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AMARANTHA

 

Curator: Xia Kejun - Philosopher, critic and curator; Professor in the School of Liberal Arts at Renmin University of China)

Exhibition time: Wed. 21st March 2018 –  Wed. 25th April 2018

Opening and Art Forum: Sat. 24th March 2018

Exhibition Introduction:

  • Curatorial Discourse :  The Ethereality of Yen Ye-Cheng’s Paintings: the Antique Flower-sketch Collection and Scattering Yellow Flower Tune

Painting is where language begins to experience its own limit again.  If painting is the expression of the inexpressible, the language for the critique is merely to answer the calling which the painter has heard in the beginning: it is a command from the art itself, asking us to listen to the calling of nature and to begin to sing as we embrace the sublime of the Universe, just as flowers open petals in the singing of birds. The spirits of poetry and painting are brought together, like the fragmented immediacy of life and the ever-lasting eternality of antiquity, to respond to each other. 

A Song of Peach Flowers, Yellow Flowers, and Blue Flowers: when I first saw how Yen titles his latest Amarantha series in 2017, I almost heard the most antique sound in the heart of the Chinese culture, like a soft, gentle and loving command to make music from verse to verse.   

1. The canvas grants us as much passion as challenge, for that it is the blankness that allows us to begin again and again.  However, painting is such an old profession that it fills our brains, which are far from blank, with various existing masterpieces and great artists’ cliché.  It takes the perpetual exploration of an artist to establish one’s own artistic vocabulary and to bring painting to start from zero again.  As a painting teacher, professor Yen reflects upon every stage of the Twentieth-Century modern painting, and he is sensitive enough to discover a gap “between” abstraction and representation.  To be more precise, if we put the Chinese tradition into consideration, we may speculate that there is a possibility for painting to find a place between the abstract form and the stylized image.  In other words, the presumably abstract strokes hide the natural things for us to discover.  This “natural thing” is not a formulated figure or artificial objects.  Since Nature is constantly changing, it dances and swings with a sense of being alive.  It is a concept beyond the concept itself.  If we entrust Nature with artistic subjectivity while we also maintain the writingness of the brushwork in order to open up an almost invisible “in-Betweenness” between Nature and writing, as the fundamental principle and progress inherent in Chinese art, can we recreate a new artistic practice of painting based on such a belief?  It is the most essential subject, the innermost mission to make painting possible again.    

2. After years of contemplating on the subject, Mr. Yen believes that he has finally captured the swinging ethereality of flora in growth.  Around 2012, he began to develop an artistic awareness based on Paul Cézanne’s idea of motif to manage flora, the things from Nature.  Flora, flowers and grasses, freely and involuntarily graphic-strokes, the traditional Chinese aesthetics of the sublime beauty, the ethereality of flora dancing in the breeze, the elegance and the “aura” featured in traditional orchid paintings, the inner “swing” of one’s loneliness without a sense of belonging, and everything else are all brought together to become the only subject in Yen’s paintings.  It is the only thing he would like to express, as well as the only language with which his painting speaks.  It turns out that painting only begins when one is sure about that particular thing and subject he or she discovers.  It is ordinary, but it requires new discoveries with which we can enter the realm of painting.  

3. Through what is mentioned above, the artist has achieved three layers of self- awareness: the first is the abstract self-awareness, which adopts abstract and simplified modern thinking to get rid of traditional image and stylization as well as the dependence on existing things found in Nature.  One of the examples is Claude Monet who, with his retinal disease at an old age, began the journey of abstract art.  Meanwhile, the second self-awareness is “turning Eastward,” or in other words, “the Eastern self-awareness.”  Being abstract does not mean that one should limit oneself to any existing abstract concept; it is quite the opposite otherwise even the purest abstraction will risk itself of being homogenous.  Therefore, one has to return to the non-conceptualized East to restore the traditional Chinese philosophy and its belief about the cycle of life and to rediscover the new naturalness, which is the lingering air rather than visual conventions.  Huang Binhong at his old age was also troubled by retinal disease.  His ultimate artistic maturity, the cadenza of his artistic career, featured the repetition of abstract brushwork but he also preserved the natural mountainous landscape.  The third self-awareness is an individual’s creative awareness, meaning to establish an individual style, one’s own form and vocabulary, with the lingering air.  Between the circling buds and arching branches (in terms of forms), between the falling, scattering branches and responsive embrace (in term of stroke rhythms), and also between the ceaseless flow of manifestation and self-veiling (in terms of the humors expressed in the painting), Yen creates a rich association between art-history reconstruction and an individual’s sensitivity with the help of these three layers of self-awareness.  

