The Strength and Sensibility of HSU Yu-Jen’s Ink Painting:
the Charm of Delicate Brushstrokes
Test/ XIA Ke-Jun
Chinese ink and brush are the materialization of life, the direct inscription of a person’s subjective consciousness from his or her inherent quality and character; ink and brush also form the bloodline of a culture. Ink and brush represent the strength of calligraphy and the sensibility of ink painting. However, after the world enters the age of modernity, can writing still convey the life force of ink and brush? All formalized learning and inheritance of tradition are already outdated. How does one find new texture? To achieve this goal, it requires the dedicative efforts of artists, refined mastery of ink and brush, and formation of new visual forms. This is not simply a technical question, but a challenge of strength in delineating and expressing life. When we see Hsu Yu-Jen’s thin-brush and rough-brush paintings, it is clear that the purity and absoluteness in his work have given ink painting rare power in the modern era.
In his thin-brush series, although Hsu adopts fragmented and thin brushstrokes, he deliberately extends the lines in his work by connecting short, thin, continuous brushstrokes, stressing the traditional rhythm of ink painting, in which “brushstrokes might break but not the thoughts.” His thin lines are painted with a dry brush and paint to deliver silent but intense emotions. In between each stop and continuation, the lines lose their own individual rhythm, allowing the blankness in the image to be amplified. In the large blank space, these fragmented brushstrokes are given a voice, seemingly whispering to the audience and irreducibly persisting in quietness. Or, the image might portray the state of being subjected to rain and wind. Hsu’s thin-brush seems to depict a corner of his mind that has been weathered by the world. It is not a man-made condition, but what has been done by the world. The fragmentized landscape reminds us of something being chiseled with axe, the axe of time, in which the sensibility of the brush is restored a primitive state, revealing memories inscribed on one’s mind. The writing of ink brush is indeed profound and lasting; this is the true essence of ink painting!
The contrast between fragments and blankness transforms the landscape and flora in the image into afterimages, residuals of impressions. The ancient landscape could never be fully represented again, but only in remains and with residues. Hsu’s fragmentized, thin, and delicate delineation of the lines have formed ink vocabularies that speak directly to our hearts. It is as if the world had been washed by a pouring rain, and the rain drops coming from the sky were frozen in cold air as everything were destroyed and washed; everything stayed permanently there. It is a cold memory of modernity, a resuscitation of what is left, the residue of the will of life still clinging on to the world that has been destroyed. It is the strength of life, sharp and resilient.
Particularly, Hsu’s large-scale thin-brush paintings are emblematic of his adamant life, demonstrating the force of life of a member of Taiwanese ethnic minorities when facing modernity. He fights it with sharpness and perseverance, unyieldingly and steadfastly, which is a precise manifestation of his inner qualities that are revealed when challenged with and conquered hindrances that might stop him in life. In his reconstruction of fragments, landscape begins to whisper again, acquiring a new look as well as a fresh sense of presence.
Hsu’s thin-brush landscape is also informed by the tradition of ink landscape in Chinese art history. From the Song dynasty, there had been the axe-hewn wrinkle technique. Ni Zan used the iterative wrinkle skill to delineate the harmonious landscape of the “one river and two riverbanks” style. In the Ming dynasty, Lu Chih, whose style was elegant and pure, painted gaunt and elongated landscape with clear and definite lines. Until the late Ming dynasty, Hsiao Yun, who was influenced by woodcuts in Christian art, created landscape with dense, carving-like lines. Such a thin and solid brushstroke style embodied the artists’ individual character and physical presence, showing their “backbone” or “moral integrity.” Hsu has implicitly inherited this tradition of dry and thin representation. However, he has also incorporated his awareness of the modernity, adding a quality of abstract simplification into his work, which shows the anxiety of survival and personal distress. This is his modern modification of the traditional prosaicness. By integrating modern people’s sense of fragmentedness into the traditional prosaic representation, his work creates a sensation of stings in tragedy; all the bitterness is embedded in the countless fragmented brushstrokes, giving the thin-brush approach a new dramatic tension.
The flowers he delineates with thin brushstrokes could never be seen in ancient ink painting because flowers are supposed to be tender and fresh. However, in Hsu’s work, these flowers are transformed with another kind of existence; it seems that they are given an inner skeletal structure, as if they were weathered bones left in the wind at the end of autumn. Nevertheless, the bones display a sense of dignity as their fragmentedness have made them livelier in the wind because there is a feeling of determination in their fragmented form. They scream with a high-pitched voice, like the ancient Qinqian (Shaanxi opera), in which the high notes are soaring yet heart-breaking. The fragmented existence is left in memory forever, as if the world were shattered, but time had stopped at that specific moment of explosion. Hsu’s artistic will has imprinted its silhouette in eternity. It represents a belief in the indestructible things; or, is it the religiosity of painting?
