Regarding Nature as a Teacher: The Traditional and the Contemporary in TENG Pu-Chun’s Painting
Text by NG Sau-wah (Assistant Professor at the Academy of Visual Arts, Hong Kong Baptist University; Independent Curator)
Regarding Nature as a Teacher
“Regarding nature as a teacher and expressing it through one’s comprehension” is Zhang Zao’s theorization about painting and its aesthetics recorded in Zhang Yanyuan’s Record of Famous Paintings of Successive Dynasties from the Tang dynasty. The statement also captures the guideline of traditional Chinese painting—that is, the painter should regard nature as his teacher and manifest it through his personal sensibility. The statement is also a perfect description of ink master Teng Pu-Chun’s painting.
Taiwan is a mountainous island. Teng resides in Hualien on the east coast of Taiwan, where one can see the sublime, towering Central Mountain Range. If one has never visited Hualien, he or she would definitely believe that the landscape portrayed in Teng’s painting is a fantastic world from pure imagination.
In fact, from the awe-inspiring cliffs of the Taroko Gorge to the sandy rocks from Qixingtan Beach, nature has provided an environment for Teng to create his individual texturing technique, the “rolled wrinkle stroke.” The unique mountains and continuous peaks as well as the steep, perilous cliffs have served as a source of artistic inspiration for Teng’s “ethereal realm” in his painting, which is not only the embodiment of the painter’s consistent observation of the surrounding environment but also the representation created through his personal experiments with distinctively innovative ink techniques.
The Chinese Painting Reformation in the 20th Century
Despite the fact that the viewpoint of “regarding nature as a teacher” was used as a principle guideline and motto to resist against the “Orthodox School” in the 20th-century Chinese Painting Reformation, its goal was to change the Orthodox School’s style of imitating ancient masters and to encourage innovative expression and demonstrate individual style. Since the dawn of the 20th century when Kang You-Wei proposed the historical mission of reforming the painting style of the “four Wangs,” Chinese painting had undergone different challenges in various times and experienced a long stage of experimentation. Throughout history, Chinese painting had served political purposes. There had also been the contention that Western modern artistic concepts and techniques should be adopted to reform Chinese painting. (Qi Bai-Shi, Pan Tian-Shou and other Lingnan School artists argued to “absorb strengths of the past to embellish the modern, whereas Lin Feng-Mian, Xu Bei-Hong and Liu Hai-Li appealed to “incorporate the Western art to embellish the Chinese art.”) The era of the 1990s witnessed an array of attempts and experiments in painting as well. Afterwards, ink painters have returned to the tradition, trying to find a balance and connection between the traditional and the contemporary by transforming traditional vocabularies as a way of continuing and developing traditional painting. Based on the spirit of traditional art, they have developed a modern artistic style, through which they approach the history and value of traditional ink expression in an objective way. This approach has also formed the primary direction of the development of modern Chinese painting, especially ink painting.
In Taiwan, art also underwent a phase of being directed by the government and moved towards the stage of becoming more diversified through the efforts of painters in the public sector. After the democratization of Taiwanese politics, the modern, avant-garde and new abstract movements replaced nativism and realism and became the prominent trends in the art scene. By the end of the 20th century, art was no longer classified according to media but emphasized on diverse, differentiating and regional development. Ink painters like Teng who were born after the 1950s have also engaged in topics that addressed “strangeness, amusingness, peculiarity, change, emptiness and indistinctness,” and developed their art through diverse yet eclectic approaches that integrated Eastern and Western cultures.
This trend matches Teng’s statement: “More than thirty years ago, some modern ink pioneers cried out that the national painting was dead, and argued to reform, destroy and abandon it; however, I have looked for its inherent characteristics by teaching and immersing myself in ancient paintings from the Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. I have combined what I found with new concepts and imagination, and planted this seed.” This statement might also account for why Teng stopped painting for a decade from the 80s to the 90s.