4. “Flora,” a theme about Nature, brings Mr. Yen back to the initiation of modern painting.  Claude Monet’s Water Lilies could be one of the examples, but impressionism should not be an option anymore.  It has to further the abstraction, but it cannot merely repeat Monet’s abstract-expressionist impasto and blurring.  Instead, one should study the rhythm of how flora dance and swing.  The scrawl brushworks is the main technique he adopts, but it has to be descriptive in some way.  Another case is Huang’s repetitive scrawl brushworks at his old age, which preserves the rhythm unique to Chinese calligraphic art, especially the ease and abandon of the flowers and branches in his late works.  Mr. Yen thus finds a new beginning at the starting points of the Western and Eastern modern painting, to open up a new image-based vocabulary between abstraction and imagery.  Consequently, the image created in this way features indicative floral patterns when one looks at it from afar, but a closer looks allow us to recognize the abstract strokes and lines which structure the whole image.  It is to transform the likeliness – the convention of difference-and-sameness in-Betweenness – into a new form, toward abstraction and difference.  The traditional approach still has the tendency toward sameness.  Huang was closer to abstraction, and his later colleague Zao Wou-Ki was also too abstract.  To create such a visual expression requires a perfect command of the brushwork and an artist’s sensitive mind.  The way of painting has to demonstrate a greater freedom and flexibility.  It cannot be forced, but the spontaneous improvisation needs to be managed.  It keeps elaborating itself only to follow the existing contours which have been created already.  The image is thus composed between the uncontrolled randomness and the entirety of its rhythm.

5. The flowers and branches in the painting are often scattering around and disconnected from each other.  It is another example of how the painter borrows the traditional Chinese technique to play with “the brushwork pause” to “continue its will.”  If we closely examine how the branches and bamboos are painted, we will see that they are in fact separate from each other.  However, because of the sense of entirety framed by rhythms, the pauses and turns of breathes are to reconstruct an energetic entity.  Such a practice is most obvious in his large-size painting Flowers in Breeze 1209 --- the Silk Road in 2012, where the spontaneous lines scatter around the typically Chinese emerald background, leaning with ease, while the painted flowers blossom toward different directions and in various postures.  The flowers and branches in the whole image seem to be in a constant condition of shaking, if not falling down, but the leaning arcs and the traces of dripping water stabilize the composition.  With perfect mastery of brushwork, the sense of serenity which comes with maturity, and the talent for colors, the painter creates such a masterpiece.  From here, an artist brings his art toward refinement.  It is almost paralleled with Cy Twombly’s late paintings, but with greater poetic elegance and a stronger touch of the East.

6. In this way, Yen has created his unique vocabulary of painting.  Branches and flowers can be separate.  They are independent from each other.  The arcs of the meandering branches form the basic composition similar to one of an abstract painting; while the flowers, with their various colors, make up the flickering viewpoints of the image like transparent dewdrops gleaming with the purest colors.  In his many works, Mr. Yen makes the background another monochromic abstraction to highlight the flowers, which in heavy density become mutually responsive and activating viewpoints.  These flowers seem to roll, to slide, and to call out each other.  They seem to scatter around, but in fact they echo each other in forms and colors.  The rhythmic alternation of denseness and sparseness threads the image together, evoking a kind of beauty specific to Chinese tapestry.  The flowers and branches entangle, weaving through the rich and bright image to create a vigorous blossom with a decorative elegance and strong abstract visuality.  Branches and flowers have their respective postures, but they together make the image complete as an entity without compromising any detailed taste.  Huang at his old age had the same artistic pursuit.  The lines in part scatter abstractly, whereas everything is naturally brought together as a whole.  In between is pregnant with infinite vitality, which is to say, the image is constantly growing.  It is the naturalness unique to Chinese painting, the naturalized and poeticized abstraction allowing us to repetitively play with it.  Like Mr. Yen’s fondness for Huang’s late flower paintings, he also inherits the spirit of the brushwork and the gesture of the flowers.  Flowers are no longer flowers, but its aura is truer than ever.  Swinging and dancing, it quietly reveals its lasting antiquity.  The ancient air is flourishing, although scattering in pieces.  It is lamenting but not losing its vigorousness.  It is lonely but not degenerating.  With such an indispensable inner ease and burgeoning force, Chinese painting has found the beauty and dignity of its existence in this rapidly electronic-visualized age.

