Introduction To “Whispering Pines, Soaring Mountains: Ink Paintings By Lee Chun-Yi”
Introduction to “Whispering Pines, Soaring Mountains: Ink Paintings by Lee Chun-yi”
Although many contemporary Chinese artists have jettisoned traditional Chinese art modes in favor of cutting-edge, international styles, others have fervently embraced the great tradition of Chinese ink painting, seeking to reinvigorate that tradition and to recast it to resonate with the contemporary world. Whispering Pines, Soaring Mountains, The Chinese Porcelain Company’s current exhibition, features works by Chun-yi Lee, one of the most important and certainly one of the most innovative Chinese ink paintings active today.
Chun-yi Lee (sometimes also spelled Li Junyi) was born in Gaoxiong, Taiwan in 1965. He studied painting with master artist Liu Guosong (born 1932), founder and leading exemplar of the Fifth Moon Group, and he took his bachelor’s degree in 1988 at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, later completing a master’s degree in art at Donghai University, Taiwan, in 1997. Now a Canadian citizen, his family having immigrated to Vancouver, Lee recently completed a Ph.D. at Arizona State University, Tempe, specializing in the history of Chinese art.
This thumbnail biography signals how cosmopolitan is the background of many young contemporary Chinese artist; not only has Chun-yi Lee studied in various countries, becoming bilingual in the process, but he has been exposed from an early age to worldly ideas and great works of art from all cultures. And his advance, systematic study of the history of Chinese painting – another avenue new to contemporary Chinese artists – is certain to reverberate through his own paintings in ways yet to be discovered.
Chun-yi Lee mastered traditional brush and ink as well as Western styles and techniques before specializing in contemporary Chinese ink painting. Since his youth, he has been deeply interested in stone stelae carved during the Eastern Han period (AD25-220). Generally commemorative, those stelae feature text rather than images and are usually scored with a grid to facilitate the placement of individual characters. Ink rubbings were often made to disseminate the historically important inscriptions engraved on such stelae, and it is from these ink rubbings that Chun-yi Lee has taken artistic inspiration for his current work. In preparing to create a painting, Lee pencils a grid on the paper ground, as if preparing a stela to receive a text. He then uses a small piece of cork to stamp traditional Chinese ink within each square of the grid to compose his painting, sometimes stamping a square repeatedly to create a dark tone; his paintings thus are done with ink and paper but with a stamp rather than a brush. In that regard, Chun-yi Lee took to heart his teacher Liu Guosong’s exhortation to “discard the brush!” in order to reinvigorate Chinese ink painting.
Chun-yi Lee paints mainly landscapes, though he recently also has began to create close-up views of both pines and flowers, particularly roses. All of these subjects are represented in the current exhibition, and each boasts classical antecedents.
By the Northern Song period (960-1127), the landscape had emerged as the preeminent subject of Chinese painting, a place it holds even today. Landscape paintings typically feature towering mountains and rushing streams, the mountains characteristically enveloped in mist; indeed, the Chinese word for “landscape” is shanshui, which can be translated literally as “mountains and water.” The interest in real and painted landscapes reflects the philosophical search for the principles that underlie the unity and harmony of nature, a search intricately linked to Daoism.
Chun-yi Lee’s depictions of pines and flowers of course also depict the natural world, but they explore the microcosm of nature rather than its vast panorama – that is, they explore nature reduced to its smallest elements. In describing one element in exquisite detail, Lee not only captures beautiful images but he encourages the viewer to envision the whole. In that context, one might compare his approach to that of a Southern Song (1127-1279) painter, such as Ma Yuan (active c. 1190-1225), for example, who sometimes presented a single branch of blossoming plum against a ground of blank silk, subtly asking the viewer to envisage the weathered tree from which the branch grew.
