The Elements of Leigh Wen’s Art
I questioned: “What do you call lifelikeness and what do you call reality?” The old man answered: Lifelikeness means to achieve the form of the object but to leave out its spirit. Reality means that both spirit and substance are strong. Furthermore, if spirit is conveyed only through outward appearance and not through the image in its totality, the image is dead.” —Jing Hao (c. 870-930), “Notes on the Art of the Brush”
Like Jing Hao during the reign of the Five Dynasties, Leigh Li-Yun Wen is a painter of reality. Her work does not content itself with surface appearance, but plunges deep into the power that resides in the elemental forces of swelling waves, raging flames, impassive mountains, infinite galaxies. She stands bravely exposed to the energy of these forces, facing them with clarity and reverence, surrendering herself to their persistent, enveloping otherness and finding in them our deepest psychic identity.
Leigh Wen’s subjects are the four elements of Western cosmology—earth, air, water, and fire. Of these, the latter two dominate her interest. Water and fire, the least fixed of the spirits, are avatars of independence and change. Both may be harnessed, but neither fully tamed. Water goes feral in deluge, flood, tsunami. Fire, from the match’s flame to the earth’s molten core, is never far from destruction. The artist who dwells with these wild energies, as Leigh has for two decades, must become one with their turmoil and sovereignty. These are words that define Leigh Wen. Against the wishes of her family, she left home when she was 25 and traveled alone to the United States to study art. After receiving her undergraduate degree, she married and started a family, but soon heard the cry of art once more. She resumed her studies and found her voice and calling as a painter of nature. This she undoubtedly is, and yet she is no such thing. Her work is one with a landscape tradition that spans centuries, cultures, and continents from Jing Hao to Frederick Church. Leigh Wen’s art depicts not only the physical appearance of nature, but its inner force that expresses the aspirations and fears of what it means to be human.
There is anarchy in all true art, an impulse to break through the surface of life to the quick of blood and nerve. Few of us are comfortably at home in this heightened world of being, but it is where Leigh Wen comes most alive. The life force that most people work to keep assiduously controlled she releases, and we hear in her paintings the siren song of our own native wildness. Clearly, these are more than simple images of waves and flames, mountains and stars. Leigh’s art is the restive language of the elements, expanding beyond the farthest visible point.
Her first paintings, and those closest to her soul, are those of the ocean. In another life she might have been a seafarer, a traveler of the deep. That would explain her intimate knowledge of the ocean’s vastness. In swells and currents, surf and spray, she speaks with the fluency of one born to the blue. The sea of a European painter like Turner was a stage where the fates of men were played out. The crashing breakers in the paintings of the American Winslow Homer act as characters in a melodrama of Maine’s rocky coast. Leigh’s paintings stage no such theatrics. Rather, in appearance and essence they embody the ocean itself, through a near-perfect synergy of realism and abstraction. The artist’s ocean paintings, for which she will be long remembered, are and are not what they claim. We see them clearly as receding ranks of waves on the face of the open sea. Yet even as the illusion takes hold, we simultaneously comprehend it as complex tangle of strokes and lines against a surface of glowing color. Technically, this is achieved by applying an under painting` of one or more hues across the canvas, then covering the entire surface with a second, darker tone. Working like a Renaissance fresco painter with the surface still wet, Leigh scratches away the dark paint with a stylus to reveal the colors underneath. Tens of thousands of these scribed marks resolve finally into an image that, by turns, suggests silverpoint drawing, etching, graffiti, stray hairs, and arcing electricity. Correcting mistakes is nearly impossible; each painting contains the risk and courage of a live performance, not unlike the improvisation of a jazz musician.
This mark making touches Leigh Wen’s Chinese heritage, where traditionally calligraphy was the foundation of all art. In this sense, she “writes” the waters into existence with her sinuous, spontaneous lines. Other characteristics of her work are essentially Chinese as well. Her sense of limitless distance, uninhabited but charged with consciousness, echoes back to the great Tang and Sung painters, which in turn evokes the Taoism of Leigh’s childhood, the unity of contrary forces embodied in the taijitu, the yin/yang circle of opposites in harmony. Leigh Wen’s work is driven by this energy: for all the water (and even her mountain paintings evoke the ocean, particularly those derived from a pattern on certain seashells), there is an equal presence of fire. Leigh’s flames, summoned first from ceremonial pyres lit for her deceased father, are at once destructive and purifying. Their proximity jars the senses into a state of alertness. No matter how far you stand from them, the flames always seem bent on engulfing you. Their rage makes the monarch butterflies that approach their bright center in some of the later fire pictures all the more poignant and beautiful. We cannot tell if these fragile beauties are about to be consumed, or if they have somehow entered a state of grace that protects their papery wings from being even slightly singed.
Leigh’s work, taken together, is a catalog of irreconcilable differences, the poise and counterpoise of solid and liquid, light and dark, heat and cold (in one painting, a comet, an astronomical “dirty snowball,” streaks through a firmament of burning stars)—but the bipolar force that strikes me most in her work is that of space: distance and proximity, retreat and advance. We look down at her oceans as if from above, and see them extend into infinity with no sign of ship or shore. We are midway on some long journey, without companions or guarantee of reaching land. This psychic tension is accompanied by a feeling of liberating weightlessness, of gliding, swooping, soaring like the bird of the ancient mariner, coursing alone above the waves. All of her landscapes, not just the waters but the mountain ranges, clouds, heavens, galaxies as well, leave us in the same state, suspended between ecstasy and awe.
There are various explanations for this recurring motif of opposites in balance. It reflects the artist’s biography, specifically two of the defining events in her life: her 1983 journey across the Pacific from her home in Taiwan to the United States, and the death of father in 1997, for whom the first fire pictures were made in honor and homage. In the water pictures, we find the pervasive yearning that marks Leigh Wen’s art, the sense of ache for a home that, whether she is in Asia or North America, is always an ocean away. And just as the death of a parent can reshape the life of the child, the fire paintings can be read as a metaphor for artistic practice, its purification, transformation, combustion, passion. These personal references are present in Leigh’s work, but they only touch the “lifelikeness” of what drives her. The “reality” of her paintings lay in their spiritual foundation, the field of force that governs the world. Call it God or the Tao, science or source, there is some overarching power that pulls the strings of the universe. We feel it at once intimately and vaguely; it seems very near even as it remains a mystery. Leigh Wen’s paintings manifest this sense of things known and unknown, perceived but out of our grasp. With her elemental heart, she takes us deep inside ourselves and out beyond the heavens.
—Timothy Cahill, March 2012
Timothy Cahill is a writer and artist in New York, USA. He has known Leigh Wen for nearly twenty years and written extensively on her art. This essay is adapted from an earlier one published in 2000.