LIÚ, Yung Jen 劉永仁
The Poetics and the Pastoral:
LIÚ Yung-Jen’s The Arc from Afar series
by Yang Yung-Yuan, Art Critc / Associate Professor
Department of Fine Art, National Taiwan Normal University
“Breathing” has been a consistent theme in LIÚ Yung-Jen’s paintings over the years, continuing on his exploration into the experience of living, and into artistic integrity. Between issues of the daily usual and ritual in the inhale and the exhale, he ceaselessly contemplates and creates, with a clarity to his distinctive style that can be described as that of an exceptional and unique artist. His recent exhibition of new works at the Dimensions Art Center, entitled The Arc from Afar, is an extension on the theme of breath; but his paintings reveal an increased fluidity and spontaneity in his brushstrokes that expand the tension of the arc and the power of the breath.
A certain mark of indefinite, thin needle-shape recurs on LIÚ Yung-Jen canvas. Resembling erratic air particles, they pierce through or attach to the air exchange interface and create the drifting flow of air permeating under different pressurized spaces. The marks evoke a certain breath corresponding to the body’s movement in the act of creating, and are reminiscent of the wind – considered in ancient Greek philosophy to be the smallest component on which life depends, but which cannot be seen with the naked eye. In Shigehisa Kuriyama’s research on ancient Greek and Chinese medicine regarding the effects of air and wind on the human body, he points out that, in Greek philosophy, of the four life component of water, fire, wind, and earth – wind and air are felt internally and externally by the human body. On a grand scale, wind can affect human cultures, geography, and climate, creating disparate impact on human cultures and physical temperaments. One might say that there is an inextricable connection between wind and human beings and ethnicities. Cultures that live near the Mediterranean climate are enervated by Earth’s southerly breezes, while temperate and cold climates compel a cool demeanor and clarity of thought. Wind exerts a noticeable physical and psychological effect on human beings.
Though Shigehisa Kuriyama uses climate factors to explain the for composite characteristics of the wind -- referred to as one of the four basic elements of life, he also draws comparisons between wind and the concept of qi in Chinese traditional medicine. Qi and breath are inextricably connected. In human explorations of religion, the importance of “breath” is broadly discussed, with some religions adopting breathing as spiritual practice. The presence or absence of breath determines whether an individual lives or dies. The topic of breath and vitality; and the questions regarding life, death, or immortality -- are all themes often seen in religious paintings. How these connotations of life or vitality are created within specific art forms is a complex and fascinating question.
Ways in which spirited movement of breath and wind manifest in the artist’s living imagination are a provocative topic in the visual arts. Artists in ancient Greece considered fire as an element of life, and imparted continuously swirling serpentine lines to represent the dynamism of life and the soul in visual art. Balancing the
human torso and limbs in motion is expressed in sculptures of the human nude. Renaissance art theories on this type of “body in motion” concept abound in discussion among artists. I believe these can serve as a point of reference for expressing the concept of breath.
For LIÚ Yung-Jen, the concept of breath is both daily usual and ritual; or one could venture that LIÚ Yung-Jen’s paintings are a spiritual practice, a ceremonial behavior that manifests externally through infinitesimal internal stirrings. For LIÚ Yung-Jen, breath or breathing cannot be concretely defined or represented. He departs from representing exterior forms, and creates the magnificence and expansiveness of breath using the abstract construction of ethereal color blocks. The dominant color schemes on his canvas are established using what has become his signature, the secondary color of azure blue (Pantone 17-4139 TCX; RGB value 68,143,194), and its complementary amber or contrast colors of sky blue. The two colors are non-transparent, but are matte to a degree. Utilizing the masking characteristics of a matte medium, he leaves traces with his brush on the surface of the canvas that resemble tracks on black vinyl whose sound and rhythms can be read. Where the gentle canvas flows into an expansive unctuous softness, he attempts to brush oil colors and bees wax onto lead sheets. There is less surface adhesion on metallic surfaces than on canvas, and variations in color concentration and shade can be seen in the traces of the brushstrokes. These are not the thick textures of Giorgio Morandi’s style but embody a ventilating breath.
