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On Li Cheng Hsun’s Abstract Paintings

Since its inception, has Abstract Paintings in Taiwan developed into a fully fledged existence? Since the burgeoning Painting Societies of the 1950s and 1960s, the Chinese Ink Wash Painting has been melded with individualism and American abstract expressionism. In the following decades, along with the rapid economic and political developments in Taiwan and the blossoming of the avant-gardism of the 90s, abstract arts in Taiwan has grown into a distinct humanist make-up. But do these outlines clearly and distinctively present a sample of contemporary Taiwan abstract arts?

When we have an overview survey of contemporary Taiwan young artists, we discover only a handful who focus on creating abstract arts. For Taiwanese artists, it is difficult to break through the absolute conceptualism demanded by abstract arts and the arduous process of blending the oppositions between the Eastern and Western cultures. Moreover, the over-development of the internet has reduced the scale of individual imagination: when most of the information can be easily searched online, when an art creator relies so much on getting information on the internet, a crucial link to the creative process – time – disappears and is alienated. For an art creator, the single most important thing is that if they can capture the zeitgeist of the period. Li Cheng Hsun is an artist who has worked exclusively on abstract paintings. Perhaps, we can look at the works of Li Cheng Hsun of the past decade, and treat his creative process as a sample of our cultural history whereby discussions on contemporary Taiwanese abstract paintings can evolve. One of the main themes of Li’s paintings is time; time is the object and the subject of the paintings at once. How is it possible that one can paint ‘time’ as a subject and an object to be represented? And how does Li Cheng Hsun treat ‘time’ in abstract painting?

Among all artistic languages, abstract thinking is the most difficult one. After stripping all the trappings of exterior and modes of representation, any objective thinking has difficulties in finding expressions. Apart from adhering to its own strict internal creative logic, abstract arts demand an obsession with rationality and clear-headed self-analysis. Abstraction does not mean splashing paints randomly on the canvas while claiming to construct vast spiritual dimension. Abstraction has to possess absolute dissociation while embodying the present physical body. This is precisely the process of ‘rupture’ and ‘return’ developed in phenomenology. Nobuo Sekine once states, ‘Make all possible implications of the existence of nature itself in the real world’.

Accordingly, the rupture with the real world can be extended into the distilment of the temporal duration of the creative process; and ‘implications’ point to the ‘return’ – nature returned is embodied in the existence of the works. In the narrative context of Modernism, the challenge of alienation comes from annihilation of humanity, being devoid of history and of the present reality. This challenge has become the threshold of abstract creation: one can learn the state of escaping from the concrete and moving into the free spiritual world from the ways in which an artist hones their own creative skills. Taking this line of thought as a point of departure, Li Cheng Hsun makes arts an invitation; he invites the audience into a space where his unique temporal arrangement on canvas transforms commonsensical time and space into something estranged. In Nietzsche’s philosophy, personalities can be viewed as a style. Being sublime art, even personal weakness can be fascinating. Since his 2006 series Li Cheng Hsun renders all viewing process as a process of mystery-solving. And we have to examine the styles encoded in each series to see the difference between them.

Li’s works demonstrate the borderline between abstraction and time. He employs paper tapes on his canvas and apply acrylic paint on them. When the paint dries, the tapes are removed too. The process is repeated ad infinitum to create multiple combinations while the canvas reveals textures and layers of irregular thick paint. He deconstructs and displaces the exterior forms of an organic object, and magnifies color while hiding lines behind the painterly surface. His visual experience and painting skills create a visual process which apart from expressing abstract concepts, abstract paintings in Li’ hands produces effects of illusion and creates new possibilities of coloring modelling. On the spiritual level, the viewer’s biological vision is permutated so that the viewing status becomes unconscious. This is the autonomy and possibility asserted by contemporary abstract paintings.

Time is an object in Li Cheng Hsun’s creative thinking process. But how exactly important is time for him? In his works, sampling of a slice of time, imagination outside our usual time-space, dimensions of time are pondered on. Li folds time and frames them in his works. Every piece of his work samples time and is a sample of time: the overlapping paint and trances erasure are remainders of psychological activities – memories, that is. In his ‘Memory’ series, time has become not just the container, but also the instantaneous intervenor which manifests as lines, circles, squares and triangles on canvas. They record and transform each and every single occurrence in everyday life. What is remembered from the memories are not so important any more. The significant thing is the ways in which time transcends the unreal, trespasses space, breaks through time. This is precisely an existence of nirvana and tranquility.

Li Cheng Hsun explains that the process he sandpapers the paint is a process of ‘going through’: dozens of layers of acrylic paint are sandpapered and polished to reveal specky ‘noises’ from black-and-white television. This ‘noise’ is the movement of the membrane of time: moving from the cell wall (the surface paint) to move through the bubble (layers of colors); then move onto to air (mottles of color blocks) and last to ‘empty’. Works themselves thus expresses the nature of time in transience and the emptiness.

