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The Archeology of Painting:

Art speculations of Tsai Nian-Jue


Curator: Liting  Jian

Exhibition time:  Tue.3th May 2016- Sat.11th June 2016

Opening Party: Sat. 7th May 2016

Art Forum: Sat. 21th May 2016

Exhibition Introduction:

“We should remember that a picture—before being a war horse, a nude woman, or telling some other story—is essentially a flat surface covered with colours arranged in a particular pattern.”

Maurice Denis, “Definition of Neo-Traditionalism” (1890)[1]

“I was interested in ideas, not merely visual products…. I wanted to put painting once again at the service of the mind.”

Kenneth Coutts-Smith, Dada (New York: Studio Vista, 1970)[2]

Painting is an ancient and rich topic experiencing many transformations and evolutions in history. With numerous inventions of materials, technics, and theories, the ways of producing and seeing arts have been changing constantly, accumulating vast knowledge and becoming an intricate system.

This rich and well-established painting system is the very object which Tsai Nian-Jue manages to respond. As an artist primarily expert in painting, from studying in Art Academy, Tsai commenced to concern about the topic on painting itself. However, his approach is distinguished from those of modern critics, such as Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) or Michael Fried (1939-), not “using peculiar methods of certain subject to criticize itself”[3] or returning to interior of painting discipline, nor seeking unique substance of painting which is different from others. On the contrary, adopting contemporary viewpoint, Tsai tries to connect paintings with other spheres or media, which expanding the possibilities of painting as well as redefining it. We can understand Tsai Nian-Jue’s art practices from views as below.

The Course of Painting Experiment

Tsai Nian-Jue has dense thoughts and conducts bold experiments on painting topic. As early as 2003, he began to use pneumatic staple guns and upholstery staples to create works. He nailed the staples into calcium silicate which replace pigments and canvases. There are two treatments within this: one is nailing the staples from behind, exposing the pinpoints to beholders (Figure 1); the other is, conversely, shooting the staples in a short distance to the front of plates, presenting numerous protruding upside-down U shapes (Figure 2). These material attributes as well as light and shadow effects create a special painting language.

In 2005 exhibition, Tsai further introduced spatial elements. He nailed upholstery staples averagely pieces of uncut calcium silicates. He put these silicates against the wall, the silicates bend due to its weights. The floor in between the wall and silicates was installed fluorescent light (Figure 3). He substituted traditional aesthetic elements through repeated practices. Otherwise, the light-installed environment rendered the canvas’ plain to three dimensional space.

In Bruce Lee I (2004), Tsai Nian-Jue emphasizes affection of physical practice on painting. He put a spring bed in front of a wall, holding a Sharpie marker while bouncing up and down in spring bed; meanwhile, painting huge Bruce Lee portrait on the wall. The drawing area was the maximum extent that his arms can extend (Figure 4).

The manual tradition in painting system is also an issue he concerns with. In a series of works dealing with “strokes”, for example, he used pure colors (often merely two or three colors) overlapping on canvases. The colors were not mixed or blended, the directions and density of strokes were almost even, which represented an all-over status on the canvas (Figure 5-8).

In recent works, Tsai applied large amount of “diatomaceous earth” which generally used in constructions, but his core issue remains on painting. Due to special attributes of diatomaceous earth—affordable to pilings, modulating humidity and absorbing moisture—Tsai has developed unique working procedure. Using cement plates as foundation, ha spreads a layer of waterproof coat and diatomaceous earth, paints acrylic pigments on the painting, then covers whole plain by diatomaceous earth again, and finally chisels it (Figure 6).

The chisel way follows two opposed but co-existed principles. The first principle is the coherence of chisel line and the size of work. Due to these works are all square, he choose both perpendicular and horizontal chisel lines. The distance between two lines is one centimeter and the lengths of work should be exactly integers which constitute as a rectangle leaving no incomplete checks.

The second is the sensitive modulation in chisel process. After finishing the lines, Tsai uses gravers to shovel some diatomaceous earth coating, exposing part of under acrylic layer. When it comes to the extent of the color layer exposure, the thickness of shovel out and the texture made by shovel, their variations refers to aesthetic consideration of painting tradition. The procedure itself has arrangement variations and sophisticated methods, but not by “adding” pigments, rather, by “removing” covered coating to expose under colors, and thus containing more accidents. In particular, diatomaceous earth becomes more transparent when absorbing moisture. Thus, the thinner of surface earth coating (chiseling more earth out), the brighter the under pigment layer renders (after spraying on water). This material attribute is a part of Tsai’s creating thoughts. His portfolio presents both dry and moist statuses of works, manifestly indicting his works are not only visual but can also be closely interacting with beholders by spraying water to display colors.

