克里斯多夫‧庫克 Christopher Cook
Professor of Painting, and Gallery Curator, University of Plymouth
宋曉明遠赴英國攻讀博士學位，或許是渾然天成。因為英國本地的大學，是最早驗證創意學科中高水準理論研究的一批。美術作為一學科領域，現今已在全球學術界站穩其地位；如此成果，很大程度上歸功於克萊門特．格林伯格（Clement Greenberg），於 1950 年代紐約所展開、別開生面的批判式分析。當時格林伯格所擁護的藝術家們，如巴內特．紐曼（Barnet Newman）－便為這門學科帶來了發人深省的哲學強度，鼓勵藝術學院與之後的大學，採用格羅佩斯（Gropius）的包浩斯（Bauhaus）模式，將美術全然納為一個學術領域。
展覽之名「具象詩」，援引自一場文學運動。該運動與抽象表現主義（Abstract Expressionism），均於 1950 年代獲得關注；讓文字的視覺效果凌駕於字面意義（也被稱作「視覺詩（visual poetry）」），企圖擴大語言的概念界線，正如宋曉明關注的是如何擴展其繪畫範圍。展覽名稱更進一步表彰的，是宋曉明作品內美學與智識的真切連結，透過畫室生活中具體的現實：純亞麻布、土質顏料、純白底漆與紙膠帶，以虛構形式表現出來。
我們在這些畫作中所見的寫實主義，在紙膠帶的演繹中，與 19 世紀中葉的法國寫實主義運動（French realist movement）有所關聯；但氣質上更近似荷蘭 17 世紀靜物畫（Still Life）的超寫實主義（hyperrealism），如范．霍格斯特雷頓（van Hoogstraten）與艾福特．克里爾（Evert Calier，移居倫敦後改名為 Collier）等藝術家之作。克里爾於 1699 年創作的作品《木板上報紙、信件和書寫工具的錯視畫（A Trompe l’Oeil of Newspapers, Letters and Writing Implements on a Wooden Board）》中，皮革綁帶似乎能固定住紙張與信件，展現出精湛的錯視技巧，乃是對當時必死性（memento mori）流派的一種新詮釋。攝影技術問世，不可避免的改變了錯視畫的地位；然而，繪畫仍保有其得以運用極端技巧的潛力。宋曉明長久以來敬仰的德國畫家傑哈德．李希特（Gerhard Richter），便以一種新穎的方式使用了繪畫技巧，將其繪畫圖像模糊化或塗除，以傳達更為「紀實（或「居間」）」的特色，儘管實際上，他是在抹去細節。
宋曉明所使用的紙膠帶錯視，也是一種藝術修辭（trope），為了強調而反覆使用之，並避免它對於單一圖像而言，被視為「特殊」的存在。然而，在每一系列作品中—從早期的花卉靜物作品（引用自李希特）到風景畫，再到現有的抽象作品，修辭的涵義都大相逕庭。在花卉繪畫中，紙膠帶或許會喚起威廉．寇德斯特姆（William Coldstream）學術上一絲不苟的特質，以及他的測量觀察方法－彷彿紙膠帶是那過程的一部分，標記出了關鍵的參考點，用以建立構圖和關係比例。宋曉明在2020年《潮間帶》風景作品中的畫面意境，推理暗示了愛德蒙．伯克（Edmund Burke）的崇高美（sublime），但紙膠帶以一種挑釁的方式「被貼上」，如同多餘的遺留物般貼在表面，這些紙膠帶或許是拆開展覽作品時留下的。紙膠帶的覆蓋，強迫觀者保持一定的距離，警告他們別被吸引至浪漫的歡愉氛圍中。有時候，紙膠帶的力量，幾乎與封塔納（Fontana）劃破畫布、破壞圖像平面的力量，同樣粗曠極端。
《具象詩》之中的作品，表彰的是 1959 年於現代藝術博物館（MOMA）舉辦的法蘭克．史特拉 （Frank Stella）《黑色繪畫（Black Paintings）》展覽中，對波洛克（Pollock）和德庫寧（De Kooning）等抽象繪畫藝術家的極簡主義（minimalist）的迴響。向著極簡主義而去的這種改變，帶來了一種更嚴肅的情緒。在這種情緒之中，紙膠帶不太有扮演密探的意願，而是思量要成為真正的參與者。因為牽涉到圖像本身的形態構造，在繪製直邊時，此處虛幻的紙膠帶想要有所歸屬，雖然這或許會被稱作特定的前存圖像，但在這些作品中，它們體現了強大的「真實」主題，彷若並未被宋曉明如此賞識的諷刺特質，所嚇倒而失去信心。