The characteristics revealed in LIÚ Yung-Jen’s applications of color are perhaps related to the cultural vista and natural environment that stimulated him during his studies in Italy. The density of the color hue of the blue skies and the textures of the earth imparted a sense of the exotic in him that was markedly different from the humidity and temperatures back home. He has a precise grasp of color clarity and hues, and creates an organic juxtaposition with azure blue and amber. Any change in one inevitably activates a change in the other. This precision also appears in his abstract forms. The position of a certain surface or line within the space seems to be purposeful in maximizing the power of visual tension to create a momentum in the design elements on the canvas – which he describes as the tension of the arc. The product of his mastery over tone, vibrancy, surface area equates to the parameters of LIÚ Yung-Jen paintings.
A reading of LIÚ Yung-Jen paintings seem to require a distinctive method of viewing. The direction of the viewer's sight enters from an angled perspective, then faces the work head-on, gazing with bated breath. Hence, his paintings eschew cacophony and noise, with a purity that renders any single stroke further to be superfluous. You may wonder whether room remains in his abstract style for the viewer’s thoughts and interpretation. The rapid changing idea of European paintings in the beginning of the 20th century was a challenge to the viewers of the exhibitions at the Salon. For instance, a caricature printed in Le Figaro in 1906 depicts a gentleman with his top hat upturned on the ground, doing a handstand in front of a painting, wondering whether he had to turn himself upside down in order to view the painting properly. This caricature may have satirized changes in modernist paintings, but it also suggests that room for interpretation remains in modernist paintings and especially in abstract paintings, for intervention by the viewer’s imagination. Certain parts of the work remain to be completed by the viewer’s internal creative process. This is not an issue for LIÚ Yung-Jen’s abstract paintings.
From this perspective, LIÚ Yung-Jen paintings have the rationality of Neoplasticism and the certainty of Suprematism; moreover, is the poetics and pastoralism in his work. These two qualities connect his work with cultural traditions and humanist aspects, and imbue LIÚ Yung-Jen paintings with poetry and humanist characteristics that are understated, subtle, and delicate. Often seen in his paintings are the lotus pod or haystack forms of intersecting arcs, symbolism that he uses to impart a maximum association with the natural world to his viewers but, in fact, they represent a certain arbitrariness of external objects after transformation. If they symbolize natural objects, they are the remnants of a harvest, and not flowers in bloom. From blue skies to haystacks to lotus pods, they connect the life experiences of his adopted home of Milan with his original home in Chishang, Taitung County, Taiwan. What is extraordinary is that both of these life experiences “inhale and exhale” within a larger cultural framework: one is the circumscribed spirit of Chinese paintings, and the other is the analytical interrogation in Western painting.
LIÚ Yung-Jen’s paintings retain a trace of the Chinese ink wash temperament from his early years of studies in Chinese Painting, specifically in his handling of the spatial actuality to create an effect of a balance between the solidarity and the emptiness in visual terms and the calligraphic lines of his brush movement. Letting the breath convey the motion of the brush was intended for rendering the wild visage of mountains and clouds after a storm, or of lotus emerging burst out from the marsh, but he has contained it in the flat color spectrum of Milan’s skies and stalwart earthy pigments. What is worthy of attention is the so-called haystacks and lotus pod forms. They differ from the flatness of the azure blue and amber, but have been intentionally dabbed, scribbled, pulled, and scraped with the brush to deftly reveal the actions of artist’s hands. Like the brush dances and ink wash and splashes of the Ming Dynasty painter and calligrapher Xu Wei, they create spikes in the glazed space and stir a quivering ripple in the air. This visual rhetoric reveals how LIÚ Yung-Jen retrospectively lingers between Chinese and Western cultures, valiantly moving forward, but casting his glance toward the past. This is a unique aspect to LIÚ Yung-Jen abstract paintings – they connect two cultures and enable fusion.