Chen Zheng-Long’s Inked Garden of Zen and His Creative Views

By Bai Shi-Ming, a professor of Fine Arts at National Taiwan Normal University

It was the postwar period of Taiwan, movements of contemporizing Chinese ink wash painting was attempted at the peak. Such change brought waves of shocks to the millennia of the ancient discipline. In the 60’s, contemporary Chinese ink wash painting became the new practice of norm and terminally drew an end to its half-baked cultural revolution began in the early establishment of the government. The contemporization of Chinese ink wash painting marked a significant milestone and pathed a clear direction leaping into the 20th century.

The rise of contemporary ink wash painting tells an experimental constructing of identity in a modern setting. It represents the succession from the old to the new; a strategy aims at leaping Chinese painting into the world of Art. The development is complex and factored by time and space. In other words, issues faced by the contemporization of ink wash painting construe spatial clashes between the Orient and the West on one hand, and timely variances on the other but they weave and entwine with one another and shape the methods, concepts, connotations and the culture of the art in the contemporary .

As much as time and space played an importance in the contemporization of Chinese ink wash painting, for the postwar Taiwan, it was not a mere art revolution but a complicated case of politics and environment of the time. The country struggled with Separatism, connecting with the world and a failed unification of cultural identity. The postwar Taiwan was an upsurge of anti-China and anti-Japan but pro-America. The new and the old, tradition and contemporary, the East and the West, domestic and foreign were the arguments of the time and nonetheless the influencers in the development of contemporary Chinese ink wash painting.

Fast forward Half of a century, the contemporization of ink wash painting still undergoes changes. Though the art may have earned validations from history but how does it survive the current of the modern world? Advancements of Western arts in forms, media and ideas as well as the commonizing of globalization and localization imploding in the face of Chinese painting... a battle for its survival is demanded. In 1960, Ge Chu, a contemporary Chinese ink wash painter, expressed his views on the issue. He believed artists should learn lessons from tradition but keep open minds to the new and incorporate them with one’s own style. Only then the so-called ‘contemporary Chinese ink wash painting’ would arrive at its intended ideology.

However, the above statement seemingly resolving the issue may be the inducement to potential polarization. If not practiced with caution, it may result in failed attempts of the two spectrums and make a ridicule of inadequate colonization of the Orient and the West. Neither is better than the other but a fusion between them is an understatement. To strategically explore fine lines between the old and the new, one must rely on the essence of Art itself. By paraphrasing the words of Ge Chu’s, his passage paints a sentiment of how Abstractionism or Figurativism is no longer the concern; not even the old nor the new. Instead, Art is either good or bad and the excelsior will live in perpetuity. Our creativity is a transcendence of our bodies and will live on in eons - this is the essence of Art.

Ge Chu’s words assert a notion, of which Art is beyond the boundaries of politics or national consciousness. The essence of Art overtops physicality, pursues eternity and expresses genuineness. It’s a solution to the empty endeavors of exploring within the boxes of figures, media and techniques. It’s a constructive suggestion to enrich the spirit and the ideology of ink wash painting.

The emphasis on the old and the new; domestic and foreign as well the individuality of each painter, Ge Chu’s statement articulates an idea of which Art is more than a physical form or matter and an insisting representation of the essence of Art. Regardless Abstractionism, Figurativism, tradition, contemporary, Western, Orient, foreign or domestic, the contemporization of the art explores from within and it’s an essentialization of the process. Therefore, ‘contemporary Chinese ink wash painting’ ought to be a vessel beyond the barriers of regions, time and ethnicities.

The founder of Prosperity Contemporary Painting Group, Chen Zheng-Long is the apprentice of Bai Feng-Zhong, a Chinese ink wash painter who took his apprenticeship under Ge Chu. Despite three generations of shared inheritance in Chinese painting, the three have developed eccentric painting styles of their own. An accentuation of how individuality takes the dominance in the creative process and demonstrates the becoming of contemporary ink wash painting. As a Chinese ink wash painter in modern time, Chen is not challenged by the methods, techniques or his depiction of contemporary culture, instead, his focus is about cross-cultural communication and an interpretative translation of his own artistic view. As lines of societal difference tumble, a path of infusing tradition with the new is at its utter importance. It’s also the one common ground where the three generations meet one another in the world of ink washing painting. The work they do is nothing of figures, media or techniques but the choosing of their own subjectives.

Additionally, ‘genuineness of Art’ is a reflection of self awareness and a subjective cognition. Aside from the connection and responses to the external world, creators aim to conceive aesthetics which are unbound to time and space, and exceed the longevity of lives. The goal is to be a witness of time and remain a legacy in the history of humans’, nothing else. Nevertheless, what does ‘genuineness of Art’ mean to an ink wash painter? That answer may lie within a borrowed philosophy from Buddhism. It’s a depiction of enlightenment on life and a direct, transcendental display of one’s nature. But as religious attitude may pass as an analogy for creative views, it’s not quite the same. ‘Genuineness’ by simply put, is an exploration of creator’s inner temperament and values; a discovery of heart and self.

