by Mark Van Proyen
Wesley Tongson (aka Tong Kai Wai) was 40 years old when his native Hong Kong passed from British rule to the control of the People’s Republic of China. That was in 1997. Before that, he had already established a formidable artistic reputation based on synthesizing Asian and Euro-American modernist painting languages, using saturated inks to create evocative landscapes and calligraphic abstractions. Twenty-five years earlier, Tongson was diagnosed (or possibly misdiagnosed) with schizophrenia when treatment options were limited. Soon after that, he began painting, studying with painter Madame Gu Qing Yeo (1896–1978). In 1977, he traveled to Canada to study at the Ottawa School of Art in Toronto. Four years later, Tongson returned to Hong Kong to embark on his artistic career. He died in 2012 at age 54.
These biographical facts help explain Tongson’s exposure to and interest in western art while also reminding us that in British-controlled Hong Kong, there was never any official discouragement of the traditional practice of Literati painting and calligraphy, as was long the case in the PRC up until the mid-1980s. By the time the mainland consolidated its control over Hong Kong, those prohibitions had already relaxed, in large part because of the new openness encouraged by Deng Xiaoping. We can easily imagine that the rise in Chinese prosperity that began at that time could have led Tongson to feel he was situated in the best of all possible worlds, one where paintings formed of bold gestures and vibrant colors could productively cooperate with the excruciating subtlety of “the breath of Tao.” In this abbreviated selection of about 25 works spanning the years 1980 to 2012 curated by BAMPFA Curator of Asian Art Julia White, we can see that sometimes the magic of cultural cross-pollination works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
The selection of Tongson’s work in Spiritual Mountains divides more or less equally between works executed in black-and-white and others formulated in layered skeins of color, the latter often finding the uncanny balance point between vivid and subdued hues. The best of those landscapes, such as Untitled/Mountains of Heaven (2000), Boundless Compassion (1993) and Untitled (1997), capture the vitality of their subjects. They appear bathed in an effervescent, bioluminescent froth formed by different surface treatments and textures that simultaneously expand and compact the nearness of those surfaces to evoke distant forms lurking on an ambiguous horizon. When you quiet your mind enough to see it, a sense of respiration between those polarities emerges, revealing the “spirit resonance” that is the first principle of
traditional Chinese calligraphy and painting1. That is where we see Tongson evoking the geomancy at the spiritual core of the entire history of Asian painting. These paintings also show us how that tradition compacts and fuses the western dichotomy between microcosmic Beauty and the macrocosmic Sublime.
Later in Tongson’s career, he experimented with splash and finger-painting techniques, as seen in Spiritual Mountain #6 (2012). His later works employ unorthodox methods, and in that regard, they can be said to be adventurous. But to my eye, their rote layering of distinct forms and colors seems like a routinized lapse into contrived spontaneity, one that fails to deliver on spirit resonance (Shengdong). Despite their manic gesturalism, there is no apparent connection between the nervous energy of the artist and the resulting artistic forms.
The black-and-white works vary similarly. In Calligraphy (2000), a wonderful display of shifting velocities of the ink brush results in marks that practically sing on the paper, but in later works, such as Calligraphy #3 (2009), the brushwork seems constrained and palsied. The second principle of Chinese painting and calligraphy, yongbi, awkwardly translated as “bone method,” refers to an optimal balance between the fluidity and rigidity of individual marks.2 In some of the later black-and-white paintings, such as the two Untitled works from 2012, Tongson’s attempt to achieve the balance implied by yongbi errs on the side of brittleness. This could have something to do with a deterioration of his mental or physical health, or it could be ascribed to more generalized anxieties about changes in the quality of life in Hong Kong under the CCP. There is no way to know for sure.
The earliest examples of Tongson’s works in this exhibition are a quintet of ink and watercolor paintings that he executed while studying in Toronto (all dated 1980). These take everyday street scenes as their subjects, foreshadowing things to come in terms of technique and material. But in germinal form, they reveal an early effort to synthesize Asian and western orientations in painting. His attempts are by no means unprecedented. Many western painters such as Clyfford Still, Sam Francis and Gordon Onslow-Ford and the Pacific Northwest painters Mark Tobey, Morris Graves and Kenneth Callahan sought such a synthesis. So did the Gutai painters in Japan. Still, it is essential to remember that artistic transformations of influences are far more important than a mere catalog of them. Tongson does indeed transform his influences in vivid and subtle ways. But as wall text explains throughout the exhibition, he did draw upon the accomplishments of many others, including some of his Chinese contemporaries.
A generous sampling of works from those artists fills out the exhibition, pointing to some of Tongson’s stylistic models. Many are drawn from BAMPFA’s permanent collection, showing off the recent expansion of its Asian holdings. Several hark back to the Ming (1368-1643) and Qing Dynasties (1644 to 1912). An early example is Melon and Vine (c. 1589) by Xu Wei, one of several works donated to the museum by former UC Berkeley Professor James Cahill (1926-2014), the pioneering English language expert on Asian art. The painting is a study in subtle eccentricity. At once precious and precocious, it embodies the idea of transcendent vulnerability in an unassumingly tiny package. Other works are more recent, signaling the recent rebirth of interest in traditional Chinese painting. Zheng Daqian is said to have been the most influential
figure in Tongson’s artistic development, and his Verdure of Spring Mountains (1973), executed in layered splash technique, shows why. Harold Wong (aka Huang Zhongfang), best known as a scholar of Literati painting, was also a mentor to Tongson. He is represented here by a 1993 work titled Sound of the Waterfall, featuring overlapping brushstrokes in color and black-gray ink. Some of the best fusions of Asian and Modernist techniques that I have ever seen are exemplified by a quartet of exquisite Impromptu Ink paintings (all 2017) by Ho Kan, each using dry and wet brush techniques to show how small works can intimate vast spaces.
There are many other examples of Chinese painting in Spiritual Mountains that I could point to, all of which reveal the cultural roots and stylistic influences undergirding Tongson’s work. But if Tongson is the focus of Spiritual Mountains, then the sheer abundance of paintings by other artists starts to come off as a gilding of the proverbial lily. That impression may only reflect a western prejudice of presuming that works of art can and should stand on their own (which they never really do). However, when the chorus starts to outperform the soloist, you have to wonder why the soloist needs so much reinforcement.
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- See Xie He, Six Principles of Chinese Painting (c.550).
Wesley Tongson: “Spiritual Mountains” @ Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, through June 12, 2022.
About the author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries emphasize the tragic consequences of blind faith in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s interview on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.