格林伯格乃是「繪畫抽象」的靈感來源，曾斷言「寫實主義、自然主義（naturalistic）藝術掩蓋了媒介，使用藝術來隱匿藝術；現代主義（Modernism）則使用藝術來喚起對於藝術本身的關注」。但他也是極簡主義轉變中，不可或缺的一部分；這樣的轉變，透過艾格尼絲．馬丁（Agnes Martin）、羅伯特．莫里斯（Robert Morris）和格林伯格首推的巴尼特．紐曼（Barnet Newman）等藝術家的作品，在全世界獲得了認可。宋曉明拒絕與紐曼進行比較，因為即使紙膠帶是一種常見的、令人著迷的物件，但他堅持認為其「意圖完全不同」。吾人沒有理由懷疑宋曉明的斷言，然而紐曼對哲學的興趣，以及他不斷反思自己畫作的傾向，暗示了一些相似之處；格林伯格一口咬定紐曼「不在乎是否展現出他的陰影或線條畫得有多好－真相所在之處…超出了他知道自己所能做到的」，對宋曉明而言亦是如此。也許更能反映真實情況的，是英國評論家大衛．西爾維斯特（David Sylvester）對紐曼的觀察：「當關於他的對立陳述，似乎同樣令人信服時，這便是一個明確的跡象，代表這位藝術家舉足輕重」。
最剛開始，紐曼是超現實主義（surrealist）者，但他迅速削減了處理一幅畫作的基本要素語言，包含：規模、結構、表面、姿態。他的作品平面通常被一條垂直線分割而變得活躍－這條線也被稱為「拉鍊」，是使用紙膠帶所製成。紐曼1960 年的作品《白色火焰（White Fire）》，是一個令人難忘的案例。黑色顏料的筆觸，閃爍顯現在線條兩側，隱晦的使人注意到創作過程中使用的紙膠帶。然而，正如紐曼的陳述所暗指，其作品與宋曉明畫作的連結，與其說是視覺共鳴，不如說是一種哲學立場：「我希望我的畫作給予某人（如同作品給了我自己）的，是一種自身整體感、自有的分離感，並能感受到他自己的特質；同時，還有他與其他人的聯繫－而這些人也是各為個體的。」
在多聯畫作品《絮語》中，紙膠帶與每片畫板上平繪出的角度形狀相互呼應。宋曉明習慣性拒絕大多數嘗試將他的作品，與東方美學影響連結起來的行為；如此的詮釋，或許確實呈現出一種文化確認的偏見，因此暗示了若是《絮語》四片畫板的格式，使人回想起古代中國或日本屏風上的繪畫，這樣的行為恐怕透露出了狂妄之情。然而，這樣的歸因中，存在著一種隱藏的循環；因為諸多在1950 年代紐約場景下的畫家，都受到了鈴木大拙（Daisetz Suzuki）的禪宗佛教教義影響，預示極簡主義的「西方」美學，將吸收東方哲學思想。《絮語》的每一幅畫板中，都只有一個繪製出來的三角形和一條紙膠帶，以一種舞蹈的形式呈現；可能是一種昇華的空蕩／滿溢，或陰／陽關係。例如，陰可能的所在之處為三角形，是固有且永久的（仔細的畫在了畫布上），而紙膠帶則是陽，乃是偶然的、動態的、象徵了無常－卻諷刺的被變成了永恆。宋曉明曾言：「我寧可將紙膠帶視為在理解再現的內容時，一個起點或通道。」欣賞屏風畫時，更引人入勝的，乃是跨越四片畫板的這齣二元舞蹈、或交互作用－有著宮廷遊戲般的優雅，或許反映出擺了屏風的臥室的親密感。這種被削減的形式元素序列，是否亦是愛人間拐彎抹角的密語，密不可分的相連著，卻又是各自分離？
克里斯多夫‧庫克 (Christopher Cook) 身兼藝術家、策展人及學者身分，現為英國普利茅斯大學的美術學院專任教授，亦擔任學院畫廊展覽的策展人。過往由他獨立策劃的展覽曾於新加坡、美國、義大利和荷蘭巡迴展出，他亦為各項藝術出版物撰寫評論文章。 他的創作以石墨為媒材，其重要個展包括：日本橫濱美術館、美國孟菲斯藝術博物館、德國海德堡藝術協會、英國倫敦卡姆登藝術中心。他的作品收藏於英國大英博物館和美國紐約大都會藝術博物館。他的作品由美國紐約 Mary Ryan 畫廊代理。
Sheauming Song: Concrete Poetry
The arresting elegance of these recent paintings by Sheauming Song is both visual and conceptual. In their stark simplicity and veneration of material qualities, the paintings delight the eye, but on closer acquaintance a philosophical intensity arises to give the works their distinctive presence.