7. If an artwork has its contribution to painting, it must also open up a new idea about flatness.  Mr. Yen works on various ways to deal with the two-dimensional plane: in his early series Flowers in Breeze between 2013 and 2014, Yen borrows the technique with which artists such as Monet manage the layered inner space in the image by dividing it with different colors and transparencies, as revealed through the shades of light.  Meanwhile, the flowers seem as hard as stones.  In other words, the soft flowers are represented with stone-like hardness in order to highlight the visual intensity in the image and to create another depth for it.   The flowers presumably in the foreground are in fact moving backward, flickering to trigger a starry-night fantasy.  Works like Constellation of Flowers or The Visage of Sky both demonstrate the artist’s admirable visual invention.  His practice after 2015, particularly the new works in 2017, often has the whole paintings fully occupied.  The integration between flowers and branches is further internalized, granting the extending lines a greater freedom to form the image with pure rhythms.  Branches or flowers both merely depend on dot-and-line’s rhythmic variations to complete the image.  The rhythm of the brushwork is more simple and precise, creating a pulsating charm in its alternation of being covered up and revealed.  The brushwork purifies the image with its simplicity.  Similar to the pure abstract strokes, the lines are added up layer by layer between arc and leap, between growth and immaturity, between vigorousness and desolation, to visualize the fascination of rhyming and intense emotions, through which we may interpret the painter’s state of mind at that moment and slowly savor the lingering persistence and hesitation held within the brush.  The image is to reflect our lives and our minds: life is short, but flowers evoke the infinite.

8. Mr. Yen uses very unique colors in his paintings too.  The painting seems monochromatic, but it in fact contains rich and diverse colors, mostly typical Chinese color whose base is the emerald from Nature.  The color features an elegant aura permeating within itself, like the touch of jade in chinaware.  Mr. Yen is searching for the ancient Chinese jade-like transparency and ethereal fragility through painting, but he never abandons bright colors which are characteristically oil-painting.  The entangled threads, swinging and drawing back and forth, are accompanied by jade-like solidity and serenity.  The perfect superimposition between the lines and patterns is where the aura of painting majestically reappears.  Examples include the triptychs Amarantha 1751 – The New Silk Road in Response and Amarantha 1762 –A Song of Peach Flowers, Yellow Flowers, and Blue Flowers , as well as the diptych Amarantha 1761 – The Tune of Flower and Jade, which all feature a bright simplicity and dazzling elegance.  Originating with the artist’s culture-bearing, personality, and a love for nature, such an elegant antiquity cannot be found in Western contemporary painting.  For Mr. Yen, an artist dedicated to playing Guqin, has already revealed how he internalizes the sublime art of Guqin in every stroke.  The ethereality in which the artist has lost himself is brought in the painting.  It is not to squander an individual’s artistic talent, but a poetic expression which is most natural and everlasting. 