A Late Bloomer
Teng is a non-competitive, practical, exact, and devoted artist that has a unique personality. As a teenager, he was already enthusiastic about artistic creation. At the age of twenty-four, he was accepted into the National Academy of Arts, majoring in National Painting. In school, he had copied a wide range of traditional ink painting from different historical periods.
Teng is a late bloomer like Fu Bao-Shi and Chen Zhi-Fo from the Republic era. He chose to stop painting at the age of thirty (which should have been a stage of establishing his career like what ordinary people would have done), and he did not pick up the brush again until he was close to the age of forty. Subsequently, he founded Mo Ming Hall and published his first series of modern ink, Space Landscape – Painting for the Love of Rocks, after he re-launched his career.
Nevertheless, Teng did not engage himself in the pursuit of fame and wealth in the prosperous, urban environment informed with competitions. Instead, he retreated into a simple life in nature that was away from all the boisterous and bustling scenes of a city. He once stated: “Over more than thirty years and having undergone through the tests of life as well as the formation of ideas and concepts, fantasies and reveries have become an important starting point of creating my paintings.”
Due to Teng’s mastery of the texturing and coloring techniques used in ancient paintings, his kin observation and high concentration as well as his incredible skills and much life experience, he is able to integrate all these strengths and demonstrate his unique ideas in ink landscape. The artistic training, including pottery, that he received when he was young and his immersion in nature have both contributed to his unusual creations of ink landscape today.
Texturing with the “Rolled Wrinkle Stroke”
The unending continuation of Chinese traditional culture, to a large extent, is due to how Chinese people have mythologized, revered and obeyed the ancient culture, particularly the art scene of Chinese painting prior to the Republic era. Teng uses ink painting as an entry point to delve into the contemporary Chinese ink art under a complicated contemporary cultural background, trying to relearn and represent the tradition. For the general public, his work is rather contemporary, which is contradictory to the elegant style of the literati painting. For him, however, his work is deeply rooted in the tradition, but is unique as it is neither conventional portrayal of natural landscape nor refined delineation of the flower and bird motif.
In the 80s, ink painting featuring natural sceneries and native realism was once popular and well-received in Taiwan and had an impact on the art market. Like many of his peer artists in Taiwan, Teng was also somewhat influenced by it. Born after the war, Teng was trained in the National Academy of Arts, and possessed excellent skills in national painting. Although he tends to experiment with his composition, he has never cast traditional ink painting to the side. His Leaping the Cloud and Full Moon Chant series reveal images created with ink lines of interconnected short strokes. With dramatic composition, details are enlarged and combined with regular patterns of mountain rocks, which create a sense of harmony that balances the hyperbolic design and arrangement of the images.
Another crucial feature of Chinese painting is the calligraphic characteristics. Although Teng has never incorporated calligraphy into his painting as the traditional literati painting would do, he described his painting as “seemingly created with ink dots but actually with rolled wrinkle strokes. This texturing of rolled wrinkle strokes is an ancient Chinese technique.” As his career progresses, he has also brought this texturing method to perfection.
Unquestionably, Teng’s work, such as Full Moon Chant, fully embodies his solid and substantial foundation in traditional national painting. Although it might be difficult to link his work to any of the ancient classics of ink landscape, his statement has clearly expressed his embrace, understanding and mastery of traditional painting skills and techniques.
In short, Teng’s work integrates the traditional and the contemporary and surfaces as an ambiguous yet splendid mixture that precisely reflects the sense of time perceived by the artist, which is both intimate yet detached.
New Interpretation of the Tradition
There is a saying that painting has different functions and purposes in different cultural contexts. Painting is a way of representing the real world; as for how it represents the real world and in what form and style depend on the specific culture that creates the painting. Traditional literati painting tends to value subjective and spontaneous expression, which is obviously different from contemporary art that emphasizes on its relationship with society.
