A Simple yet Unusual Realm – Teng Pu-Chun’s Ink Fantasy
Art Historian & Emeritus Professor, Department of History, National Cheng Kung University
In August 2008, Hualien’s Pine Garden invited Teng Pu-Chun to hold a solo exhibition, an exhibition that was presented twenty-four years after Teng graduated from the National Taiwan Academy of Arts (now National Taiwan University of Arts). During this period of twenty-four years, the artist had once set down his brush and stopped painting for a decade. It was not until 1996 that he picked up his brush again and founded “Mo Ming Hall,” where he presented Space Landscape – Painting for the Love of Rocks, an exhibition featuring his ink and stone paintings as well as works of seal carving. Such a small-scale event taking place at his own gallery space understandably did not generate much buzz in society, particularly in the art circle. Nevertheless, “generating buzz” has not been what Teng cares most. For him, as he paints, it is only natural that he makes some of his works known to the public. This is simply part of the everyday life at Mo Ming Hall. Teng describes himself as “leading an uneventful, worry-free life, being withdrawn from society without making many friends, and waiting for retirement.”
In 2008, he finally retired; but he “does not feel old and is incredibly healthy.” With the invitation from Pine Garden, he presented a more formal solo exhibition at the art space that was also a historic spot. The next year (2009) after the solo exhibition, he handcrafted ten artwork albums, with images photographed and contents edited by himself, which served as a conclusion of his creative work over a course of more than a decade.
The action of making a self-produced, handcrafted painting album might seem ordinary, but has imperceptibly revealed some of the inherent qualities of Teng’s artistic life: the state of mind of a literatus and the talent of a craftsman.
The year of 2010 was the year that Teng’s work was seen by the art world in a more formal manner. In April of the year, in a joint exhibition curated by another ink painter Peng Kang-Long (1962-), Teng’s works left Hualien and returned to Taipei, where Teng was once a student. The joint exhibition featured Teng and the ninety-six-year-old revered painter Chang Kuang-Pin (1915-2016), whose brushstroke and artistic conception, which demonstrated his “mature personality and work in an unfettered and individualistic way,” had a profound impact on the mind of the craftsman-artist that got his “painting inspiration” from “his passion for stones.” This encounter was also an encounter of two traditional literati from different generations.
Born in Hualien in 1957, Teng got into the National Taiwan Academy of Arts in Banciao in 1981. It was a period when he felt like he was in his element. The year of 1984 was the year he graduated from the academy as well as the inauguration and official opening of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM), the first modern art museum in Taiwan.
During this initial period after the museum’s inauguration, one of its major biennials was the exhibition of “new ink painting.” The tug-of-war and contention between “modern ink” and “traditional ink” also became a hot topic and focal point in the art scene that year.
It remains a question whether Teng had directly joined the debate. However, three years after graduating from the National Taiwan Academy of Arts, he had “set down his brush” and stopped painting, which was clearly related to the contention between “the traditional” and “the modern.” Years later, he reminisced about those days and stated,
“National painting” was a specific term that referred to traditional Chinese painting. It was like a burden of a cast spell that could not be undone. The names of ink and color ink did not appear until the 19th and 20th century. The teaching and learning of traditional Chinese painting was conducted through the peculiar master-pupil system, and the pupils always started with “copying” the works of past art masters without really asking why. After graduation, I taught myself by studying paintings from the Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties, through which I explored the concepts of Chinese painting and the principles of using ink and brush. I realized that the problem of Chinese painting had its root in the problematic system of education. In particular, after the literati painting became the mainstream in the Yuan and Ming dynasties, literati dominated the theoretical discourse of painting. They filled it with symbols and copied each other, causing the deterioration of the art and the eventual loss of its vitality. After entering the Republic Era, although there were renowned masters, they still followed the concept of the literati painting to create their art. In 1957, Chi Pai-Shi passed away, and the May Art Group was founded in Taiwan, of which Mr. Liu Kuo-Sung was one of its members. Thirty years later, Liu proposed the idea of revolutionizing the genre by altering its use of the “medium-sized brush,” turning himself into the father of modern ink painting and a contemporary master. At that time, Liu’s status as a revolutionary figure was the result and making of a changing world, in which the political climate also moved towards democracy. Therefore, drastic measures and changes were necessary. Afterwards, Taiwanese ink painting became diversified. However, I found that many ink paintings were created under Western concepts or with Western compositions, and lost the characteristic charm of Chinese ink. I stopped for a long time, preparing myself while pondering on the question of how to create contemporary ink painting with the most traditional ink and brush. (Rock the Dream, Spirit of Ink, 2017)
It was amidst the conflicting and unsolvable contention between “the modern” and “the tradition” that Teng had put down his brush temporarily; however, he was always pondering on “how to create contemporary ink painting with the most traditional ink and brush.”
