LIÚ, Yung Jen 劉永仁
The Arc of Imagination:
Liú Yung-jen , A Poet-Philosopher in the Painting World
Art Critic/Professor, Department of History at National Cheng Kung University
Liú Yung-jen's abstract paintings are not entirely abstract. In fact, hidden within them are deeply sentimental objects carrying memories. Nor are his geometric paintings entirely geometric. Indeed, the artist’s moods and thoughts are expressed with abundant layers of color and brushwork. Overall, the push and pull between abstraction and representation, and between geometry and expression seem like the rhythmic inhalation and exhalation of all living things. Born under the astrological sign of Gemini, Liú presents the dualism of deep breathing on multiple levels in his art. With azure blue starry skies, dark and gloomy nights, and golden yellow sunrises, his is a distinctive style of painting in Taiwan's post-1990s art world.
Born in 1958 in Chishang, Taitung County, Liú Yung-jen has had an artistic life filled with natural open countryside, tranquil and mysterious starry skies, and vast mountain and lake vistas. His father was both a farmer and a scholar, loved calligraphy, and encouraged his son to get involved in art. At first, Liú worked in the ink painting tradition, and although he later changed his main media to Western oils and acrylics, he has always been influenced by the unique layering found in traditional ink paintings. This is especially so regarding his use of black, and shades of black on black, and heavy black pigment that has soaked through paper.
Liú has been influenced by the art of ink painting, but not just with regard to the physical arrangement of forms, colors, or materials. As the main media of Eastern art, ink expresses both spirituality and philosophy. In the history of human civilization, the only art referred to as the unification of paint and bodily sensation is Eastern calligraphy and painting based on ink and brush. As early as 5,000 to 3,000 BC, the use of flexible writing brushes could be seen in the Yangshao culture, whose people dipped brushes in black and red pigments, and painted swirling line patterns on the surface of pottery. That was after the long period of hunter-gatherer society, and these people started to live more settled lives, and along with a more relaxed agricultural life, they developed an attachment to the land. They made those lines suffused with deep emotion on their handmade pottery, an activity that continued until the advent of the age of calligraphy, and made brushstrokes in concert with the rhythms of their breathing bodies.
When he was a student exploring traditional Chinese painting in the Department of Fine Arts at Chinese Culture University, Liú began to feel dissatisfied with conventional themes. He firmly believed that artists must express unique ideas and spirit rather than copy nature or those who came before. In 1990, he decided to quit his stable job at the Council for Cultural Affairs (now the Ministry of Culture) and go to Europe to broaden his horizons. He found the atmosphere of Italy especially liberating because art was an integral part of Italian life. He studied at Milan's Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera and served as a special correspondent for the Taiwanese magazines ARTCO and Artist. Most importantly, he put his amazing creativite power on display at many solo exhibitions, including in 1990 at Associazione Culturale di Piazza Grimana in Perugia, 1993 at the Galleria Circolo Degli Artisti in the Albissola Marina, 1994 at the Galleria d’arte dei Tribunali in Bologna, 1995 at Roma & Arte in Rome, and others. The Italian art world followed this young, up-and-coming artist closely at the time.
Eight years in Italy prompted Liú to shift to other art media but had little influence on his continued pursuit of the spirit of ink. In 1996, he held his solo exhibition Profound Multiplied by Respiration at Taipei's Dimension Endowment of Art. In this work, mental imagery is presented with variations in color and light and shadow, and abstract brushwork is aligned with textures found in ponds and the sky. Claudio Cerritelli, a professor at Liú's Milan alma mater, wrote a review in which he stated, “In each of the paintings presented in this show, one is struck by Liú’s ability to lead his viewers beyond the real, to push them out of bounds, to open up vistas of a spatial dimension far exceeding what one would expect from the space circumscribed by the canvas. In this sense, his work has gone beyond being no longer naturalistic; it aspires to a lyrical, visionary status, identifying itself with the perception of an elsewhere, whose horizons are forever receding, and an image generated by endlessly germinating light.”