9. In 2017, the painter began to give new titles to each of his works.  Contemporary painting is no more than giving a poetic title again, or “pictorial nominalism” as how Marcel Duchamp puts it.  In Paintings like Amarantha 1709 – A Song of violet Flowers in Blue Ribbons, Amarantha 1710 – The Immortal Tune of Prince's Feather by the Water, Amarantha 1716 – A Song for Flowers and Grasses by the Wind in Shang-Jue Tune, Amarantha 1720 – The Tune of Tipsy Flowers in the Woods, Amarantha 1723 – A Song for the Serene Green, Amarantha 1724 – The Tune of Red Flower in the Heavy Snow, Amarantha 1751 – The New Silk Road in Response, Amarantha 1756 – The Flower-sketch Collection in the Song-Dynasty Moonlight, Amarantha 1758 – The Jade and White Flower Tune, Amarantha 1759 – The Jade and Blue Flower Tune, Amaranthae1760—The Tune of Yellow Flower Blossom, Amarantha1762 – A Song of Peach Flowers, Yellow Flowers, and Blue Flowers, Amarantha 1763 – 12:05 AM, Winter, in the Back Garden, and Amarantha 1764 – In Response to Three Variations on the Plum Blossom, what do we see or what do we hear? Does the transformation from the painterly visuality to poetic sound affect art in any possible way?  Are they evoking or concealing each other?  I would like to believe that there is a shared taste between them, lasting and lingering deep inside the heart, like the floating snowflakes in Flower-sketch Collection or The Tune of Yellow Flower Blossom in misty rain.  With his passion for Guqin and decades of immersing himself in the music, Yen extracts the mysterious juice from the ancient poems in his practice of contemporary painting, bringing the sense of nothingness scattering around the contemporary world back to life like a steady stream.  These phrases created by the painter are either based upon or elaborated from the names of fixed tunes.  They are the verses, the painter’s “rhymed poem” (zhe-zhi poem, literally branch-plucking poem), and the melody of the heart.  The spirit from the ancient past again resonates in the rhythmic brushwork.  The chanting of memories reshapes our gaze.  It is the secret of the salvation in life.  Every vanishing moment is well kept in every trace of stroke, like the overtone when the finger softly touches the Guqin strings, and the tides inside our heart rises and falls with it. 

10. Painting follows the rhythm, while the inner variations of rhythm also enrich the intensity of painting.  In Mr. Yen’s larger paintings, especially the triptychs whose structure echoes but not imitates the Western altar paintings, the floral patterns and the shades of colors are more rhythmic.  It has the single-painting rhythm, but also features the nuanced difference and mutually responsive relation in its three-piece structure.   The rhythmic variation has a stronger sense of entirety, with which it will be easier to bring viewers into the painting, where they shall breathe with flowers and branches, to search for their longing and to be fascinated.  It is a new world, a dreamy world which keeps growing and growing. 

11. This kind of painting allows us to discover a new modernism: after Impressionism, the Western modern and contemporary art has made its artistic innovations mainly in concepts and techniques.  If we return to art itself, return to the visual aesthetics and form, what we can do will be more than producing visual images.  Instead, we should continue finding new connections between the eyes and mind, between human heart and Nature, or between Nature and writing.  It is the mission of a dedicated painter, to make painting charming in a new and different way. 

12. By means of Yen’s idea of painting, we have witnessed a new direction for Chinese painting, which is to find one’s own balance between the starting points of Western and Chinese modern art, between Monet’s perceptions of Natural forms and Huang Binhong’s rhythmic brushwork.  In between abstraction and realistic representation is the infinite vitality on the canvas.  The ethereality of the free brushwork is the evocative glow bringing back the fascination of painting.

  • Arts criticism: The New Literati Flora-Art Collection–Amarantha’s Thirteen Notes by Yen Ye-Cheng /  Chen Kuang-yi-PhD in Contemporary Art History at Paris X, Nanterre; Associate Professor in the Department of Fine Arts at National Taiwan University of Arts

Yen Ye-Cheng is a contemporary painter who seems not to belong to the time we are living in.  Yen was born in 1955, when Ton-Fan Art Group and Fifth Moon Group were most active in the art scene in Taiwan.  He graduated from the National Academy of Arts (now National Taiwan University of Arts) in 1978 and it took him a while figuring out his artistic career before he went to New York to “see the world” in the early 1990s.  He had stayed in New York until he returned to Taiwan in 1994.  The art scene in the 1980s and 1990s was bustling enough even in Taiwan, if not New York, especially under the influence of the social atmospheres when crossing the threshold of the lifting of Martial Law and the media age with increasingly rapid information exchange.  The diverse practices from both the West and the local art scene, ranging from performance, installation, video art, and new media art, began to burgeon.  La Transavanguardia italiana and the Western postmodern painting were introduced to Taiwan and soon secured their dominant positions, accompanied by the duet of the Western post-pop art and Japanese Anime-and-manga.  The younger generation rose up, with post-colonialism and new trends of globalization behind them, to make a declaration to challenge the world, in other words, to bring in something “new.”  Yen was the only exception; rather than following the mainstream of his time, he still wanted to talk about the East-and-West or the past-and-present, an once heated debate but was never settled with a conclusion before falling from favor. 