During this suspension of painting, the “stones” from his hometown became the subject of his aspiration, appreciation and spiritual dependence.
“Hualien,” a name that is beautiful and profound, evoking the flower “lotus” (pronounced “lian hua” in Mandarin), evolves from Hualien’s historical name “Huelan” (literally “surging currents”). It is in the north of Taiwan’s eastern region that is traditionally known as “Ho Shan” (literally “back of the mountains”). It is where Taroko, the exit of the Central Cross-lsland Highway, is located, as well as where several great rivers in eastern Taiwan, such as Hualien River and Siouguluan River, enter the Pacific Ocean, creating notable surging currents (hence, the name “Huelan”). This is a place where the mountains meet the ocean, and has produced the most abundant natural resources, ranging from “marble” excavated from the mountains to variegated marine stones found by the seaside. In particular, the Retired Servicemen’s Engineering Agency (RSEA) Marble Factory, with Yang Ying-Feng’s assistance, had built the foundation for what would later be known as the Hualien Stone Sculpture Festival. Moreover, the collection and appreciation of peculiar rocks and bonsais (potted landscape) have also become a unique activity for local enthusiasts and cultural industry in Hualien.
Teng perhaps had no direct association with these local “stone appreciating” or “stone treasuring” groups or individuals, but the local arts and cultural trends might inspire or influence him to a certain extent. On the other hand, his business of dealing with “antiques” provided him ample opportunities to see ancient bronze ware, seals, calligraphies and paintings that he had not had a chance to study in school. He even traveled to China, where his vision was widened. Particularly, he gained a deeper understanding of ink works from the Ming and Qing dynasties, including works by artists known for their “transformed style,” such as Gong Xian (1618-1689) from the early Qing dynasty.
From the appearance, Teng’s decade-long suspension of painting seems to suggest a digression from artistic creation; today, in retrospect, it has brought him to the origin of ink landscape, where he has absorbed inspiration from mountain rocks and nature to accumulate artistic energy. The moment he picked up the brush again was when he started his “stone painting.” In 1996, he began experimenting with creating three-dimensional ink landscape following the natural texture with dents and bumps on the surface of stones he had collected. The medium and creative approach freed him from the knowledge about the ancient paintings from the Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties that he had devotedly studied, enabling him to leave behind standardized composition and concepts to form an involuntary yet improvisational thinking based on “spatial conversion.”
His next step was to transfer such space unto paper, which created the earliest group of his Potted Landscape with Weird Rocks series. Led by both modern and traditional ink painting techniques, he wandered through three-dimensional landscape and created surrounding or cyclic scenes that were nearly three hundred and sixty degrees – this became the genesis of Teng’s fantastic space and magical landscape. The subject matter and approach have become the most seen in his later works.
Teng’s magical landscape soon swept Taiwan’s contemporary ink art scene and garnered much attention and recognition. Especially, he has repeatedly represented Taiwanese art galleries to participate in the International Art Exposition Beijing, and demonstrated Taiwanese contemporary artists’ unique achievement and creativity in the field of ink creation.
The solo exhibition at Chini Gallery in Taipei in 2021 is an exhibition that reviews his work in the recent five years. Titled A Simple yet Unusual Realm, the exhibition aims to highlight the artist’s creative feature of unfolding an artistic realm of fantasy while living in an uncomplicated, secluded place.
Teng’s character is fully indicated by his name, and his painting also reflects his character. With a clear attitude of “renouncing the pursuit of fame and reputation,” both his name and his work convey profound cultural contemplation and the dignity of life. While he chooses to reside in a relatively peripheral region, he has always harbored the ultimate concern for cultural development – indeed, there is no periphery in culture; and the center is where art is. His work integrates both traditional and modern ink brushwork and techniques to unveil a “post-modern” look that transcends the so-called “modern.” Like an art critic once described, his work is the “dream-rocking ink” (words of Emerson Wang). It is subversive but unsevered from the past; and it continues the legacy but does not simply imitate. It completely reflects the characteristics of the times that brush and ink should embody.