In Teng’s painting, one never sees the classic pattern of “one river, two shores” commonly seen in traditional literati painting. Nor does it show the high mountains and flowing streams often depicted in the landscape paintings by masters of the North Song dynasty. However, one does see the peculiar peaks and unusual rocks such as those portrayed in Displacement of Rocks and other paintings, including Star Picking Mountain, Rock Mountains and Embraced by the Water, White Clouds over Vermilion Rock．Water Flows Down, Rare Stone and the Dog, etc.
In terms of spatial arrangement, some of Teng’s paintings display a majestic momentum, such as Water Spirit of the Valley, which is created with an alternative perspective that renders the space more realistic. It even achieves the effect of a special perspective, which is called “three distances” (distance of height, distance of plane, and distance of depth) used in ancient ink landscape.
Furthermore, Teng also carefully selects and piles up details of strange mountain peaks, rocks, waterfalls and springs to construct new images and create stunning visual effect with his new interpretation of the ancient elements. In White Clouds over Vermilion Rock．Water Flows Down, Water Around Rocks．Gurgling Water and Spring Moan, one sees Teng’s interpretation of images that resemble potted landscape commonly seen in the study of an ancient literatus. These images are delineated in a minute and elaborate manner, conveying an artistic mood that is archaic and renewing the common motif of decorative objects in the literati painting.
From Natural Landscape to Artistic Mood
Art serves as an outlet to express one’s emotion but also reflects how an artist perceives and understands the surrounding world. Teng’s landscape painting shows no signs of man-made architecture and human beings; it is a pure, natural space without human existence. What the artist aims to convey is a secluded, spiritual and surreal space that might be the environment of Hualien where he lives, or an alternative, personal world that cannot be perceived by the naked eye but only through imagination.
The mountain rock painted by Teng is usually situated vertically at the center of the image, taking up most of the space, and even to the fullest extent sometimes. The blank space in the background is either filled with or enveloped in dark and heavy ink (whether with or without colors). The vibrant, bold contrast of colors and the clear, even lines of the contour are somehow reminiscent of pop art.
On the other hand, the dense and elaborate line and the composition with rich details can give an oppressive feeling that cannot be described with words. However, the brushstrokes or lines implicitly embedded in the mountain rocks create a sense of order. Together with dot-like, dynamic lines, the originally enclosed and solitary atmosphere in the painting is transformed with a sense of exuberance and movement, which reminds one of the effect achieved by animation. This has given Teng’s painting a distinctive quality. The painter has described his own work in the following words: “Using the elements of ying and yang to balance the vision and achieve union and harmony between the brushwork and the visual representation, enabling an incredible sense of being touched in the spectator’s mind.” The world in the painting might be the ideal world in Teng’s mind, or the world the spectator wants to see; it might also be Teng’s delineation of contemporary people’s conflicting state of mind as they feel lonely inside but still long for peace and quietude.
Instead of realistic representation, Teng focuses on the inner world. The beauty and appeal of a painting comes from what the painter attempts to express, which is exactly the artistic mood that traditional literati pursue in painting. The spirit is more important than outward imitation or realistic delineation; painting is to express the mind of the painter. Teng’s ink painting expresses an imaginary space beyond natural forms, allowing spectators to see the co-existence of nature and beauty. This is what everyone longs for inside, and this is perhaps one of the reasons why Teng’s work is so highly praised.
“Contradictory” Landscape in the Claborate-style
Teng’s claborate-style landscape has clear contours and decorative mountain rocks of elaborate patterns. Moreover, his image reveals incredibly rich details. In terms of technique, he has demonstrated powerful strokes, refined lines, precise and vivid forms, ingenious compositions and mutually complimenting blankness and images that are arranged with considered spacing. He has even created his individual texturing technique of the “rolled wrinkle stroke.”