In responding to the issue above, Chen Zheng-Long has long carried his answer with the motto of his teacher’s. ‘Beautify one’s life, purify one’s soul’, a saying repeated by his mentor, Chen uses it as a spiritual guidance in his process of creating. It helps him stay true to his heart and provides a place of refuge in his life. In seeking betterment of oneself brings forth a reinforcement of prosperity in the world; as long as one remains wholehearted and upholds words of his/hers… the ‘heart’ and ‘refuge’ are the representation of an organic cycle with a beginning and an end. In Eastern philosophy, the beginning and the end are not of contradictions but a jointed connection. Thus, the blossoming of flowers will meet with the withering of them, and the setting of the moon will meet with the rising of the sun; only a transcension from the world of material can free the spirit in eternity.

Kept in the depths of his heart, Chen recites the words of his mentor’s and contemplates them in his practice of Zen. A contextualization of his ‘artistic genuineness’, the motto is not only about beauty and purity but also a retracement back his core value and an achieved harmony in eventuality between one and the world. During the creation of his paintings, Chen resided in a residence of his, surrounded by bamboos, observed and envisaged under the superseding of the moon and the sun, and the changing of seasons. The solitude he endured translates similarly to the poem, ‘Bamboo Grove Pavilion’, by Wang Wei. It reads:
Alone I sit in the remote bamboo grove;
I pluck the lute then long I sing;
deep in the forest, no-one knows I exist
but the bright moon, who comes shining.
The poem expresses a loneliness of heart but of which still longs a connection with the outside world; it’s a connotation of seeking interpersonal relations.

Born from a heartfelt enlightenment and an observant wisdom of Zen, Chen’s ‘Bamboo’ collection portrays a derivative of literati painting in the Song dynasty. Despite the techniques of bamboo painting is abetted by centuries of traditions, Chen did not bluntly follow the antediluvian rules in his paintings. Contrarily, he used techniques in Semi-Automatism such as rubbing, pushing, splattering and wrinkling; methods that surpass the minds of the forefathers in ink wash painting. Without overly intervening with artificiality, Chen created his visualization of bamboos in a faint discernibility. Imageries, depicting ghosts of bamboos, are Chen’s ink working its illusion. It imbues a real/unreal, bamboo/non-bamboo conversation which leaves spectators losing his/her reality in the shadow of bamboos. Only then the awakening of Zen in ink wash painting is auspiciously tried.

In the minds of ink wash painters from Chen Zheng-Long’s generation, conflicts between tradition and contemporary, the East and the West, otherness and ‘I’ are non-existent. The practice of communication, crossover, inclusion and diversification has become the new norm. In other words, from traditional ink wash painting, emphasized on heart/object, real/ surreal, form/likeness, sentiment/scene and artistry/aesthetic to the contemporary discipline of new/old, Abstractionism/Figurativism and black and white/colors - these are the ideas existing in a two-dimensional world, mutually overcoming and yet generating amongst one another. None is the master over the other but if you are to wield both, a glimpse of minds is all it takes. To be more precise, the mastery of ink wash painting is an intimacy between tradition and contemporary and a journey beyond bounds of borders . Not at all a mere observation of objects, ‘Bamboo’ is also a heartfelt reflection of Chen’s enlightened wisdom found in his solitude. It’s a visual connotation of his inner Zen in the form of ink wash painting.

The once black and white in his ‘Bamboo’ collection now entered into a world of colors. Despite the similarity in the depiction of ideas, and the using of methods and techniques, Chen’s ‘Garden’ collection takes a distant path away from the mentioned Zen Buddhism above. If ‘Bamboo’ is a contemplation of his pursuit in the purification of soul; an exploration of void and nothingness, then the ‘Garden’ collection is a transcension from Asceticism and a solidification on the belief of life and birth; with the blossoming of flowers, it is a celebration of life. By sharing, it’s Chen’s way of engaging with life.

Even though the ‘Bamboo’ collection and the ‘Garden’ collection have their disparities, they are of one in spirit. Flowers turned bamboos will be the flowers of bamboos, colors made of ink will be the ink of colors. To Chen’s belief, contemporary ink wash painting is not a build of consciousness or a wall of hierarchy the discipline used to be; it’s a medium of expressing one’s individuality and a transcension of things. Sitting in the simplicity of homes, plants and flowers are as approachable as they ever are; becoming the subjects in Chen’s ink and color paintings, they are the representation of an epiphany of life. ‘A world within a flower, Bodhi within a leaf’, a Buddhist philosophy, talks about the self evaluation and the worth of existence; how Chen’s paintings are small pieces to the puzzle of the universe but still connote a sentiment as complex as the world. Being on two ends of time and space, spectators still can empathize with Chen just by viewing his work. Chen’s paintings have the ability to interconnect people.

A sway amidst bamboos and shadows, and a cluster of flowers and blossoms; they are the unscripted happenstance in nature. Much like the contingent discovery of the ‘Inked Garden of Zen’ within the heart and soul of Chen Zheng-Long’s. Once outdistancing from the dialectic of forms and matters and away from the bounds of colors and ink, the forest of bamboos in Chen’s paintings illuminates a purer, more harmonic and transcendental cosmos of nature; it builds a new relation between the external world and within. Most importantly, with a comprehension of the discernibles/indiscernibles, figures/abstracts, and light/shadow, viewers are to visualize elements of objects; free of time, space, forms, matters and dimensions. They are to walk the path from tangible simplicity to the world of infinity. It’s a wander on a spiritual journey of emergence and transcension, in a realm of free will.