A Simple yet Unusual Realm features Teng’s works created between 2014 and 2020; in a way, it is a general review of the artist’s work over the span of seven years. If the period from his first solo exhibition at Pine Garden in 2008 to 2013 is viewed as the first stage of his creative work, the year of 2014 then marks the commencement of the second stage.
Teng’s work created during the second stage, with his existing style as the foundation, has revealed more confidence and mastery, and the previous subject matters, such as potted landscape and stone fields by the sea or in ravines, have developed into a more expansive and grander view. For example, in Landscape of Mountains and Water of 2014, the overall viewpoint is elevated to that of an aerial view, and the unending, rolling mountains also recall what is traditionally known as the “dragon vein” in geography. Such breakthrough is perhaps related to the invitation to as well as the inspiration and encouragement from Shuimo / Water Ink: Enchanted Landscapes, a group exhibition that showcased finely selected works from sixteen painters and presented by the Sotheby’s New York. Teng moves away from a more regular, symmetrical compositional style and embraces a sense of openness characterized by rolling mountains and scattered sea boulders. A similar composition can also be found in the series of Leaping the Cloud of 2015, as well as Song to Rising Emerald Peaks and Lush Mountains in a Sea of Clouds of 2020.
The second creative feature in the second stage is his bold use of colors. Although colors planes in green, vermillion and other colors are found in the works from the first stage, he has primarily used ink color. However, in the works from the second stage, the use of bold and intensely contrasting color planes adds a feeling that is “modern and magical” in the already “unrealistic” images. The artist’s state of mind and its changes can be detected in various examples, including Sunset Glow (Other Shore Series) of 2014, Hidden Cloud of 2015, and particularly from Competing Wonders in a Delicate Realm, Red Rock under a Cobalt Sky to Cold Ink and Glowing Light.
Furthermore, Teng starts extensively using differences in fulcrums and perspectives of forms as well as adds geometric windows. Examples of the former include the small supporting stones between large boulders in Red Clouds of 2015 and Elegant Rifts Between Rocks of 2020, as well as the mutually supporting rocks within the square windows in Day and Night Outside a Stone Window and Stone Window with an Aquamarine of 2020. In terms of differences in perspective, there are the contradicting squares and rectangles that seem to be simultaneously protruding forward and receding backward in Growing Stones of 2016, and the space of a capsized bowl that seems to be pulling away but actually remaining still in the lower part of The Change of a Table Mountain of 2020, which all produce visual confusion and disruption.
The final feature is the emergence of a sacred space, which does not convey any religious connotations but renders Teng’s work more profound in terms of its humanistic thinking. Instead of simply delivering a certain type of artistical conception or magical visuality, it beckons the elevation and deepening of thoughts, such as Altar of Heaven and Earth and The Change of a Table Mountain of 2020.
Teng Pu-Chun, has led a hermit-esque life in Hualien for nearly twenty years after graduating from National Taiwan Academy of Arts, immersing himself in self-observation and dialogues with mountains, rocks, trees and clouds in nature. His works created during the latest seven years further embody his powerful, unlimited creative strength.
If the Chinese modern ink painting movement launched in the 1960s emphasized on creating new forms of ink painting with automatic techniques vastly different from traditional brushwork of the so-called “national painting,” it also ushered in a new and rich chapter in Taiwan’s modern art history in the post-war era. Contrarily, born in 1957, Teng has utilized dense and diversified “brushstrokes” to create his magical landscape that mixes ancient and modern styles to transform Hualien’s natural beauty as well as its sky and water into a simple yet unusual realm and render himself a representative figure of the “post-modern” ink painting in Taiwan’s contemporary ink art scene.
Teng is known for using unadorned, mesmerizing techniques to produce a splendidly magical realm characterized by a tapestry of interweaving daylight and rolling clouds. At the same time, he adds twistingly metamorphosing and endlessly replicating formal elements in his work, bringing to mind the unpredictable extraterrestrial world in contemporary sci-fi movie. However, Teng’s work does not focus on constructing terrifying fictional scenes but centering on deep dialogues and purposeful integration of the inner world and the boundless cosmos, exuding a sense of Buddhist wisdom and poetic beauty.
He has been a stunning case in the art scene in recent years. The name of “Hualien” – an intriguing place also called “Lienhua” (lotus), “Huelan” (surging currents) and “Shuiyang” (brimming water) – conveys much mysteriousness, and it is such a place that has nurtured the artist and given birth to his art, which is as much localized as it is global – this simple yet unusual realm created by Teng will always be captivating and anticipated.