Song’s philosophical inquiry has been nurtured by many years of contemplative searching in the studio, trying out new possibilities for contemporary painting, and may also be traced back to his doctoral research at Lancaster University in the UK (completed some fifteen years ago) during which time he assessed the continuing relevance of contemporary realist painting. His desire to consider, through theory and practice, the cultural position that painting finds itself in (along with a discipline-specific dialogue between materiality and illusion) tackles a loftier subject: that of perception and the human condition.
It was perhaps natural that Song headed for the UK to undertake his doctorate, for British universities were some of the first to validate high-level theoretical research in creative subjects. The fact that Fine Art as a subject area is now firmly established within academia worldwide owes much to the ground-breaking critical analysis of Clement Greenberg in 1950s New York. Artists of that period championed by Greenberg, such as Barnet Newman, brought a reflective philosophical intensity to the discipline that encouraged colleges of art, and later universities, to adapt Gropius’s Bauhaus model and fully embrace it as an academic discipline.
Yet for a painter with strong academic credentials, Sheauming Song remains grounded both by the landscape that he regularly and extensively explores, and through consistent, focussed practice in the studio. An inquisitive, philosophical approach demands his work to be both serious and also experimental, which means it must also sometimes be playful, irreverent, and anarchic. That his everyday studio materials have become his subject matter is precisely because they are the malleable tools of his visual philosophy, just as common words challenge the poet to transform the familiar into a means of eloquent expression and communication. From this grounding in the ‘concrete’ – often also used as a synonym for ‘real’ or ‘actual’ – arises the lean poetry of Song’s images.
The exhibition title, Concrete Poetry, is appropriated from a literary movement which, like Abstract Expressionism, gained traction in the 1950s. It prioritised the visual effect of words over literal meaning (it was also known as ‘visual poetry’) and so sought to expand the conceptual ambit of language, just as Song is concerned with expanding painterly range. The title more importantly recognises in these works a telling conjunction of the aesthetic and intellectual, with the concrete realities of studio life: raw linen, earth pigments, blank-white ‘primer’ and masking tape – in fictional form.
The masking tape signifies process, and reminds the viewer that all art is an illusion, an image in transition, its unpredictability or uncertainty a magical property. As Song himself has declared: “Different potentialities and uncertainties of being an artwork are latent. By representing an image of indefinite status as an end image, such uncertainties are established in an unsettling way, are never fixed, and become a process of seeing and thinking about that image… but also anticipate the viewer’s imaginative participation in terms of the ‘incompleteness’ of my depiction.”
Greenberg espoused the concept of ‘medium specificity’, asserting that there are inherent qualities particular to each artistic medium. In the case of painting, he declared that the two-dimensional nature of canvas and pigment demanded an increased emphasis on flatness, rather than the illusion of depth and perspective that had fascinated painters since the innovations of Alberti and other artists of the Renaissance. Song extends the Greenbergian debate by making the viewer very aware of the painted object, then problematising that awareness through deft illusion of masking tape, which conjures a miniscule amount of space above the picture plane. This in turn draws even more attention to the surface. Although the tape is a repeated rhetorical device, his inquiry into the nature of perception and the human imagination is rigorous in the way that other aspects are brought into the discussion: the overlapping and layering of paint, formal juxtaposition, the use of canvas edges and sides, and inventive spatial arrangement.
The realism we find in these paintings, in the rendition of the tape, has connections to the French realist movement of the mid-nineteenth century, but in temperament is more closely aligned with the hyperrealism of Dutch 17th century Still Life painting, in the works of artists such as van Hoogstraten and Evert Calier, (renamed Collier after his move to London). Collier’s 1699 work, A Trompe l’Oeil of Newspapers, Letters and Writing Implements on a Wooden Board, is an updating of the memento mori genre of the time, the virtuoso trompe l’oeil of the papers and letters augmented by the inclusion of the leather strap which seems to hold them. The arrival of photography inevitably altered the status of trompe l’oeil, but the potential for painting to deploy extremes of artifice remained. German painter Gerhard Richter, whom Song has long been an admirer of, used it in a novel way by blurring or smudging his painted imagery to deliver a more ‘documentary’ (or ‘mediated’) flavour, even though he was in fact erasing detail.
