensitivity toward material, space, and light in everyday instances. His impulse to draw inspirations from his surroundings is not unlike prestigious calligraphers of the past quoting movements of animals or natural phenomenon as inspirations for their new brushwork. This analogy again grounds Chen’s practice in his understanding of Chinese literati attitude toward art and nature.
In describing his painting process, Chen exclaims: “every inch of time is to be contested” (fenmiao bi zheng). The legacy-driven historicism in his early work has evolved into a literal engagement—and competition—with time, showing his prioritizing the painting process. In other words, Chen injects each moment an interiority that allows the viewers to directly peek into the painter’s mind at work. His relationship with the material is dynamic, not passive, as he tries to maintain control while letting the material perform its nature, including accidents. Each moment of time, thus, is an embodiment of movement, both in the painter’s mind and hands. The results are completely non-representational “records” of the artist’s intimate dialogue with the nature of his material. This unique view of time and process can be found in the artist’s fascination with the quality of colors on the surface of ceramics, demonstrated in26102010-2(Fig. 2). The finished glaze on pottery or porcelain, having gone through the transformation by fire, becomes a complex agent of light. Chen’s painting seems to magnify the chemical reaction of the glaze after firing, seeking to use paint to achieve the dynamic effect created by carefully calculated time and high temperature. He also further explores the translucency and speedy drying of acrylic by painting on coated paper, intensifying his race with time during the production process (Fig.3). By experimenting with a variety of media, he widens the type of texture he could produce and the type of conversation he could have with his material, spicing up his production process.
The minute changes in color and material quality associated with time is the thread that connects Chen’s life and artistic career. One could easily notice a strong musicality in his recent work, with lines and shapes that are never restrained or static. This fluidity can perhaps be contributed to his fondness of blasting classical music when painting. In order to be completely absorbed into his inner dialogue with his work, he listens to music by Mozart in his studio. The “East” and “West” conversation makes a harmonious combination: Mozart’s youthful, Classical style melody supports the painter’s exploration with his material, transmitting the elements in qiyun shengdong sonically. Chen’s fondness of Mozart is evident because the work of the composer exhibits technical virtuosity as well as the capability of transferring emotional depth. The element of time is reinforced through the atmosphere within Chen’s physical space of creation, as the flow of music does not hesitate, just as his trust in his instinct and his material. Chen’s life-long wrestle with time evidently happens every moment and everywhere, keeping him on the edge and bringing endless intrigue as he moves forward.
Fig. 1:06062009-1, 2009, 112 x 145 cm, Acrylic on Canvas.
Fig. 2: 26102010-2, 2010, 90 x 117 cm, Acrylic on Canvas.
Fig. 3: Untitled, 1976, 61 x 54 cm, Acrylic on Coated Paper.