Hsu has obtained a magical eye: the world is situated in between an unstoppable process of breaking and disintegration, but it does not shatter and disappear completely; it stays in this fragmented condition, granting all the fragments a permanent crystal constitution; it is the captivating beauty and tension of modernity, fragmented but crystal-like. It comes close to the darkness of the earth, absorbing its dark power and acquiring the force to revive the past. The blank and the ink form a powerful contrast that speaks the presence of life, rich in wildness yet transcendental. It inscribes the moment of the “in-between,” in between all the delicate transitions. It conveys vigor in a blunt manner; the bluntness originates from the fragmented brushstrokes reminiscent of the axe-hewn texture. The modernization of ink painting, therefore, has acquired a surprising quality.
Comparing to Hsu’s thin-brush series, his rough-brush works employ thick ink and sharper brushstrokes in his wrinkle techniques. As if the tip of his brush is burning with black fire, he delineates vivid and clear contours in the series. The objects remind us of plant specimens; however, the dead or burned objects are given a sense of dignity of life. The elongated stems of flowers are reminiscent of Alberto Giacometti’s elongated sculptural figures, but more fragmented. Like the way bamboo was painted in the ancient time, the joints are broken to increase vividness and rhythm. Hsu’s depiction unfolds a kind of rhythm that goes against the traditional rhythm. The forms are delineated in fragments (a metaphor for broken life, perhaps? The cherishing of withered flowers has given their life a more lasting presence. It is the unique anti-instinct aesthetics created by Hsu.). However, they are delineated in a strong and robust manner, with their stems lengthened by the artist. It seems that their forms do not simply represent stems of flowers but life forms that have been standing between heaven and earth since the beginning of time. They have been swaying in the roaring wind. It reminds us of the remarkable image of the “seven sages in the bamboo grove” in the ancient time; they are unyielding even though they are broken—their struggling bodies give out a profound sense of frustration—but they will never be defeated. They rise up resiliently from places they are shattered, singing forever in turns and iterations. With a sense of bitterness and dryness, Hsu’s ink suppresses the rhythm of life; his ink is not pretentious, but a symbol that life longs for consolation and redemption from its musical rhythm. It is conveyed with absolute precision and represents the combination of the charm of ink, the sentiments of life, and the rhythm of art.
Hsu adopts the traditional method of painting old trees and represents his objects with a strong contrast of black and white. It shows an aged hero that will not succumb to the world’s pressure, an old soul, a delicate spirit with a lengthened figure, a revived being. With all the twists and turns, the flowers on the stems still bloom. They are not the same as the soft, graceful flowers painted by Hsu Wei; his flowers are more like the straightforward and undisguised ones of Chen Chun. In bitterness and difficulty, the ink is infused with the emotional charm. The lines are broken but rising upward, gaining a powerful texture of life in all the iterations. The ink is given a heroic quality as well as incomparable magnificence.
The elongated stems and the flowers are like flying kites. Kites need to fly in the sky, and flowers bloom in high places. That is why they require lengthened lines. Hsu gives these thick-brush flowers the height of traditional landscape painting. These ink flowers that bloom in difficult circumstances are the last treasures one could only see with a backward glance at the end of the world.
Hsu not only portrays bitterness and perseverance of things in black and white, he has also created a color ink series. In his unique and different composition, his subjects stand as if they are to be worshipped. Those splendid flowers are not to be admired by people but to be worshipped in their dignified and confident poise. With iterative wrinkling, some even resemble reeds in the wind or exploded fireworks with all the stops and twists of brushstrokes. Hsu’s passion for things of extremity has given his work a magical atmosphere.
Contextualizing Hsu’s work in Chinese modern ink painting, one can be sure of its definite value. First of all, his work does not fall into the category of new literati painting that follows the traditional form although it does contain extremity of survival characteristic of modern individuals. Secondly, his work is not abstract ink painting even though parts of his thin-brush series shows simplified abstraction. His ink painting still retains an impression of the traditional landscape. Thirdly, his work is not a representation of the modern life scene and its reproduction in the genre of new ink painting. However, his ordinary flowers have obtained a transcendental quality with the acute sensibility of his brush. Hsu’s painting inherits the elegance and leisure of traditional refined simplicity; it also inherits the modern painting language of the dark ink’s “blackness” since Huang Bin-Hong. In the intense contrast of black and white, whether the dry and thin lines or the thick lines, the distinctiveness and characteristics of his ink painting have been demonstrated completely. Hsu’s painting is not to be seen, but to be listened to. The strength and sensibility of his ink painting have gained individual life and interweave a space of an inner universe, which is enriched with music and rhythm, conveying the pain and transcendence of life and death. It seems to be absorbing the power of death from the great earth, simultaneously transforming it into an unyielding force of life. In between breaking the writing rhythm and the self of pain and bitterness, in between the self-strengthening yet freewheeling dry and rough brushstrokes, the sublime of tragedy and the joy of contentedness have been integrated in an incredible way. It symbolizes the self-healing process of life. In the unique and extreme transfiguration in his composition, the ink painting has gained individual characteristics and a profound charm of modern aesthetics.