相關專文 Essays


It is hard to know where to place Yeh Shih-Chiang’s art. His oeuvre spans from calligraphic works that are expressively raw—but not entirely separate from Chinese tradition—to ones that are cool abstract fields of color. “Illuminated Presence” at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, which presented his work alongside that of younger Taiwanese-American artist Yeh Wei-Li (no relation to Shih-Chiang), had the feel of a career-making show for an emerging painter. Yet the older artist passed away in 2012 at the age of 86, and only began to show his work later in life. Born in Guangdong in 1926, Yeh Shih-Chiang arrived in Taiwan in 1949 when his plans to see the world were interrupted by China’s civil war. His career followed an unusual trajectory for a modern artist, which focused more on self-refinement and teaching than exhibiting his paintings. Building off Yeh Shih-Chiang’s enigmatic reputation, photographs by Yeh Wei-Li in the exhibition reinterpreted the senior artist’s work to explore how his approach to life shaped his practice.

The most striking pieces on display from Yeh Shih-Chiang where a handful of large canvases, many of them four meters long and around two meters tall. These paintings alternately show a close link to calligraphy and an approach to abstraction that feels slightly closer to Western art. In Guilin Mountainscape (2008) and Lotus (2008), the flowing ink strokes of Chinese characters veer wildly into half-glimpsed outlines of landscapes and other organic forms. In contrast, Window Scene of Withered Pine on Mt Alishan (2008) almost recalls Rothko, where interacting fields of turquoise, white, and blue oil paint create a minimal, calming composition. Though the pines in question are difficult to observe, Yeh Shih-Chiang didn’t aim for pure abstraction and instead isolated shapes until their texture and tone became more important than their content. The YEH Shih-Chiang Museum (2006) humorously gestures toward the artist’s legacy by depicting a monolithic museum building; yet the main focus of the work is set on varying shades of teal and patches of black. However, one could see that, occasionally, Yeh Shih-Chiang’s streamlined approaches had resulted in images that verge on the overly direct, like the bugle-holding soldier of Call to Arms (2009).

Still, his paintings remain remarkably restrained and affecting, expressing a pastoral calm akin to more traditional Chinese art. However the link between this work and Yeh Shih-Chiang’s unique personality, highlighted in the exhibition notes and in the ephemera on view (including a display of his favorite cigarettes) can feel obscure. In this aspect, Yeh Wei-Li’s photographs were helpful. The “Photo Vision” series (2015) of light-box-backed prints placed Yeh Shih-Chiang’s paintings in domestic settings and landscapes that were reminiscent of their subjects, as though hypothesizing about the conditions of their creation. Also on exhibit were photos from the “YSC Wan-Tan Residence” series (2015), which at first appear to be well-composed documentation of a derelict space. But accompanying videos injected further meaning into the eerie images of mostly empty rooms and verdant greenery, revealing that the site was Yeh Shih-Chiang’s former residence outside of Taipei, which Yeh Wei-Li had painstakingly cleared of overgrowth with the help of a few assistants. Attempting the nearly futile task of pushing back the jungle, Yeh Wei-Li captured how Yeh Shih-Chiang’s dedication and contrarian personality fed into his art.

Further insight on the interplay between Yeh Shih-Chiang as an active artist and a teacher/personality arose in a discussion between Taiwanese academic and photographer Tsun-Shing Cheng and critic Boris Groys on November 11th—a talk that was moderated by exhibition curator Chang Tsong-zung. Groys, best known for his analysis of the 20th-century Russian avant-garde, seemed at first an unusual fit for the panel. Yet he has worked closely with Chang, which resulted in a visit to Yeh Shih-Chiang’s home a few years ago. Groys commented on the remarkable “unity” between Yeh Shih-Chiang’s art and life, noting how the artist’s ability to produce paintings without much thought for their exhibition reminded him of the Soviet dissident artists he had observed in the 1970s. As the conversation shifted to the influence of Buddhism on Kazimir Malevich, it became apparent that despite Yeh Shih-Chiang’s voluntary isolation, his work was not without parallels—though more due to the depth of his commitment and general aesthetic sense than direct inspiration from other contemporary artists. Considering that Yeh Shih-Chiang’s works also connect with recent attempts to identify calligraphy as the potential root of a uniquely Chinese form of abstraction, it seems fortuitous that a wider critical conversation on the artist is tentatively beginning.

“Illuminated Presence” was on view at Hong Kong Arts Centre from November 6 to 23, 2015.
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