These paintings demonstrate that Tsai Nian-Jeu’s painting issue is not only structural but also historical. In terms of structure, he focuses on “what composes painting,” and often dissembles the composed materials as well as working processes to change or strengthen some specific parts. As a result, although concrete figures and conventional aesthetic experiences disappear, material attributes and physical practice mechanisms manifest. In terms of history, his method evokes “in-situ” attitude of Installation Art, the ambiance exploration of Environment Art, the interest in physical practice of Action Painting, and the conserving of sensational forms and highlight of thoughts in Conceptual arts.

The archeology of painting concepts

Thus, while Tsai Nian-Jue began in material aspect, it was by no means for the material significance. Many of his ideas are not for representing dazzling visual effects, rather they aims to open a dialogue to the grand painting history and cultural dimensions which includes issues as follows:

1. The ambiguous relationship between painting and architecture 

First of all, Tsai’s works respond to ancient connection between painting and architecture. Originally, architectures are major bases of ancient paintings (murals) until the invention of easel painting which converted paintings to movable and tradable objects independent from buildings becoming the main patterns for centuries.

However, both mural and easel painting need material piling up in different layers, require solid foundation, absorbing bottom and lacquer or pigment coating. Tsai returns to the era of architecture and painting as an entity and rebuilds the relationship between architecture and easel painting. By using modern construction materials—cement plates etc.—he transforms the constructing methods to small plain, making the material originally attached to architectures becoming movable, and thus, untypical easel painting.

2. The relationship between image and object

Secondary, the size and chisel method of the series of diatomaceous earth has much to do with the discussion of painting as image or object as well. Tsai Nian-Jeu intends to foreground the object nature of painting, but his practice is at odds with René Magritte (1898-1967) in last century directly interpreting “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”[4] by words. Rather, his conception is more close to Jasper Johns’ (1930-) Flag (1954) and Frank Stella’s (1936-) shaped canvas.

Tsai treats from the margin of work, he arranges same intervals between lines and ensures their directions consisting with its frame. As the image matches to the canvas margin in Johns’ Flag and the arrangement of same intervals as well as lines matching to margin in Stella’s work, his practice also perplexes beholders’ custom of discerning images, which makes works as both painting and object.

3. Physical practices and leaving traces

Changes of painting methods also influence the physical practices of artists. For example, making frescos need spreading plaster on wall, easel paintings resort to wrist movements, abstract expressionist paintings usually require waving all arm, even in action painting, as Harold Rosenberg said, “What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.”[5] Tsai’s works is arguably the result of physical practice, such as repeating bouncing or chiseling. These operations are far from depicting images, rather making traces by continuing and repeating movements.

4. Processes and accidents

Because Tsai Nian-Jeu regards functions and traces left by physical practices, the working processes are extremely significant and accidental in his works. In fact, accidents occur in all art works, but probabilities varies. As Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) said, an art creation is a complex synthesis of “design” and “anecdote”.[6]

In virtue of constant material and technical heredity, easel painting is a highly manageable art form. Despite Tsai never deliberately make open or interactive works, he declines the performances of composition and drawing skills which were used in conventional painting demonstrating painters’ talents, converting his paintings to conceptual elaboration. He emphasizes the rendition of materials rather than indirect depicting representation fulfilling by pigments. Thus, from bouncing, nailing staples to chiseling lines, his working processes and practices meet accidentally with materials all reveal in his works.

5. From visual to living space

Finally, resting on perspective and related skills, easel painting constructs a system which is mainly based on visual effect. As this system became more sophisticated, it has been more distant from daily life. Therefore, from Romanticism, many artists were enthusiastic at re-combination of art and everyday life, and even embraced traditions of Medieval art, leading painting integrated to other art field and serving for (religious) life.

For Tsai Nian-Jeu, painting is not a simple visual problem. He has an archeological attitude which puts the painting topic to a massive context (easel painting is just a small part of it). Thus painting needs to re-connect to architectural, spatial and physical fields. Beholders have to use more sensation in order to participate in the environmental entity made by the artist.


[1] Maurice Denis, “Definition of Neo-Traditionalism” (1890), Charles Harrison, Paul Wood and Jason Gaigered.,Art in Theory 1815 – 1900 (London: Blackwell, 1998), p863.

[2] Kenneth Coutts-Smith, Dada (New York: Studio Vista, 1970), p.52.

[3] Clement Greenberg, ”Modernist Painting” , in C. Harrison & P. Wood( eds. ) , Art in Theory 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd. , 1992), p.755.

[4] This sentence comes from Magritte’s The Treachery of Images (1929). This painting portrays a pipe and this sentence “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” written in French.

[5] “What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.” Harold Rosenberg, “The American Action Painters”, ARTnews (1952), p. 22.

[6] Claude Lévi-Strauss, “Chapter One: The Science of the Concrete”, The Savage Mind, Trans. George Weidenfield and Nicholson Ltd. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), p.17. (Access from: http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/levistrauss.pdf)。