Teng’s work often features misty mountain scenes in style utterly different from the mountains engulfed in clouds depicted in Guo Shi’s Early Spring. Neither does it resemble the secluded nature that expresses “one’s inner carefreeness” and “righteous and chaste virtues” praised by literati painters such as Ni Zan. Putting aside Teng’s color ink works for now, even his achromatic ink paintings, such as Landscape of Mountain and Water, Rock Waves and Silver Waves, which portray continuous rocky seashores with a dense structure in the claborate style, demonstrate a magnificent momentum complete at one go. These paintings display an ethereal realm as well as a connection with the real world, and reveal Teng’s unique interpretation of nature.
Teng incorporates his own personality into his brushwork, which reveals an expressive style centers on repetition. Through delineating contours, forms and texture of similar mountain rocks, Teng creates intriguing, vibrant rhythm that is repeatedly represented in his work. According to the artist, “in the process of painting, these formal elements are simple, repetitive and overlapping. They are repeated in a dull process, yet I have no choice but to continue, which creates such a conflicting feeling.” However, this repetitive process of his “contradictory” claborate-style landscape has achieved a balance between contemporary expression and the traditional art, which allows him to visually express his inner feeling and gradually form his individual, prominent style.
The Alluring Use of Colors
Taking a comprehensive look at Teng’s oeuvre, one sees an extraordinary capacity of imagination, which contributes to the uniqueness of his painting, His color landscape painted in the claborate style revolves around a surrealistic realm of illusion – a fantastic yet realistic as well as partial but complete world – that is posited between reality and mirage that are interweaved into perfect unison.
The poignancy of his texturing and coloring techniques reveal clear lines and traces of winkle strokes, which add an unadorned quality to Teng’s painting despite its refined, elaborate style, and contributes to the formation of his individual style in the field of claborate-style ink landscape. Therefore, Teng’s work conveys an archaic sense as well as innovativeness, making him a unique painter unlike the others. This is because Teng has infused personal sentiments and an unrestrained artistic mood into his work created with kin observation and exact techniques.
Teng also places an emphasis on his content and achieving harmony in his painting. The combination of paradigmatic images and decorative forms is an important feature of his ink landscape. This attribute might come from the influence of graphic drawings and modern animation and comics. He has assimilated design concepts and vocabularies into his exploration of the claborate-style painting, creating his exceptional visual language. The leaves he paints can be viewed as elements of dot, line and plane employed in the field of design, which form a co-existing relation and the structures in the image.
In terms of composition, Teng pursuits an element of surprise that reinforces the decorativeness of the image. No matter the size of the painting or the level of intricacy of the image, Teng always carefully plans, repetitively considers and eventually arrives at the mastery of representing density without disorder as well as employing proper spacing without hollowness. As a result, he is able to integrate creativity in expressing personal understanding and natural landscape, and to visualize the abundance and diversity of the world through his mesmerizing, ethereal realms of illusion and fantasy.
Through the mirage-like scenes, Teng implicitly delineates the land of his dream. The mountains and houses depicted with spectacular and twisting strokes, one can detect the painter’s circumspective and careful consideration. They are the combination of the magnificence in majestic landscape painting and the moist, humid climate in Taiwan. The figures hidden in the painting seem to be whispering in dejection, which symbolizes Teng’s “vision for history and future despite his sense of helplessness towards his time.” Through painting, he is able to achieve the effect of self-healing and anxiety-releasing; and the landscape as a vehicle of his sentiments and emotions embodies the idyllic land of the Peach Blossom Spring without division as well as the utopian world where the inner and external worlds are unified as one.
Teng’s work is posited between realistic landscape and the imagined landscape inspired by real landscape. He is fascinated by natural mountain rocks, waterfalls and springs, and has reconstructed what he considers to be the ideal landscape with his unique style. If the purpose of admiring landscape painting is to perceive nature, or even to be imaginatively transported into the landscape created by painters and to wander in it, Teng’s work can surely offer an extraordinary journey for the spectators.