Section 10: A comparison of three contemporary paintings with three paintings by Liang Kai, Mu Chi, and Yu Chien


I would like to compare three contemporary paintings with three Zen paintings. First, the noted characteristics of Zen paintings are cited in relation to the contemporary ones. They all apply but one. I wish to make it clear that these schools are not identical. Furthermore there is no pretense at a complete comparison. I do not fully understand either of them. I merely point out some similarities and some differences.

The contemporary paintings share the negative characteristics of Zen paintings. Human affairs, social realism, historical narratives and secular portraits are not painted. No traditional religious or conceptual iconography is used. They do not imitate external appearances -- stuffs.

The image is non-relative. It is a close-up hovering in the shallow foreground space. In fact, the image is the whole painting. There is no background except the wall it hangs on. Background and completion are inferred, not present.

The images are highly inventive and there is a stress on originality. Each picture by a single artist has a "new" composition, and expression is intimately bound to it.

An attempt to seize the fugitive is manifest in many ways. Though the paintings are big and take a long time to paint, the final surface is painted at one time and is part of the spontaneous vision.

{Online note: see reproductions of relatively contemporary paintings by Willem de Kooning, Clifford Still, and Phillip Guston.}

The brushstrokes are meant to look hand-painted and sometimes even hasty spatters are left -- a record of the activity of painting. The forms seem to be in flux, moving but "caught" on their way. The form suggests nothing solid and unchanging. It is left, as it was painted.

Emptiness or negative space is there, though in the contemporary paintings it is painted instead of left blank. Suggestion, rather than delineation certainly describes these paintings.

The over-all painting is more important than the elaboration of an individual part. And they tend to look alike all over. It is easy to distinguish painters by their strokes.

The mass stroke is used as the main means of realizing forms. To repeat: this means that the stroke is equivalent to a plane, there is no outlining. It varies from being an identifiable edge line to extending across or being the whole surface.

The forms project forward. The internal, central space is concentrated upon. Willem de Kooning's painting is more conservative in this respect since his painting moves behind the picture plane.

The three pairs of paintings to be compared are chosen for individual correspondences. de Kooning's "February, 1957" is to be compared with "Hui-neng chopping bamboo" (#11). Still's "Number One", to Mu Chi's "Persimmons" (#71). And Guston's "Untitled", to Yu Chien's "Mountain town in clearing mist" (#79). May the comparisons be left to the viewer? Then we may go on to two actual differences in these groups and ask a question.

The first Zen Buddhist paintings are realized in a few strokes on a few inches of fragile paper or silk. There is no color but watered black in most of them. The contemporary paintings reproduced are higher, wider, heavier, and gaudier than the carcass of a man. They took a long time to paint. Formally, they are not complete -- even the negative space is painted in. They are more physically compelling, as Cinerama is more compelling than the early black-and-white movies. They provide more medium for the senses.

The main difference is the subject matter. But much of the difference is due to the two opposed inherited ways of seeing, and this is of much significance, though exploring the intricacies of tradition are beyond this paper. One author exclaims over Yu Chien's villages, saying, "One step more and it would be an abstraction".

This misunderstanding implies a certain progress in art, and that Yu Chien failed to obliterate the village. He intended it. There is no other step. One step further and there would be nothing real, which is the painted village. No Zen painter ever made a stroke which did not refer to something in the outside world. This is the world of extent and mass -- the world which is common to all humans and which they must live with. In Zen paintings this world is not all there but what is suggested is not distorted very much. The painter seeks to be one with the object, to become it.

However, the contemporary painters are not interested in this world. They seek unborn images. What is unique about their paintings is that they eliminate objects completely. If they use elements then of a certain scene or memory, they aim to transform it so that it becomes unrecognizable. With the loss of things comes a loss of scale. Still's blob compares with a planet or with a fingerprint. Of course, through reproductions one cannot tell how big the original actually is.

Both groups are concerned with the feeling of things. And with getting the internal nature of things clear. The question is: how much difference is there between the Zen painter's concern with the internal nature of things outside and the contemporary painter's concern with the manifestation of things inside? They both seek to paint from unconscious mental images.

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