Horizontal arcs not only form the composition of these paintings, but more importantly, reflect the artist’s unique spirit and sensibility. Although it is impossible to know if any lakes were part of Liú's life in Milan, we should remember that he is from Taitung County and grew up in a town named for the spring-fed Dapo Pond. About his shift from traditional ink landscapes featuring mountains and water to oil paintings of pond surfaces and sunlight, Liú has said, “After growing up, I was left with the impression that the pond was vast and immeasurably deep, and therefore preternatural and mysterious. Year round scenes of the sky, green fields, and mountains shrouded in clouds are the primal images occupying my mind.”
Liú's development as an artist includes his transition from pond surface and sky imagery in Profound Multiplied by Respiration to urban architecture in his 1999 exhibition Walled Mud, and then a key juncture several years later marked by his 2006 series Alchemy. In this series, straight lines and arcs intersect in forms similar to those in lotus pods and are accompanied by large areas of monochrome paint. As these elements began to dominate Liú's painting language, he clearly established an individual style for the first time.
Alchemy 0601 presents his deep reflections on the possibilities of different materials. The quality of beeswax together with lead foil, especially melted beeswax after it hardens on lead foil, creates an effect of partially hiding the foil, and the warmth and moisture of beeswax changes in quality as it hardens. Liú thinks of beeswax as a kind of oil paint that can be used for writing or poured like molten metal to produce faintly layered textures. Golden yellow beeswax pools on gray lead foil to express the feeling of eternity in a fleeting moment, and in his paintings, presents an ambiguous half transparent matte surface which creates an ineffable visual charm.
Paintings from the Alchemy series that he started developing in 2006, matured in his 2013 solo exhibition The Alchemy of Breathing and present, to a considerable extent, gold and water blue separated by arcs, as well as several black and gray shapes suggesting haystacks or lotus pods. These elements have become Liú's signature images in twenty-first century Taiwanese painting circles. Careful study of these elements locates their source in the artist's memories of his childhood and hometown. High quality water in Dapo Pond led to the planting of rice fields, and Liú spent his childhood with his friends rowing on the pond and picking water caltrops. The fully grown lotus pods in the pond and golden haystacks in the paddies after the autumn harvest have become perennial elements of Liú's paintings.
The 2019 solo exhibition Breathing as Time and Space was Liú's first after retiring from the Exhibitions Department of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. Having served as a curator, critic, and artist, Liú could put down the busy schedule of an administrator and completely devote himself to his art. In a trip he took to Europe at the beginning of the year, he rode a train through forested, snow-covered mountains, and felt that racing through this frozen land juxtaposed with gigantic man-made transmission towers was deeply moving, such that all of these elements became part of the work for this exhibition. About this experience, he remarked that he felt he was breathing in the timelessness of the universe and vastness of the Earth.
One of the most obvious features of the exhibition is his use of circular frames, which was inspired by the unique spatial characteristics of snow-covered mountains. The vastness of time and space in these icy and towering traverses presents a challenge to survival, and the painting titles—Patrolling the Field, Glimpsing Light, Afternoon Nap, In and Out, Dawn, and Chanting through a Boundless World—are all reflections of Liu's mood after retiring from his job as a civil servant. He uses pure colors, lead obscured by beeswax, and oil paint in his delicate dialogue with the canvas.
His Charming Crystal series started in 2016, is composed of upper and lower spaces separated by cloud-like forms and reflect his vacillating state of mind as he was approaching retirement. In his 2019 works Spatial Tension and Vacillating Border, arcs have given way to straighter lines, which seem to herald the beginning of a completely new stage of Liu's work. As he has said, “No matter how long I live, the rice fields of the Dapo Pond area will always be with me. Little things don't affect me, as my personality is naturally optimistic. The sky and rice fields with towering mountains by their side, and mountain peaks shrouded in quickly moving clouds filtering sunlight will always be in my memory. This is my life outlook.” The complex straight lines in his new work remind us of the artist's childhood among the rice straw and lotus leaves.
Liú has said, “The title of the exhibition, Breathing as Time and Space, is about the repeating cycle of in and out. The universe that I perceive is an infinite arc. It is slow and balanced, such that it is integrated into one and cannot be defined using notions of speed or before and after. Everything in my paintings is a moment crystallized from time and space, but can be extended infinitely in the mind.”
An art critic once wrote that Liú Yung-jen is “an artist, alchemist, and wizard.” It might be better to say he is a poet-philosopher in the painting world.