The East-versus-West and Past-versus-Present debates first appeared in the Modern China.  During the early years of the Republic of China, the first group of Chinese students in France returned, bringing back the idea of “the Chinese practice of the Western knowledge” with them.  One of them in the art circle was Lin Fengmian, the founder of Hangzhou Art College, known for his effort to recruit Chinese and foreign masters as well as to promote Western civilization to modernize traditional Chinese painting.  He established a critique system to value traditional painting based on how the East and the West, the past and present were integrated and balanced, which with Lin’s enthusiasm was soon passed down to the artists at school at that time.  His students included Zao Wou-Ki, Chao Chung-hsiang, Chu Teh-Chun, and Wu Guan-Zhong, who later pursued their artistic studies overseas and continuously explored the subject through artmaking throughout their lives.  Lee Chun-Shan went to Japan in the 1930s, where the art student had his first encounter with avant-garde.  He joined Black Western Painting Society in 1935.  Between 1943 and 1946, he was a teacher in Hangzhou Art College, where his paintings alongside with works by Zao Wou-Ki, Ding Yanyong, Guan Liang, Lin Fengmian, Pang Xun, and other painters were often shown in group exhibitions.  After coming to Taiwan in 1949, he started an avant-garde art studio, from where the students later became the main founding members of Ton-Fan Art Group.  Deemed as the Father of Modern Painting in Taiwan, Lee was not merely cherished for his artmaking but also teaching, especially his articles promoting avant-garde, in which he highly suggested that his colleague should abandon the descriptive painting practiced from Renaissance to Impressionism and emphasized how avant-garde, the practice after Impressionism, was closely related to Chinese theatre, calligraphy, and seal art in a mutual way (both attempt to represent a spiritual space and the beauty of shapeless abstract art).  He proposed that the so-called “motif” did not necessarily have to be any natural image, but a mindscape produced with an artist’s sensitivity and creativity.  Also, Lee attempted to integrate the concepts of modern art from the West with the essence of the Eastern art tradition to create a new artistic style.  Such a belief thus made the abstract art trend in Taiwan at that time very different from the Western one.  One may find proof in the name “Ton-Fan Art Group” (literally the Eastern painting society).   The idea to return to the origin, meaning the tradition, was ironically adopted in a borrowed form from the Western art.  However, it was not surprising at all, since the Western abstract art could be traced back to the contextual narrative of the traditional-versus-modern, Eastern-versus-Western, or new-versus-old dichotomy.  Western artists such as Yves Klein, Hans Hartung, Franz Kline, and Pierre Soulages were best known for their artistic dedication to pursuing the “Eastern spirit” as a way out for the rigidized Western art.  In Ton-Fan Art Group, the artist Hsiao Chin, who started his painting lesson with Lee, was famous for his paintings exploring the spiritual state of the Universe; Chin Sung was another example who integrated his personal feelings with oracle bone scripts and the epigraphs on stones, metals, and monuments; bringing the Western and  Chinese culture together, Chuang created a unique landscape imagery; Chen Ting-Shih who abandoned figurative art in the 1960s began to work on seal art-like abstract prints.  These examples showed that abstract art was the best means for the artists at that time to integrate the Chinese and the Western.  However, when it came to the 1970s, lots of painters from this category left the country.  The following was a realistic trend which somehow hindered the development of abstract painting.  Meanwhile, because of Taiwan’s political situation and diplomatic failure, the traditional-and-modern, Eastern-and-Western, and new-and-old integration had no other way but to be replaced by nativist realism.  Lee passed away in 1984.  Although Yen did not have a chance to meet Mr. Lee in person, through Lee’s students he came to know Lee’s artistic belief and was greatly influenced by it.  With such a background, Yen who began his artistic career in the 1980s seemed impervious to the surges of the outside world and the bustling artistic movements, in spite of the fact that abstract painting was no longer a favored trend, that he had spent some time in New York in 1989, and that he continued his studies in the USA in 1991 where he witnessed the dazzle of contemporary art.  In fact, when the art scene around the world has been changing so rapidly, if not sped up by the postmodern force, Yen always holds these questions: what should be the destiny of painting if contemporary art provides such a violent battlefield for media to compete against each other?  What kind of form and content could be taken as an example of contemporary painting?  Does painting still have its place in our contemporary society where being “new and different” becomes the priority?  If the answer is yes, what is its value and significance?  

