2007年4月28日 星期六

Perverse Space

Perverse Space – Reflections on the Su Hsin-tien Solo Exhibition
By Charng-Jiunn Lee

(Originally printed in Hsiung Shih Art Monthly Vol. 106, December 1979)

Last September the Apollo Gallery held a solo exhibition in Taipei of Su Hsin-tien’s oil paintings, consisting exclusively of works completed in 1973. As is so often the case with outstanding art, these works failed to attract the kind of attention they deserved when they were first presented. Today, in the context of a more comfortable and advanced society and a more favorable art environment, we hope that they may receive more serious consideration.

Even though these are not new works, no one else in the Taiwanese art sphere shares this artist’s singular approach. I wonder whether this to some degree reflects his iconoclastic personality, which stands in clear contrast to the Photographic Realism that has increasingly gained currency like popular music.

Su and I share some history, having been university classmates and later fellow members of the same painting association after graduation, taking part in numerous group exhibitions together, and working together in the effort to promote modern art. Having known him for nearly 20 years I am intimately familiar with his ideals and strong commitment. Although his output has slowed in recent years he has immersed himself ever deeper into theory, reaching a stage of near completion of his theoretical system. This exhibition can therefore be thought of as both a summation and a preview.

Having been looking into Phenomenology in great depth in recent years, I am pleased to attempt to make a rough introduction to his works and background thinking from this perspective.

The first thing that attracts our attention is that his claim to fame does not rest on slogans like “from janitor to star painter,” or “idiot savant” labels, but that this exhibition is being presented to commemorate the centennial of Einstein’s birth. Even if he had not drawn links in his exhibition preface to the Theory of Relativity, topology, or non-Euclidean geometry, the pure intellect of his paintings is an obvious first impression. Viewing his works does not provoke a strong emotional reaction, nor will it arouse strong empathy or spiritual shock, because that is not what he is out to express. Of course, his works are not the calm, soothing kind, as neither is that what he wants to convey. Rather, what he hopes to do with his works is make those that have viewed them engage in a sort of “mental gymnastics.”

If we divide painting into the categories of expression and representation, Su’s works obviously belong to the latter. All his efforts are directed toward how to find the right images to convey a system concept, and this type of work involves a process of demonstration. Consequently, in line with the concept of form following content, we observe that paintings are distinguished by sound composition, geometric appearance, and smooth application of color devoid of visible brush strokes.

Although his chief creative inspiration is Einstein’s concept of continuity of time and space or four dimension theory, this is not to imply that “working in the other direction, one can see such scientific theory in these paintings.” On the contrary (and this is clearly not the artist’s intention), his expression of three-dimensional physical space via two-dimensional painting is achieved through the transformation of visual projection (simply correlative and not equivalent). Consequently, the expression of concepts of four-dimensional “space” with two-dimensional painting is essentially subject to the limitations of the “medium” itself. However, Su has said that these limitations “are problematic as conjectural tools of thinking,” and with that in mind his series of paintings are all about probing for thinking that agreeably resolves this problem. Setting this aside for the moment, if we simply view his works under the category of plastic art, a pure “intuitive,” in particular “visual,” issue emerges.

What kind of painting is not visual? None is, of course. Still, most paintings are intended to express beauty through imagery, such as in portraits, landscapes, or still lifes. As a result, we are unaware of basic visual effects at work. On the contrary, Su Hsin-tien’s paintings are theoretically unrelated to graphic expression, thereby isolating us from the experience of beauty and leaving simply “visual behavior.” And just as the concepts of time and space according to the Theory of Relativity are reactions to ingrained absolute concepts we take for granted, the images expressed in his paintings are reactions to our typical concepts of images. Those with a thirst for knowledge and curiosity might behoove themselves by attending his exhibition and copying his works, which you are guaranteed to find difficult unless you grasp their secrets (even though they are just simple geometric shapes), and that is what happens with our “set concepts” at work.

Such counter-intuitive concepts focus our attention especially to the existence of intuitive concepts. Much as a normal stomach quietly goes about digestion, we are unaware of its existence. But when an ailment develops pain results, drawing our attention to its presence. And viewing Su Hsin-tien’s paintings draws our attention to “visual behavior” itself because we encounter a problem: inside becomes outside, empty becomes solid, the subject becomes the background, and true becomes false, or vice-versa(see Illustrations 1 and 2).

Illustration 1 : Compositional analysis
Illustration 2 : Compositional analysis

Is nearly three-dimensionalThree-dimensional

Solid Gradually takes on three dimensionsEmptySolid

And these changes are all quiet and surreptitious. In one sense that is the beauty of it, but on the other hand exactly because it takes place so stealthily, unless we trace every line or form, the unity of such qualitative variations is difficult to discern, and would be best explained at the minimum by matching written or spoken words with sketches.