Song’s masking tape trompe is also a trope – used repeatedly for emphasis, and to avoid it being seen as ‘special’ to an individual image. Yet in each sequence of works – from earlier flower still life works (citing Richter) to the landscapes, to these current abstract works, the implication of the trope registers as profoundly different. On the flower paintings, the tape perhaps invokes the academic meticulousness of William Coldstream and his measured observational method, as if the tape were part of that process, marking key reference points to establish composition and relational scale. In Song’s Intertidal landscape works of 2020, the pictorial mood infers the sublime of Edmund Burke, but the tape is ‘applied’ in a provocative manner, attached to the surface as though unwanted leftover, perhaps from the unwrapping of the work for exhibition. This overlay of masking tape forces the viewer to maintain a certain distance and warns against being drawn into the romantic atmospherics. At times the tape has a force almost as stark as Fontana’s slashing of the canvas to destroy the picture plane.
The body of work in Concrete Poetry honours the minimalist reaction to the painterly abstraction of artists such as Pollock and De Kooning, a reaction initiated by the 1959 exhibition of Frank Stella’s Black Paintings at MOMA. The move to minimalism brings with it a more serious mood, in which the tape is not so willing to play provocateur, but instead contemplates becoming a genuine participant. Because it is implicated in the formal construction of the image itself, in the production of the straight edges, the illusory tape here wants to belong, and whilst this may be said of specific previous images, in this body of work it gives rise to powerful ‘authentic’ themes, as if undeterred by the irony that Song so appreciates.
Greenberg was an inspiration for ‘painterly abstraction’ in his assertion that “realistic, naturalistic art had dissembled the medium, using art to conceal art; Modernism used art to call attention to art” but he was also integral to the minimalist conversion, a movement that gained global recognition through the works of Agnes Martin, Robert Morris and Greenberg’s prime example, Barnet Newman. Song resists comparisons with Newman, for even though masking tape is a common fascination, “the intention is completely different” he insists. There is no cause to doubt his assertion, but Newman’s interest in philosophy, and his inclination to constantly reflect on his paintings, suggests some parallels, as does Greenberg’s assertion that Newman is “not concerned to demonstrate how well he can draw shade or line – the truth lies…beyond what he knows he can do”, which is also very true of Sheauming Song. Perhaps even more telling is British critic David Sylvester’s observation on Newman: “it’s a sure sign that an artist matters when antithetical statements about him seem equally convincing”.
Newman began as a surrealist, but rapidly pared back his language to deal with a painting’s essentials: scale, structure, surface, gesture. His flat surfaces are usually divided and activated by a vertical line, or ‘zip’ as they became known, made using masking tape. His White Fire from 1960 is a memorable example, in which a flicker of brushwork in black paint appears either side of a line that implicitly evokes the masking tape employed in its making. Yet the connection to Sheauming Song’s paintings is less one of visual resonance than of philosophical standpoint, as suggested by Newman’s declaration, “I hope that my painting has the impact of giving someone, as it did me, the feeling of his own totality, of his own separateness, of his own individuality and the same time of his connection to others, who are also separate”.
This idea of separateness emerges is picked up in this exhibition in Song’s astute use of the diptych and polyptych form, and the small gaps he insists upon within them. Separateness is also developed as a potent theme in itself to evoke notions of repair, unity, and healing in these divisive times. In Between, the paint handling recalls the minimalist approach of Newman (though the angled horizontal gap is a long way from a zip) but crucially, the illusion of masking tape here appears to hold the two slabs of colour together as they threaten to slide apart, thus suggesting a kind of stitch. Is this a glimpse of the disjuncture between surface and image beginning to concede to more emotive metaphors? In the vertical diptych Juli, (which in Mandarin implies “to be apart”) the masking tape exudes bathos, as if an attempt to hold the canvasses together has ultimately proved in vain. And whilst Error would seem to be self-explanatory (there seems to have been some slippage in the composition, as if we are witnessing the reassembling of pieces of a larger work, like fragments of an ancient vase that no longer quite fit) the act of healing is also implicit, and the tape may again reference a physical attachment or suture.