After returning to Taiwan in 1994, Yen showed his painting installation attempt at ITPARK, but it did not last long.  His abstract painting series in the late 1990s advances between the rational and the sensitive, the geometric and the lyrical.  In his Illustrations of Nature in 2003, he raises a thread of questions about “Nature” – and the exploration is still ongoing today.  Making use of the “non-material space,” or “spiritual space” as some puts it, in abstract painting, the painting series gets rid of the rigidized “imitation of Nature,” and – borrowing Lee’s idea – is “closely related to Chinese theatre, calligraphy, and seal art in a mutual way. ”  Yen’s abstract art at that time not only focuses on its Eastern spirit but also shows a tendency toward post-war Abstract expressionism: based on a rough idea without any preparative draft, using thick layered oil paint and meticulous brushwork to emphasize the materials’ characters, and to focus on an organic structure.  Meanwhile, the brushwork features repetitive texture strokes, somehow hesitant and slow, which differentiate it from the spontaneous and improvisational lyrical abstraction and the expression based on the flowing subconsciousness.  For the postwar artists practicing lyrical abstraction, lines are not to shape but to satisfy a psychological need.  However, Yen’s use of lines does not completely abandon any aesthetic concern.  Quite the contrary, the lines become his tool in terms of composition.   He also uses large canvas, but not in the way like Harold Rosenberg’s “arena for action.”  When we talk about his large canvas, we are actually referring to a triptych of three similar but independent paintings, which signify a kind of broken continuity, or in other words, the structural propagation to freely compose or arrange repetitive elements.  Within the shallow space in the layered-painting quietly float the interwoven texture strokes and the traces of the erased, reminiscent of the mountains and rocks, while the ink marks filling the whole space look like flowers and grasses.  It seems to be the reflection of Nature, but one can also interpret it as a getaway from the reality.  The Eastern elements are everywhere, but in a vague and almost unnoticeable way.  His later painting series Illustrations of Plants in 2009 indeed continues the artist’s exploration of Nature, but then it has a new direction : to return to representation.  The lotus or water lily-like floral patterns in the image are all clearly distinguishable, extending and mingling until they occupy every inch of the whole space like a highly decorative all-over composition.  The watered paint is liquid and fluid, leaving some unintentional traces as it drips and flows on the canvas.  The strokes are rapid and fluent, with a strong graffiti-like humor, showing a greater degree of ease than his previous series.  The triptych structure is much freer.  Unlike the previous works juxtaposing repetitive elements, here he borrows the calligraphic couplet structure, using the right-and-left repetition to highlight the different one in the center.  His colors -- sober, elegant, and perfectly nuanced – are mostly limited to ink, dark blue, pearl green, and ocher, which are the characteristics of Eastern painting.  On the large canvas, the artist no longer creates an illusionary space of false authenticity as a getaway from reality but an exuberant and yet elegant garden to surround viewers.  Could it be the one with a Japanese-style footbridge and a pond of water lilies in Monet’s painting?  The lotus pond beside a terrace pavilion in a botanic garden?  The seductive ink-lotus paintings by Shi Tao or the one with an inner radiation deep inside by Bada Shanren?  Or, perhaps, can we compare it with Chang Dai-chien’s breathtaking six-meter masterpiece Colossal Lotus Screen?  Yen’s Flowers in Breeze series in 2012 follows the same technique, while its reference to natural landscape has become clearer and clearer, including the mountains, water reflection, old trails, and forests.  From the early altumn, summer night, morning dew, dusky dawn, to sunshine, the artist also develops a sharper sensitivity to capture the seasonal changes and the nuanced variations of natural light.  The colors, tunes, and brushwork adjust themselves in accordance with the scenery to be painted, and create an atmosphere to evoke viewers’ experiences.  However, we are certain that he is not painting from life, because the painting reflects the landscape in his mind; and his flowers and grasses cannot be found elsewhere but the secret garden planted in his soul.  

