LIÚ, Yung Jen 劉永仁
Yang Shin-yi Interviews with Liú Yung-jen
An Appraisal of Liu Yung-jen's Paintings
by Artist Liù Yung Jen and Art Critic Yang Shin-Yi
Yang: At first you studied mostly ink painting at university in Taiwan, and then studied in Italy for eight years. Can you discuss your experiences during these periods and the influence they have had on your art concepts?
Liú: When I was in the art department of Chinese Culture University between 1979 and 1983, I started studying traditional Chinese representational painting. I mostly studied ink painting because I thought, as an eastern artist, I needed to first understand the essence of eastern ink painting. This had to do with a secret mission I was entertaining at the time, but I also studied other styles and visual language systems. Traditional subject matter such as landscapes, birds and flowers, and human figures seemed too conventional and lacking in freshness to me. I completely understood that an artwork must unconditionally convey a unique concept and spirit, and real art is not made by copying another work or creating a realistic representation of nature. In 1990 I decided to go to Italy to expand my horizons. The atmosphere there had a profound influence on me and my breathing. Art seemed to be everything in Italy; it was spoken about daily and even in the smallest towns, I could find galleries and museums. The way people were enjoying their lives was completely different from what I was used to. I kept exploring and searching for a completely new way of expressing myself with art, and therefore decided to use the rich textures of oil paint to express the charm and spirit that I saw in ink painting, and seek creative inspiration solely from my own mind.
Yang: When did you start making abstract paintings? What was the turning point?
Liú: My abstract ideas began fermenting when I was exploring ink painting in Taiwan and continued into early 1990 when I went to Italy. After I saw the Venice Biennale, I reassessed my ideas about the essence of art. I gained a new understanding and approach for making art, and came to the conclusion that the eastern and western art systems were conceptually different but essentially reach the same goal. Due to the dictates of nationality at the time, eastern artists were more reserved, and western artists more progressive, but this atmosphere no longer exists. The changes and energy in the art world are fascinating and often produce visual and spiritual pulsations, which no doubt create the energy for further transformations in art. My paintings are not just abstract for the sake of abstraction, but are continually refined by my visual perceptions, and gradually being fused with space and time.
Yang: You once said, “I am most fascinated by atypical forms arising after representations (the idea of an object) fade. They are the intrinsic forms beneath the surface that arise from the subconscious after intellectual capabilities recede.” Specifically, these atypical forms in your paintings are created with assorted arcs. Why have you chosen arcs?
Liú: Arcs are endued with graceful gestures. Curves are derived through transit and deformation, and the art message they transmit is that of passage between beginnings and endings. The cycle of traveling from point to point preserves the simultaneity of bi-directional expression. In my paintings, the relationships between forms and arcs and different colors are arranged to create a new structure or logic, and everything happens naturally like breathing. Arcs seem to have existed since the creation of the universe, and I just set them free or just present their original appearance in my work. I am also amazed that they possess structured movement, as well as their own principles, attraction and repulsion. I think painting and art are located at the axis of life and creation, and just like my breathing philosophy, painting proudly exists in life's vicissitudes. Formed in seemingly random space, my paintings exist in the necessity between harmony and disharmony.
Yang: How do you understand the concept of breathing? How do you manifest the abstract concept of breathing in your paintings?
Liú: Whenever my mind is active, I am concentrating on breathing and creating. From the moment I pick up the brush to when I set it down on the canvas, I am setting my art concept of breathing into action. One only needs to be breathing to create—but some have no faith, courage, or have voluntarily given up. You can give up on creating things, but not on breathing. I cannot give up on either, because for me they are linked together. Breathing is both an instinct and a method. I use the breathing instinct to survive, but use my special breath training technique to deeply enter a magnificent realm. Breathing is primordial and extremely simple, as well as extremely complex and profound. If I were to quit everything, then the only thing left would be breathing. Breathing is exchange or passing in and out; it is a dialogue, as we can breathe both oxygen and ideas, because ideas are oxygen for the soul. The feeling you get from my work is that of a dialogue between you and me which leads to more dialogue. There is letting out, taking in, breathing and life. Breathing is a molecular exchange; molecules permeate; molecules transform and get energy. I think about the forms of all things, and breathing is the sole verb that is left after I strip away all of the nouns. The yellow triangular shapes in my paintings, which are like piles of rice plants, are what is primordial and stable after all living things have been stripped away. I remove mass from these triangles so that they can float and drift about in a weightless state. They spontaneously combine, repel and attract one another. They are in a dialogue with their backgrounds, and they can breathe.
Yang: At first your painting medium was ink and now it is oil, lead foil and beeswax. What is the significance of using lead and wax? For example, lead foil is often associated with industrialization. Is this what you are alluding to?