The Lovers diptych is a key work in this exhibition in the way it elucidates the artist’s thinking behind the masking tape illusion. Where the two canvasses meet, and we imagine from the title this is a meeting of minds and bodies, there is a subtle mismatch, to indicate the diverse yet entangled individuals that encounter each other. The concrete greys are sublimely, intimately soft. Distinct beings approach each other respectfully, with tenderness. Yet each of the two independent canvasses, hung with a few millimetres gap between them, has a small piece of illusionistic masking tape at its very outer edge, where the painting interacts with the display wall. The subtle insertion of tape is not here designed to cause the viewer a visual disturbance, but instead appears to signify where the two individuals remain unfinished, contingent, open to experience, curious about the world. Where they near-meet as lovers nothing is in doubt, but the two small sections of carefully rendered tape generate the requisite uncertainty, and sense of openness.
In the polyptych Xuyu, pieces of tape echo the flatly painted angled shapes on each panel. Song habitually resists attempts to associate his work with Eastern aesthetic influences, and such interpretations may indeed present a form of cultural confirmation bias, hence to suggest that the four-panel format of Xuyu recalls ancient Chinese or Japanese painting on screens seems presumptious. There is a hidden circularity in such attributions however, for numerous painters of the ‘50s New York scene were influenced by the Zen Buddhist teachings of Daisetz Suzuki, prefiguring the absorption of Eastern philosophy into minimalist ‘Western’ aesthetics. Each panel of Xuyu has just one painted triangle and one piece of tape, in a form of dance, and potentially a sublimated empty/full or yin/yang relationship, where yin might be, for example, the settled and permanent (carefully painted onto the fabric) whilst the tape is the yang, the contingent, dynamic, symbolic of impermanence – ironically made permanent. Song has previously declared: ‘I would rather consider the masking tape as being a threshold or gateway to understanding what is represented”, and what makes the screen reading more compelling is that this dualistic dance or interplay across the four sections has the elegance of a courtly game, perhaps reflecting the intimacy of a screened bedroom. Is this pared-down sequence of formal elements also an oblique cypher for lovers, inextricably linked, yet also separate?
The title of Metaphor is provocative – challenging the viewer to work out what metaphor is intended. The calm minimalism of the upper section is predicated upon a ‘process of becoming’ at the base, which is reminiscent of a ‘style sheet’ or colour sampler, in which actual masking tape has been repeatedly used to allow the artist to test a variety of possible tones, colours, angles and rhythms. This intricate substructure is the foundation on which the concrete statement – and the playful tapes – of the upper section depends, suggesting that the key metaphor is for the act of creation itself, creation not as sudden enlightenment, but a process of testing and of resolving.
The change in this latest body of work is partly as a consequence of the minimalist genre Sheauming Song is questioning, and of course, from the artists perspective, the strategy could be to provide another ‘credible vehicle’ that will generate a palpable frisson once the skill, the slight-of-hand, is registered. Past evidence points to Song consistently moving from one challenge to a new one, keeping himself on his toes, as it were, to remain philosophically nimble. In his earlier Intertidal landscapes the irony of the tape addition is unmistakeable, but in this exhibition the irony is on the point of collapsing into meaning, and into new themes. The evocations of masking tape in Concrete Poetry integrate more readily because they connect with the values the paintings depend upon: flat shapes, neat edges, and straight lines. Even as it tips a wink at the viewer, the tape becomes an activated ingredient of the abstract conversation. These works become doubly important precisely because the tension between image and tape has abated in favour of dialogue and détente, and the tape wishes to belong because the artist wishes to approach urgent new themes.
As noted earlier, an extensive skein of theory has been spun around the work of Sheauming Song, not least by the artist himself, and justly so, for his works are intellectually engaging and conceptually rich. Yet it is important to return to the visual and visceral experience of the individual works themselves, when theoretical underpinnings and intellectual provocations fall away, and the viewer encounters the concrete poetry of the object ‘in person,’ as though meeting a lover. In this encounter the sense of elegant poise, of tender healing, is foremost, and is enhanced rather than undermined by illusion. The exhibition captures Sheauming Song consciously playing down his irreverent delight in subversive realist representation in favour of a closer relationship between what was previously the ‘underlying’ image and the surface illusion. The significant change is partly due to the minimalist genre Song examines, which has the effect of reducing the level of irony in favour of a subtler dialogue. Perhaps more surprisingly, from within the philosophical rigour, the change has allowed authentic themes of healing and of resolution to emerge, to give these works a newfound intimacy.