Therefore, Yen gradually departs from the realm of abstract painting and walks into garden painting.  In spite of its close relation to landscape painting, garden painting features a strong sense of humanity through manmade rather than natural scenery.  In the West, the term “garden” is from the Latin words hortus gardinus, meaning "enclosed garden.”  Seeing garden as an enclosed and secret space guarded by walls also corresponds to another term hortus conclusus (also meaning "enclosed garden") from “The Song of Songs” in the Old Testament.  A garden is away from the outside world but not away from reality.  It brings viewers to a paradise which is built upon a perfect balance between the flourishing Nature and daily serenity.  An arcadia is often represented as a complete opposition to the reality in the outside world, like how “Paradiesgartlein” became a popular theme in the Middle Ages, an era troubled by wars, plagues, famines, and rapid population decline.  Such a spiritual shelter also reminds us of the pastoral scenes since the Sixteenth-Century Europe, from Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)’s The Shepherds of Arcadia, Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898)’s  Bois Sacré, Édouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe, to Henri Matisse (1869-1954)’s Luxury, Calm and Delight.   With the disguise of some gentle elegance, these paintings never attempt to evoke the reality but the gold age of a harmonious relationship between human and Nature.  Like how Matisse borrows Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)’s words “(t)here, all is order and beauty, Luxury, peace, and pleasure” in L'Invitation au voyage to title his famous painting created in 1904, artists – in the outside world where people are alienated from each other and everything is out of control – are search for a spiritual shelter for lights, colors, shapes, and spaces to coexist in harmony. 

The Chinese garden “tingyuan” is pregnant with meanings too.  According to Ciyuan,[1] ting is the space in front of the main building, while yuan is the enclosed yard.  The empty space enclosed by walls symbolizes the Chinese tradition of a harmonized relationship between yin and yan, Nature and human.  Tingyuan is more than the microcosm of Nature.  It further integrates Nature, human, and humanity into an entity, offering a private space where the scenery embodies our feelings and thoughts.  Throughout history, artists and intellectuals have regarded Tingyuan as a place to polish and transcend one’s personality, through which many literary masterpieces are created.  With a strong sense of disappointment and helplessness about the reality, Tao Yuanming laments: “Ah, homeward bound I go! Why not go home, seeing that my field and garden with weeds are overgrown?[2]  Tingyuan thus become a symbol of the characteristically Chinese reclusion culture.   Wang Xiancheng, an Imperial Envoy of the Ming Dynasty during the early years of the reign of Zheng De, gave up his frustrating career in the government, returned to his hometown, and built the Humble Administrator's Garden (Zhuōzhèng yuán) in his family residence.   Wen Zhenming, a close friend of him who also helped the construction, later created the painting series Landscapes of the Humble Administrator's Garden which not only featured the depiction of the scenery but also poems and calligraphy accompanying the paintings.  In fact, the Chinese bird-and-flower painting originates with the garden plants and the ecology of flowers, grasses, and trees.

Yen’s departure from abstraction and his gradual interest in garden painting perfectly reflect the problem he encountered in the beginning of his artistic career.  After more than three decades of “painting-based thinking,” he has found some kind of getaway through daily gardening.  Although the life in a bustling city full of disturbances does not provide Yen with the luxury to have a garden, he indeed builds a flourishing garden spiritually through painting.  In fact, the painting Shangri-La in 1989 seems to signify his desire for an arcadia, the native land for the soul.  Twenty-eight years later, in spite of him shifting to the brighter, lighter, smoother, and more cheerful acrylic paint, it is still the flora of Shangri-La soothing his pressure and anxiety which he experiences in real life.  In his Amarantha 1707 – Red Flowers under the Blue Sky, the red clusters of flowers respond to the scattering green ink strokes with boldness, on which the artist unreservedly covers a layer of thick and busy strokes in azure, leaving only several small areas for flowers to surface, before the finishing touch of shiny blue arcs painted with abandon.  At this point, flowers, grasses, the layered sky and clouds are compressed into the bordered canvas, revealing themselves in front of us before we realizing it!  As for Amarantha 1716 – A Song for Flowers and Grasses by the Wind in Shang-Jue Tune, the continuity of red clusters is interwoven with the rhythmically-aligned green ink lines, like roses crushed and prisoned by thistles and thorns, or the water lilies surfacing from a pond of dark green.  Is it abstract or representational?  The not-so-unified artmaking expression shows the passion similar to children’s doodling, while it also reveals its diverse characters, an alternation of splendor, elegance, brightness, and melancholy.   