Again, we have to go back to the mission of the physical body. What can a physical body do: the labor of pasting the paper tapes, the sense of ritual, the disciplines and coherence of filling in acrylic color paints, the dissolution and unpredictability of rubbing up the paint. The body exists in a state of ignorance during the creative process. The presumed ‘embodied way’ is a kind of intuition, divined prescience: ruling out rational knowledge, the body is in the vanguard of leading all the sentient organs into a state of unknowing. This sentient body destroys the rationality of abstract creativity, thereby pushing the body and the id into a state of extremity. Regardless the creative media – be it literature, arts or technology – time is always the subject of fictive narrative. The only kind of perpetuity that humans can handle is the present moment and the structure that interacts with time. Art works manifest as ‘real work’ only when it interacts with others. During the viewing process, the viewers are having a dialogue with the works and proactively participate with the (imaginary) creative process of which the creator construct the composition and its story. It’s at this precise moment when works ‘cross the viewers’ paths’ and connects with the viewers.

Jonathan Crary once proposes the concept of ‘Technique of the Observer’. He points out, ‘[…] these scientists have insightful knowledge of the physiological anatomy of vision. Their research discovers not only that the body is the site and producer of color occurrence, but this discovery enables them to construct abstract visual experience. That is, a visual sense that doesn’t represent nor refer to any objects in the world‘. Li Cheng Hsun’s works do not belong to the vision of any worldly objects; they represent nothing and refers to no concepts of objects. He transforms the memorized experience distilled from everyday life into a color palette; he filters high quality of light sense and visual sensitivity through the process of piling-up and erasure; turns the organic into the inorganic, transmogrify the minute differences in series of work into series of observations of abstract thinking.

Apart from being one of the major life lessons, ‘Know thyself’ for the artist is an approach to be succumbed to the entire natural world. There is no fixed laws or dogmas in creation; the artists should learn to discipline and govern oneself, trying to transforms one’s creativity as epistemology into an ethics, and aesthetics, an aesthetics of expressing one’s style. In analyzing and evaluating creative works, one inevitably discusses the intentionality. The intentionality here means the direct nature of consciousness, meaning consciousness always points to something, is always about ‘something’. And this ‘something’ will be the gist of discussion: the reason why ‘something’ evokes intentional consciousness. His intuitive experience lends Li Cheng Hsun a series of creative formula to which he couple apply to his works. Time passes while the artist is pasting the paper tapes, applying layers of acrylic paints, rubbing-up and erasing paints. These behavior patterns have become signs, morphing the physical execution of concepts into works that exist in the real world.

We can often discover some raised dots on the surface of Li’s paintings (usually a raised round dot). This is the attachment of a thickening time and embodiment of concept fleshed out. Every paper tape establishes its own rituality between the ‘adding on’ and ‘removal’ of paper tapes. In recent years, Li Cheng Hsun has shifted his focus on everyday life to the scrutinization on and dialectics about history and humanity. ‘My Base’ represents his concerns for his native land: structured in a pair of duplet, there are several triangular forms. The red-and-white triangle stands for Taiwan during Japanese period. Li combines the emblem on the Taiwanese flag with a ‘Tai crest’ with his personal experience of growing-up and humanistic concerns. This device reflects his reflections on the issues of transitional justice, a sense of history and restoring politics of the contemporary Taiwan. Every color knot on the black-and-blue lines represents an intersection of the major events on the island envisioned by different people. Li has thus elevated the observation of everyday life to a historical perspective, concretizing life styles of Taiwanese society, pointing up the rupture between modern citizens and their society and environment.

In his recent works, we’ve found that his color palette has turned ‘oriental’. This shift indicates his comprehension of life. The monochromic difference between red lead paint, ruby-red and maroon reveals a sense of loneliness, a state of alienation. When the development of modernity of a society has gone to the extreme, behind the walls of popular netizen argots, the human relationship is getting distant. Take for example, the social media, when we key in ‘hahaha’, we might not be bursting into laughter (or smiling from the bottom of one’s heart). This in fact is a thinly-disguised defective mode of response, disguising the vast void and loneliness we actually experience. What feeds back on the canvas is the vast stretches of whiteness. Li has thus created a visual mode which can be developed into a spiritual consciousness. This consciousness arouses one into a process of thinking in which the viewers learn to appreciate abstract works when they enter the work and create imaginary connections.

Abstract arts and its corresponding aesthetics has apparently become a subject that has received attention from contemporary Taiwanese arts and goes on to develop. The potential to gradual expand on contemporary Taiwanese abstract arts connects our living world and the contexts of everyone’s life story. Li Cheng Hsun’s first solo exhibition is more than just a stage of reviewing his decade’s oeuvre, but also a deepening and an extension of his own work on the field of abstract arts.

Written in summer,2017



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