Picture writing, mountain water
MAY 22 — The urgent challenges of the environment, especially its growing ecological degradation, have never been an explicit concern in the 2,600 year-history of the Chinese art of landscape painting.
The Shan Shui (mountain water) artists are more concerned with the aesthetics of the landscape, their experience of looking it and their methods of capturing those image and their poetic moods, in their paintings.
However, in most of these paintings there is usually a poem, somewhere within the frame, in calligraphy, which tells confidently, or in a whisper, their Taoist, Buddhist, Confucian ideas and beliefs, regarding Nature.
Although the words “environmental protection” are not evident in their poems, their concern for peace and harmony between human beings and the wilderness is implied.
There is now an exhibition of Chinese landscape paintings Dream Lands by Chong Buck Tee, at Han’s Art Gallery, Amcorp Mall, Petaling Jaya, till the end of the month. This is a great opportunity to view one of Malaysia’s few seasoned artists continuing this age old artistic practice but with some modern touches.
Chong, 61, was a fine art graduate in 1972 from the Malaysian Institute of Art. His art and painting teachers were Teo Nai Tong, Low Kun Wen and Wong Nai Chin. Also, many renowned Chinese brush painters from China and Taiwan had been here to teach.
The late Huang Jun Pi, and later his disciple, Zhang Da Qian, to just name a few, made a good living teaching and selling their artworks here and other parts of South-East Asia. Chong too has been following in their footsteps in the last 30 years – teaching and exhibiting. He is currently showing 30 artworks done in the last 10 years.
Distant Land – The mountain is forever green, is an imaginary idyllic landscape. It was not done in the style of the traditional restrained monochromatic ink and brush.
Instead, this is an unrestrained modern way of painting with big washes of different coloured inks and brushes. This expressionist work’s purpose is not to reproduce the exact contours of the geography of a place he had visited and remembered but to convey some idea of his emotional landscape.
We see, on the top left, among the clouds, a huge waterfall cascading down and this body of water continues to zigzag through a series of big and small rapids and finally dropping into a valley in the mist.
Supporting this volume of water are three huge dark diagonal landforms. The strongest foreground structure, at the bottom of the painting, is splashed in with a mix of black and turquoise-blue. Nesting on the middle ridge of this is a group of buildings with a commanding view of the surrounding hills and rivers.
From the stunted and gnarled silhouette of a solitary tree, at bottom left, one can guess that this location could be somewhere between the upper montane forest and the sub-alpine zone (between 2,200 and 3,300 metres above the sea, 6C -14C) very much like being near the top of Mount Kinabalu in Sabah or the misty peaks of Mount Huangshan in southern China.
The interplay of the flow of the water and the different levels and angles of the land lines intersecting creates a dynamic tension within this captivating landscape composition. This is a picture of the sublime.
The art of Shan Shui has been through centuries of development and innovation. But it still takes skill and perseverance to master the old and new techniques.
The top left hand side of his painting is done in the traditional way, sparse with different delicate brushstrokes to bring out the geological features of the landform and the highland coniferous trees. The soft grey tones and light brush lines of clouds run down the left valley.
On the right side, from the bottom, the style and mood of the painting changes to become bolder and darker. The rhythm and tension of the black ink blobs and patches in this area suggest some strange geological formation millions of years ago.
On top of this is a knotted and studded tree usually found in the upper reaches 2,600 metres. The climate here is harsh and the soil is poor. Is going with the flow with Nature what life is all about?
This painting’s title suggests the Buddhist way of finding one’s way in the mountainous and sometime dangerous terrains in life. The main mountain formation in this painting could be a 30 million years old limestone out crop gently curving into the centre of the composition to face the thunderous water fall from the opposite hills over the valley.
Symbolically, crossing from one side of the mountain to the higher level across the valley is like the finding of Nirvana after death.
Limestone hills and valleys are common in the Kinta Valley surrounding Ipoh town and also nearer to Kuala Lumpur at Batu Caves. In this work, Chong had skillfully reproduced the near appearance of limestone’s geological features. To many this landscape could be an uplifting experience.
This important collection of Shan Shui paintings by Chong, from the traditional to the contemporary, from abstract to representational expression, draw our minds towards our fragile environment and our need to cherish it.
This exhibition has many moments of visual and mental elevations. Go see and hear the mountains roar and whisper.
Han’s Art Gallery, Amcorp Mall Tel: 03-7954 0805
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.