Painting is not the only tool for him to build the garden.  His latest painting series Amarantha’s Thirteen Notes has its title derived from his learning Guqin at the age of sixty.  In ancient China, guqin (or qin) was the noblest instrument whose position was above chess, calligraphy, and painting.  As a symbol of elegance, guqin used to be one of the essential skills an intellectual had to acquire.  Most of guqins have thirteen “hui,” meaning harmonic markers.  When one plays the guqin, one could only depend on the markers and finger positions whereas rhythm is never indicated.  Its notation also varies from school to school.  It seems simple, but it is the player’s feelings and thoughts which create infinite nuanced variations.  Yen adopts Guqin’s thirteen markers (huis) as a response to the flora art in his painting as well as his heart.  The creativity of the free interpretation when playing the Guqin demonstrates a sense of ease through which he abandons conventions in his paining.  Consequently, he begins to give illustrative titles to the paintings in a way how inscriptions function in the Eastern ink-wash painting: take Amarantha 1718 – The Tune of Blue-Purple Flowers in the Moon Night for example, “Moon Night” is the motif, while “blue purple flowers” suggest the colors and shapes in the painting, followed by “the tune” which is the sound coming from the various Guqin tunes.  Additionally, the rhythmic variations from a single-piece painting to diptych or triptych seem to create a dialogue between the solo instrument and an ensemble.  At this moment we are feeling the solitude of the music, but in the following moment the symphonic momentum is advancing and surging.  The colors, shapes, forms, and brushwork in the painting wander between varying and unvaried continuity.  Meanwhile, the size of the paintings is small enough to create an inner space for thoughts and contemplation but also big enough to establish a grand external space.  The effect it has as a whole is reminiscent of the idea of synesthésie proposed by symbolist poets, who implicitly stimulate viewers’ visual and audio perception in order to guide them through the imagination-inspired aesthetic experiences where music, painting, and poetry are integrated all together.  In most of the cases, what it evokes is the viewer’s body of harmonized spirit and flesh – a unique experience which has once surfaced when Nature and humanity are connected in harmony.  

Picasso, at his old age, untroubled by the noises and changes from the outside world, still enjoyed the satisfaction in private conversation with masters such as Diego Velázquez, Édouard Manet, and Eugène Delacroix until he shared his realization that “painting will never die, because of its capability to represent death.”[3]  Yen has also quoted Gerhard Richter (1932- ) that “painting brings us happiness which eventually proves the essential of its own existence.”  In other words, he never has any doubt about painting, especially its value and significance in contemporary art.  His journey began with the narrative of “the Eastern” in the 1960s in Taiwan, but in the end, what he celebrates is the new literati painting in the Twenty-First Century.  Both the Chinese and Western art histories are the treasuries for him to which he has free access.  His practice ranges from calligraphy, oil painting, to acrylic.  He loves Huang Binhong as much as he loves Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) or George Baselitz (1938- ).  He listens to Guqin music and he also plays it, which never disconnects him from a love for the Western classical music.  He knows about tea, reads a lot, practices taichi, and studies zen, but he also surfs the Internet for the latest information.  All these mentioned above are relevant and irrelevant to “contemporary painting,” for that they are the elements selected by the artist at his free will from the complex and diversified contemporary culture to build his own world of art.  However, what he builds is beyond his realm of art, but a lifestyle to deal with the changes with changelessness – or in other words, the constant changes which seem changeless.  In his world, there is no boundary between the things which we thought to be contradictory, including West and East, abstraction and representation, past and present, old and new, Nature and humanity, art and life, or music, poetry, calligraphy, and painting.  The separation is for the artist to travel between, to infiltrate, to transcend, and to penetrate.  His artworks raise a question to the lineal art-history convention, a chapter to be fulfilled in the reductionized Taiwanese art history.   

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[1] Translator’s note: the earliest modern encyclopedic Chinese phrase dictionary.

[2] Translated by Lin Yutang.

[3] Original: La peinture ne peut pas mourir puisqu’elle est capable de montrer la mort.