Liú: My concept for painting and form of expression came first from investigating art with ink, and then continued with experiments in different media. Starting in the early 1990s, my painting gradually metamorphosed from figuration to an obscure linear context. I was attracted to eastern philosophy and the simple, low relief forms on Han Dynasty tomb bricks. This prompted me to consider painterly space, the eternity of the moment, and also the extension of the current artistic attitude. Deeply moved by thoughts about all the things in the world and even the universe and the transformation of familiar images into powerful symbols, I was inspired to explore the possibility of different materials. As a result, I started to experiment with beeswax and lead. Lead was used as a catalyst in alchemy and therefore its use creates a link between art and alchemy, as well as creates dynamic visual effects and suggests spiritual values. The quality of beeswax together with lead foil, and melted beeswax after it hardens on lead foil, produce an effect of partially hiding the foil. The warmth and moisture of beeswax produce a change in quality as it hardens. I think of beeswax as a kind of oil paint that can be used for writing or poured like molten metal, which results is faintly layered textures. Golden yellow beeswax pools on grey lead foil to express an eternal fleeting moment, and in my paintings, this presents an ambiguous half-transparent matte surface which creates a visual sensation that dispels confusion yet is difficult to explain.
Yang: Your paintings tend toward feelings of freedom and innocence. It is also rich in rhythm and poetry. Does this reflect your worldview or your attitudes toward life and art?
Liú: My paintings reveal my ideas about life. No one who expresses himself or herself through art can hide his or her point of view about art. I give myself breathing space with my painting. Vast and open space is very important for me. Seeing open space, forms facing each other that reveal space, or the space of form itself makes the soul expand into another space and then receives the power of breathing contained in that other space. This reflects my attitudes toward life and art.
Yang: Can you talk about your concept of color?
Liú: There are many aspects of art that are very important but difficult to talk about. Color, which is an intriguing catalyst, is among them. I think that sensitivity to color is extremely important. Color liberates a painter and adds joy and enlightenment to a painting regardless of whether the style is Realism or Abstract Expressionism. I often think deeply about contrasting colors and composition, and pay special attention to variations created by joining neutral and soothing colors. These are just like the dazzling effects created by sunlight interwoven with the shadows cast by clouds. I also avoid the slick appearance created by overly precious brushwork, but rather try to reveal the process of the brush touching the canvas. Color is emotional and usually is the first and most direct thing to impact the viewer.
Yang: You play many different roles: artist, curator, writer. Do these different activities benefit or impact one another?
Liú: An artist needs keen insight. I play distinct roles in each of these professions. They don't interfere with one another, but rather complement one another, and the two others help me with my art concepts. Putting into practice an artist's task of self-construction requires discipline and courage. And being a curator means advancing opinions and keeping a comprehensive eye on what other artists are doing, as well as organizational abilities. I can do it because I have the ability, but conflict does exist, and that is I don't like having so many jobs. It is only through painting that I am nourished and can verify that I am alive. My other contributions are merely accidental, and I do all I can to just get them finished.
Yang: You have said, “There is still a lot of space left for the promotion of abstract art.” How do you view the development of abstraction among Chinese people? One view has it that Chinese culture has no heritage of abstraction. What is your opinion of this view?
Liú: People always approach abstraction from their visual experiences and what they recognize. Reading an image using these mental representations is not a good way to get into abstract art, which exists in a metaphysical, spiritual realm. If one reads an image from the essential elements—points, lines, areas, forms and colors—that construct an artwork, then I am sure the heart of abstraction can be reached. I don't think the statement that Chinese culture does not have abstraction is valid. Chinese culture is passive, understated and gentle, and therefore lacks an adventurous risk-taking spirit. In other words, Chinese culture has a recessive gene for abstraction. In traditional art education, the emphasis is on carrying forth the teacher's legacy, thinking that is not independent. Some may wonder how this can influence art considering the trend is pluralistic. I am not pessimistic because the fear and confusion traditional Chinese people have concerning abstraction will turn into even greater power as future developments unfold.
Yang: Could you talk about the current state of abstraction in Taiwan?
Liú: Abstract art began in Taiwan in the 1960s, and until today, has spawned several generations of artists who continue exploring in this vein. In the last decade in Taiwan, abstract art seems to have stalled. Young artists tend to explore art related to technology and animation. Those interested in technology are too easily enslaved by machinery and have lost the desire to pursue art's original value, and those who explore animation perhaps inadvertently get lost in illustration. Abstraction requires perseverance, concentration, and an exploratory spirit. Otherwise, it is difficult to accumulate the depth necessary for abstraction.
Yang: Can you talk a little about what you are planning on doing next?
Liú: Creativity does not progress in a planned manner, but certainly there will be many more ideas and different directions. Currently, I am developing a few different contexts. Included among them is a continuation of my breathing concept with the goal of deepening my explorations, and the undertaking of new ideas with a more assured mind.