Suspension of Consciousness: On the Painting of TSONG Pu

By Chia Chi Jason WANG for Tsong Pu (莊普)

Suspension of Consciousness:

On the Painting of TSONG Pu

Chia Chi Jason WANG


Although Minimalism and Post-Minimalism appear to have demonstrated the purity of abstract form, particularly that of the geometric, they have, in fact, transgressed or even subverted the criteria that Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) had dictated for Modernist painting, including the autonomy of the form, the abandonment of illusionistic volume, and the exploitation of such qualities peculiar to the medium of paint as flatness, pictorial surface and pure opticality etc.1

In “Art and Objecthood” published in 1967, another renown art critic and art historian, Michael Fried (1939-) argues that Minimalistic works, sculptures in particular, have manifested their objecthood as opposed to the viewing subject. As an object of art, the larger the piece, the more distance is required for the beholder. Physical participation is necessitated. As a consequence, the distance between the subject/beholder and the object/work creates an extended situation, because physical participation becomes necessary.2 And it is the intervention of such “distance” gives rise to what Fried has called ‘theatricality’.3 As such, although Minimalism may seem like a close kin to Modernism, it distances itself from Modernism by highlighting the objecthood and consequently violating the criteria of being autonomous, incorporeal, weightless and purely optical “like a mirage” as summed up by Greenberg.4

Since his return from Spain in early 1980s, Tsong’s works feature the modular and serial structure characterized by Minimalism and Post-Minimalism. He adopts simple themes and iteratively organizes them into a complex and integrated whole.5 Tsong’s works are reminiscent of those of Agnes Martin (1912-2004) painted in 1960s.

Following a similar fashion to Martin, Tsong uses rectangles recurrently to compose his paintings. However, Martin insisted on using a square surface and covering it with rectangles. “When I cover the square with rectangles, it lightens the weight of the square, destroys its power,” said she in 1967.6 In comparison, Tsong is less restrictive and often paints on a rectangular surface.

Furthermore, the sensitivity, elegance and homogeneity characterizing Martin’s works are in sharp contrast with Tsong. Opposite to Martin’s lightness and tenderness, volume and texture are interwoven into works by Tsong. Homogeneity is interrupted by the introduction of heterogeneous media. To return to the very nature of canvas, Tsong embroiders paintings with stitches. Canvas becomes a carrier of objects, rather than a two-dimensional surface. Purity epitomized in Modernism is totally breached by Tsong. Instead, a state of mixture and heterogeneity is created.

Different from Martin’s preference for horizontal and vertical lines with a touch of exactitude and rigor, Tsong prefers diagonal lines and occasionally employs irregular lines to create intentional carefree quality. Tsong acknowledges canvas as a carrier of stitches, metal wires or other media, which results in the effects between those of the painting and the installation art. Meanwhile, the contrast between the geometric canvas and irregular lines creates a seemingly paradoxical albeit complementary effect.

Tsong creates a style which combines contrasts between coldness and warmth, sense and sensibility, geometry and decorativeness, and formalness and improvisation. Elements from the East and the West are assembled, but not fused. Based on the form of painting, objecthood of dots, lines and planes are derived and then materialized into real objects in our living world.

Tsong’s dissatisfaction with Modernist purity is manifested in his continuous introduction of multiple media into his works. He tries to escape from the stereotype which treats art as the direct reflection of individual mindscapes. Following the footsteps of progenitors of Minimalism, Post Minimalism or even Conceptual Art, Tsong employs the concept of objecthood to bridge the abstract and the reality. Therefore, probably because of this, since 1990, he has used objects or even ready-made objects to create installations.

Although the use of the abstract and geometric shape as the outer frame constrains the internal structure to a certain degree, sensibility is also indispensable in Tsong’s works. Whether in paintings or installations, his purposive emphasis on physicality, i.e. the materiality of paints and objects, is capable of embodying all sorts of sentiments in a single format. To Tsong, art is both a trace of objective reality and a subjective reflection.

Tsong even drops his paint brushes and instead uses stamps with a surface measured in centimeters to paint. He develops a particular painting skill called ‘pressing and touching’ (印觸) by Chen Guoqiang. 7 Inspired by Chinese rubbing, Tsong reinterprets painting into printing. Stamps replace paint brushes. After soaking with paint, the stamp is pressed against the canvas and leaves uneven marks. Every press is constrained by the limited surface of a stamp. Also the thickness of paint and manual control will not always be a constant, resulting in different marks on the canvas. As such, proliferation, overlapping and interaction of marks give rise to the luxurious thickness, which is more like knitting than like painting.

Hundreds or thousands of marks create a collectivity in its entirety. Every mark features a particular color and oblique lines. Prevalence of similarities does not reduce the relevance of differences. Although not every individual press is identical, parallel and iterative arrangement of each press renders an indecipherable concoction of consciousness.

Each movement of press is finished in a linear temporal order, but in the end, gets lost in time. During the whole process, when there are thousands of presses, there will be thousands of thoughts. Thoughts come and go, emerge and die out. The hand holding the stamp may not correspond to or reflect what one thinks, while the movement of press goes on incessantly. An uncertain state of consciousness hangs there in Tsong’s works. Treating canvas as a carrier of consciousness, Tsong leaves traces of the stream of consciousness by the use of multiple colors and pigments to create the feelings of thickness and firmness. His works also seem to reflect the painter’s philosophical awareness of Buddhism.

In Tsong’s recent works, new formal significance has been explored. Different from marks of stream of consciousness in his prior works, they now become visual “signals”. In several works of his 2008 solo exhibition, which revolve around the topic of light, marks not only represent rays of light, but also imitates the effects of digital mosaic. As such, more visual symbols are created and canvas becomes carrier of visual images, corresponding to contemporary issues of visual arts.

The mosaic effect destroys the completeness of the original image. The effect implies that rays of bright light on the painting probably result from the processing of electronic signals, meaning they are illusionary.

By imitating screens, marks are no longer traces of objecthood, but digital pixels or analog visual noises. Through the fact the mosaic effect damages the completeness of an image, the philosophical debate on the true light in arts entails.

No matter whether it is an analog signal or a digital one, pixels replace the reality in the contemporary media. Rays of light radiating from the screen feed and control the audience. The number “2008”--time expressed in digits--explicitly indicates and reinforces where one is located in a temporal scale without any reference to sentiments. The exactitude and preciseness of reality sometimes forces one to escape from consciousness. Therefore, facing a screen of bright spots can sometimes be a temporary relief.

As the era of information technology advents, glittering light may provide the viewers with imagination and expectations, but it is probably artificial and illusionary. With the over-commercialization of rampant consumerism, where is the ‘aura’ constantly pursued in arts? What can artists do? Tsong does not try to preach, but something is going on and transforming in his works.

1 H.H. Arnason and Marla F. Frather, History of Modern Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Photography, fourth edition (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1998), pp. 589-90.

2 Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” in Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, edited by Gregory Battcock; introduction by Anne M. Wagner (London: University of California, 1995), p. 126.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid., p. 137.

5 For information about structural characteristics of Minimalism and Post Minimalism, see H.H. Arnason and Marla F. Frather, p. 601;Irving Sandler, Art of the Postmodern Era: From the Late 1960s to the Early 1990s (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, Inc., 1996), p. 21.

6 Quoted from H.H. Arnason and Marla F. Frather, p. 597。

7 See Chen Guoqiang, “Qujue yu fangge” (Determined by the Small Squares), written for Tsong’s 1997 solo exhibition ‘You are the Beautiful Flower’. The electronic format of the article is provided to me by IT Park Gallery.