The Vibrant Universe at Birth

Materiality and Spirituality in Liú Yung-jen's Paintings

 

Text by Jean-Yves Liao (Art Critic)

 

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The people in Taiwan's indigenous Bunun tribe greet each other with "Unina?", which translates to "Are you still breathing?" in the Han language. In other words, they use the phrase "Are you still breathing?" to mean "How are you?"

This expression reveals the apparent humor of the indigenous people, yet it also reveals the aboriginal philosophy of life and naturalistic view toward the universe. Being able to breathe is life, and being alive is good, suggesting that many things can be good. To be able to breathe is to have life, and hence the ability to create.

This emphasis on breathing and its exploration has existed since ancient times, and is a tradition in cosmology. Ancient Western cosmology explored the origin of the universe, and thinkers of the time once believed that all things come from water, earth, fire and air, of which air was believed to be the origin of all creations.  Regardless of humans or the world, air was considered the source or foundational elements of their origin. Moreover, air is an element of life, and breathing is a life activity pertaining to air. Likewise, ancient Chinese cosmology also explored the substances and activities of the beginning of the universe, and early thinkers proposed the five elements of metal, wood, water, fire and earth. Although air is not included, that suggests that air is not only a non-substance, but also a form of principle beyond the bound of substances. Therefore, in subsequent Taoist and Confucian ideologies, air, or qi, is a principle of life that connects the body and the spirit to achieve unity between the spiritual and the material. In other words, both oriental and Western ideological traditions have devoted themselves to exploring qi and attached importance to breathing, a life activity that concerns all creatures in the universe.

Discussions on breathing may be scientific, philosophical, literary or artistic. The paintings by artist Liú Yung-jen have long been an exploration and interpretation of breathing.

 

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Born in 1958 in Chihshang Township, Taitung County, which is located between the plains and high mountains in the Eastern Rift Valley, Liú Yung-jen has breathed the world’s freshest source of air. In 1979, he was accepted into the Chinese Culture University Department of Fine Arts where he specialized in ink painting and built his foundation in oriental artistic thinking. Even as a student, he held numerous ink painting exhibitions and searched diligently for the roots of oriental culture. After graduating in 1983, he continued to specialize in ink monochrome media, and attempted to extend beyond the traditional into the modern. During that period, he also worked at the Council for Cultural Affairs and expanded his periodic and international perspectives in art. In 1990, he was determined to study art in Italy, and his creations gradually shifted from the figurative to the abstract. Particularly after he entered the Academy of Fine Arts of Brera in Milan in 1991, he began to explore artistic concepts. His creative media also changed from ink to oil, but the core of his artistic thinking remained oriental. In 1995, he received his master's degree from the Academy of Fine Arts of Brera.  After returning to Taiwan in 1996, he wholeheartedly developed his solo exhibition entitled "Complex Cube of Deep Breathing" organized by the Dimension Endowment of Art, an advocate of contemporary art, where he began promoting the concept of breathing as the core idea in ​​his artistic creations. 

Over the last two decades, Liú Yung-jen has used breathing as his theme, and continued painting and holding exhibitions. The compositions and colors of his paintings have become increasingly refined, and his artistic interpretation of  breathing has become increasingly mature.   He now has his own unique personal style, and has created a new path for post-war Taiwanese fine arts. In particular, he has created aesthetic vision for moving abstract paintings from materiality to spirituality.

 

As a professional artist, Liú Yung-jen relies on in-depth material research as his foundation to achieve a more solid and profound spirituality.

His artistic creations have gone from ink to oil, and the change has given him a keen sense of observation and reflection toward the material basis of his media. This change does not represent abandonment of the oriental for love of the Western, but is in fact an extension of his spiritual exploration of oriental media into Western media. In other words, spiritual exploration remains the subject of his concern. However, he does not believe that oriental media is the only way to express this dimension. Rather, he believes that as long as the core of oriental spirit is mastered, even the use of Western media can capture the desired depth of one's spiritual pursuit.

Therefore, since using Western media in his creations, Liú Yung-jen has penetrated the historical source of Western painting by returning to the even more ancient origin of Western painting before the emergence of canvas oil painting. In murals, he sees the planes of the material; in woodcut paintings, he sees visual simplicity; and especially in alchemy since the Middle Ages, he sees the mysteries of pigments.

Basically, Liú Yung-jen artistic creation can be simply called oil painting. However, a closer look shows that his painting substrate does not include only canvas, but may also incorporate wood, or wood and canvas with metal foil. As a result, the additional materials in his painting substrate produce visual levels, structural levels and meaning levels.  Likewise for his pigment media, he does not only use oil paint but also carefully blends beeswax into his pigment to produce visual translucence and dewiness in the color and gloss. With his professional techniques and sophisticated study and mastery of the materiality of these media, his paintings manifest unique spirituality that bespeaks a vibrant universe at birth.

 

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Liú Yung-jen's paintings are devoted to the exploration of breathing. This breathing is not limited to human breath, but includes breathing in nature and even the breathing of the entire universe. Therefore, in his paintings, breathing is neither expressed in figurative images or abstract symbols, nor assigned images or symbols from a single life or landscape. To see the composition and intricacies of his images and colors, we must re-learn how to view his painting based on his understanding and interpretation of breathing.

Since Liú Yung-jen is not a realistic landscape painter, his universe is not confined to the spatial scope of perspective. Therefore, his composition is not three dimensional but a flat layout, and his universe and life phenomena occur in this plane. This is analogous to a farmer who cultivates the land on which both his feet are planted, and where his land is not in a three-dimensional space. It is also like many of the earliest ethnic painters who simply carved on rock surfaces, and whose land opened toward every physical activity that was conducted. They did not construct three dimensional space and shapes.

The composition in Liú Yung-jen paintings is precisely the unfolding of such walking activity rather than a cube or sphere. The universe he sees is not hidden; it is a universe where our feet can go. It is also in this plane that his layout can be seen without having to rely on geometry and perspective.

On the other hand, when Liú Yung-jen holds a painting tool, he becomes a cosmic cultivator of the canvas or substrate media. He sees the universe on this plane, and sets up landmarks for the breathing activities of the universe, thus creating a painting. For Liú Yung-jen, being able to inhale and exhale conceives meaning; and being able to generate meaning is creation. In other words, one must be able to breathe in order to paint; and being able to paint confers the universe a greater spiritual dimension. Breathe, and transform the universe from material to spiritual.