Zhong Shanyu | A Provisional Presence

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By Zhong Shanyu

What distinguishes Tang Yongxiang is an introspection of the self, rather than the inclination to seek refuge within philosophy or art history. He avoids responding in a direct way to external influences, instead adhering to a selfless process of looking inward. Through the act of painting, details begin to accrue through a progression that gradually turns complexity into a succinct form. As the canvas is submerged through the layers of paint, the picture plane turns into a frozen frame as soon as this process draws to a conclusion. With this abrupt pause, what is left within this surface reveals a restrained palette of modest color tones. The deadpan titles of the artwork summarize the subject of each painting in a matter-of-fact, almost indifferent manner. Extra significance is thereby underscored within the complex arrangement of lines or the remnants left around the canvas, which draw the attention of the viewer to the rich layers behind the work.

By engaging with memory, intuition, and the subconscious, Tang Yongxiang endows his work with an ethereal quality of estrangement. Material is culled from photographs and repeatedly function to extract information through engaging with the memory of the artist. The visual image is approached as an inexhaustible resource that offers unlimited possibilities of permutation – this also explains why similar icons frequently appear throughout his work. Suggestive of a compulsive tendency – when the back of a figure, the leg, or a still life appears, they each evoke a bewildering sense of déjà vu to the viewer. Yet these familiar archetypes and objects are merely the entry point into his paintings. They begin with a photograph, which becomes reconfigured via the artist’s own memory before appearing on the canvas. From there, they gradually begin to diminish – reaching a point of defamiliarization before eventually the painting becomes a record of sorts, capturing an instantaneous moment similar to the function of a camera. Perhaps in this way, his paintings can be regarded as the second take of the original photograph. Relinquishing the warmth of the body (although this does not entirely disappear), they become removed from the common attributes tied to the quotidian everyday object.

Tang relies upon a long gestation period to both scrutinize and refine his paintings, a duration that can often last for years before the work’s completion. This way of ruminating recalls the approach heralded by the Tang dynasty era school of ‘Bitter Chanting’ poetry, bringing to mind a particular phrase by Li Keran, “I don’t depend on talent; rather, I learned through hardship. It’s the School of Asperities”. Liberated from its archetype mold, the object is repeatedly polished at before revealing a quality of refinement akin to the appreciation of a curio worn down through long periods of use. Whilst suggestive of an inclination towards a state of perfection, Tang persists by intentionally seeking a ‘cumbersome’ fashion to work within gaps opened up through his painting. He frequently employs cross-hatching with even brushstrokes to minimize the presence of the artist’s hand. By varying the technique, attention towards the subject of the painting is dispersed across different areas of the canvas. The focal point might be isolated into specific details such as an ear or hand, or often using a conspicuous black line to cut across the space in order to interrupt the careful balance established through the colors of the composition.

Therefore, Tang Yongxiang’s work is best regarded as a positivist method of constructing an image. This does not signify that his work is the mere result of a formal exploration dictated by a hermetic internal logic. His way of layering color directly in an unmixed form onto the canvas contributes to a form of interference, which leads to a situation where these different elements counteract with one another. One motivation behind this approach is a rejection to an overly metaphorical or symbolic reading of painting. Likewise, an analysis based solely on the spatial relationships is also problematic as the discourse becomes limited to the narrow confines of formalism. Rather, Tang’s interest lays in the fundamental elements that persist in painting, encapsulating an inquiry that spans from classical into the contemporary: a way of visualizing things. Whether representational or abstract, realist or postmodern, they each provide a means to create a visual outcome. It is precisely this emphasis on the relationship between vision and perception that frees his work from an over reliance to art history – avoiding an overt historicization of the painting and establishing an atmosphere of timelessness.

With Tang Yongxiang’s paintings, contours are often not drawn, but are formed through layers of paint. There are moments when these lines become the object of observation and in other instances they might retreat back to behind their form. Large swathes of interwoven textures oscillate between background and foreground; each time a layer covers the surface, a new surface layer is produced. Like a geological process of sedimentation, each layer is nothing more than a temporary presence. When we can no longer differentiate between the boundary lines, the painting acquires a form of aesthetic autonomy. Form is no longer defined as a “what it is” but rather drifts into the ambiguity of a “what does it resemble.” The focal area for observation loosens as the gaze becomes interrupted, the binary logic between positive and negative space is dismissed with. A divergence from base layer to the surface occurs through the discrepancy between the visuality of the image and its discernibility, while other objects remain submerged within the folds and depths of the painting. In spite of the fact that many of these elements remain indiscernible to the eye, their presence is nonetheless tangible as well as its ability to perturb the sensorial engagement of the viewer. The intervals between the moments of painting are also palpable within the canvas as an invisible blank space embedded within the formation of the image. The unstable fluctuation between form, color, and outline often encourage different modes of immersed viewing. At certain times, the work requires you to move focus between specific points, while at other times, a step back might be needed in order to view the composition as a whole. These techniques together instill a contemplative space and a heightened state of viewing, which is created from a fluid interaction that moves between viewer, artwork, and artist.

Published in the Tang Yongxiang (2009-2017), 2018, Hong Kong: Horizontal Rivers Press