This leads to our discovery of the essence of this kind of demonstration painting: in one sense it is liberated by the depiction of images to enter the conceptual realm of pure space, yet in another it strengthens reliance on written language. When we first encounter a work, or when caught unprepared (such as not having first read a written description or heard an oral explanation), the work’s intentions are seemingly vague(see Illustrations 3, 4).Perhaps this is a limitation of this sort of demonstrative approach.

Illustration 3 : The first impression of Illustration 1

Illustration 4 : The first impression of Illustration 2

Still, if we compare his works to those of the similarly “perverse” Dadaism, surrealism, or the more recent Pop Art schools, I find that Su Hsin-tien’s paintings have a more positive impact. For instance, Ceci N’est Pas Une Pipe, by the Belgian artist Magritte, juxtaposes two contradictory symbols (words and images) together. Yet owing to the limitations of the method of expression the work has no particular impact. If I cannot read French or if I have never seen a pipe, then the contradiction expressed therein makes no sense to me whatsoever. Even supposing an understanding of French, the impact is still rather weak, as we often hear children refer to something with the wrong name without causing any sort of emotional shock. Another example is the work Red, by Japanese artist Hiroshi Okada, which consists of a green canvas with the stark word “RED” in English. The shortcomings of this method of expression are the same as with that of Magritte’s piece, as even if color is added for an after-image effect, the impact is still minimal. Normally when we read words, variations in their shape, size, or color do not stand in the way of the formation of the concepts conveyed, therefore no kind of contradiction or tension is involved (see Illustration 5).

Illustration 5:
Magritte, Ceci N'est Pas Une Pipe, 1928

ReneMagritte, 1898-1967.Koln, [Germany]: Benedikt Taschen,1992,P.120

A further issue is that the act of looking at a painting actually transpires across time, not merely in one instant with one look. This is why the saying “reading painting” exists in all kinds of cultures, showing that it is a process that unfolds over a linear timeline. This concept is further reinforced by “experimental aesthetics.” Precisely because we view one part of a painting after another, this fact has influenced Su’s works and the alternating empty and solid spaces that unfold in them (see Illustrations 6, 7).

Illustration 6 : Reading individual works, no area is inappropriate

Illustration 7 : Reading individual works, no area
is inappropriate

We discover that smaller canvases (or conversely larger exhibition spaces), especially viewed from within the appropriate distance, seem to place the entire picture within the focal range to best effect. When that happens, his paintings immediately produce the stroboscopic effect of rapid swapping of the subject and background (see Illustration 8).

Illustration 8 : ideal mounting space

Although such a visual impact is somewhat similar to certain experiments of optical illusion in psychological terms, Su Hsin-tien’s works seem to have a stronger impact due to the homogeneity of subject and background (see Illustrations 9, 10 and 11).

Illustration 9 :
Heterogeneous imagery illusion

Illustration 10 :             Illustration 11 :
Semi-heterogeneous            Homogeneous       
imagery illusion              imagery illusion

As intellectuality has become limited to empty titles of works or pop psychology in today’s arts community, it is reassuring to know that Su is not the kind of artist that spouts on and on after reading an introduction to philosophy or a Zen primer. On the contrary, his interest in philosophy is abiding, recently leading him to immerse himself in the systematic research of “modern interpretation and analysis of Mahayana Buddhism.” This involves a full survey of the possible relationships between Mahayana Buddhism’s Consciousness-only and Dharma Character schools and art, amply demonstrating that he is more than just dabbling in this research. I am just curious how he intends to mix such an “elaborate philosophy” (that is my impression of Consciousness-only and Dharma Character) with his own “Chinese Zen” (as distinct from Indian Zen) character? His look of astonishment and manner of speech darting back and forth always make a strong impression on me. During a meal with friends just before the exhibition opening, he suddenly stood up and recited the Master Xuan Zang translation of the Prajñāpāramitāhrdaya Heart Sutra. Although he only recited a part of it, as he was going on it struck me that he is as fresh and innocent as a college freshman. And perhaps for this reason, unlike those who simply insert a few Buddhist icons in an oil painting, when expressing the realms of Buddhist thought he takes a far more imperceptible approach.

I have attempted with the preceding to roughly describe Su Hsin-tien’s painting and the thinking behind it. As for making value judgments, in the spirit of Phenomenology, I would like to place mine in quotations: “existence without judgment.”

(Translated by David J. Toman)