Beginning in the Northern Song period and coming fully to the fore in the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), the Chinese embraced the literati, or scholar-amateur, ideal. The literati earned their livelihood through government service, writing, or teaching but turned to painting and calligraphy for relaxation and personal enjoyment. They drew inspiration from literary classics and from the scrolls of painting and calligraphy that they collected so that their works of art contained countless references to literary, historical, and artistic legacies, calling to mind specific artists, styles, and even modes of brushwork. At the same time, their paintings came to serve as vehicles for the expression of their ideas, feelings, and personalities. These exceptionally accomplished artists recognized the expressive value of formal elements – line, texture, brushwork, and color – prizing those qualities for their own sake and working in deceptively simple styles of painting. They sought to capture the idea, or essence, of a subject rather than its mere outward appearance and to create in their works a fusion of poetry, painting, and calligraphy.
Chun-yi Lee’s landscape paintings present towering mountains, their surfaces typically obscured by the enveloping mists. Reflecting Lee’s interest in traditional Chinese literati ideals, his paintings reference Yuan and Ming (1368-1644) paintings in composition and pictorial style, but their content is contemporary, often deriving from photographs of landscapes in books and magazines. Some of Lee’s landscapes, even if not those in this exhibition, depict subjects as varied as the Great Wall, paddy fields, mountain tunnels, and other elements that never were part of the idealized landscapes of classical paintings, adding a decidedly contemporary note to his works.
In some works Chun-yi Lee uses plain, unadorned cork stamps to create his paintings. In others, however, he carves pictorial designs into the stamps, as seen in the two paintings of roses. Although the stamps impressed into the squares of the grid superficially appear to be concentric circles, close examination reveals that the stamps were embellished with stylized images of rose blossoms, the open flowers seen from the top and looking down into the center of the blossom (rather than in profile, or three-quarter view). Such images also find classical antecedents, particularly in the decorated tiles made for the floors and walls of Tang-dynasty (618-907) palaces and Buddhist temples (from which ink rubbings also have been taken in modern times).
Chun-yi Lee’s interests in Han stelae, classical references, literati ideals, and the fusion of poetry, painting, and calligraphy coalesce most completely in the pair of works entitled “Painting in Poetry” and “Poetry in Painting.” The titles refer to the oft-repeated statement by Su Shi (1037-1101), the famous Northern Song literatus, that “There is painting in poetry; there is poetry in painting.” The literary references go far beyond the painting titles, however, as Lee carved each cork stamp that he used to create these paintings with a Chinese character, so that he was able to incorporate the full text of Zheng Banqiao’s poem “Inscription on Chen Yu-chen’s Huangshan Poem Scroll” into each painting. Written in vertical columns, the poem reads from top to bottom and from right to left, beginning in the upper right corner. The last column of characters – i.e., that at the left edge – not only notes the poem’s title and credits Zheng Banqiao (1693-1765) as the poet but includes Lee’s signature (in the lower left corner). Such fusion of poetry, painting, and calligraphy obviously required precise planning of the composition, not to mention absolute mastery of the technique of carving and stamping.
Why do contemporary Chinese ink painters adhere to classical subjects, formats, and materials? The answer is complex but has to do with the persistence of a distinguished and exceedingly powerful legacy. Most of Chinese ancestry, whether born in China or abroad, identify strongly with that legacy and wish to perpetuate it. Under the sway of that legacy, contemporary Chinese artists feel it their responsibility to advance Chinese culture. They want to be recognized not only as accomplished artists but as accomplished Chinese artists; moreover, they want to be recognized in both China and the West. In addition, given that Chinese artists had already begun to explore abstraction in the Song and Yuan dynasties, contemporary Chinese painters take pride in advancing that literati tradition since its basis in abstraction resonates with contemporary Western artistic ideals.
And why transmit the old – old subject matter, formats, materials, ideals – rather that wholly espousing the new? However a Chinese artist might respond to that question, the ultimate answer probably goes back to Confucius (551-479 BC), who says in his Analects that he did not teach anything new but merely transmitted the wisdom of the past. Thus, the desire to preserve and to transmit the wisdom of the past is as old as Chinese civilization itself; indeed, it is an integral element of Chinese civilization.
Robert D. Mowry
Senior Consultant, Christie’s