He loved mountains, painted mountains, and sacrificed in the mountains.
By Hsiao Chong-Ray / Translated by Wesley Shih Yu , Kaelan Shih Yu, Lee Lo Yi
I was going to write a commentary for artist Lee Kuen-Lin for his upcoming exhibition. However, an unexpected event came up and caused a slight delay. By the time I was ready to pick up the pen, Lee Kuen-Lin's spirit had already dissolved and settled into the mountains.
Lee Kuen-Lin started to earn prestige from the art world by forming an art space called the "Border Culture" with friends near the Tainan Cultural Center in 1992, which would soon demonstrate an introductory exhibition. At this point, he had just graduated from the Department of Fine Arts of the Chinese Culture University in Taipei. After joining and leaving the army, he officially began his art career. It was the beginning of a pluralistic age, and the formation of "Border Culture" was intended to contradict the "Cultural Center" next door. The core concept of the "Border" was "flexible and informal" thinking compared to the "central and traditional" concepts of the Culture Center in society. This concept of the Border Culture represented the challenge of society these young people faced, the doubt of present artistic environment and their own artistic self-expectations.
Marriage in Cemetery, Oil on canvas, 130.5 x 163.5 cm, 1992
Lee Kuen-Lin's work began with his unique surrealistic style of blending images and symbols. His surrealistic style differed from other college peers in that his art reflected the inner strength and self- identity imprints of life, the frank and sincere views he had towards the social phenomenon and infinite mysteries of nature, while classical artists concentrated on painting still lifes and the classic cattle bone/plaster sets. It is clear to see these concepts from the names of his work, for example: "The Havoc of Angels" (1989), "Trap" (1991), "Nightmare" (1991), "Slaughterhouse" (1992), "Melancholy Landscape" (1992), "Show Business! Events?"(1992), "Lust and Hell" (1992), "Marriage in Cemetery" (1992) and "Eden" (1992). In his work during this period, one can easily sense a trace of his childish qualities and distress for sex in his bold brush strokes and intense colors.
Graceful Scenery III, Oil on canvas, 90.5 x 217.5 cm, 1993
During the 1993 exhibition, he developed his integration of art forms with the series called "Graceful Scenery" which incorporated the traditional Chinese horizontal scroll like painting style. During this stage of his work, his art contained many symbols that looked like microorganisms and also landscapes. This was the beginning of the Lee-style period. His prior emotional expression started turning into a new profound thinking behind the scenes.
In his prelude for the exhibition, he wrote: "No doubt it is in human nature to create beautiful and melancholic landscapes with multi-tropism involved, but as a creator, one must realize that there is no escape and should present all of one's own candid views and thoughts in one's work. Are these landscapes, nudes, still lifes, really worth an artist's lifetime's work? Does it matter if the artist paints hundreds or thousands of these paintings? Is there a meaning of beauty for painting these redundant forms of art, or is there really a personal reason for retaining the natural beauty in these paintings that the artist continues to paint them?"
He continued: "All these questions cause me to ponder over my next series of works. A truly creative artist cannot paint without a conscience and produce paintings with no vitality! If one doesn't realize this about oneself, it could kill the creativity and life of one's work. These perfect but repeating paintings no doubt please the majority of the world, but do we really need to please the majority? Perhaps we should and perhaps we shouldn't, or maybe we shouldn't answer at all. Such a delicate question requires more discussion."
Reprodution II, Oil on canvas, 91 x 116.5 cm, 1993
In the year 1994, during Chinese New Year, Lee Kuen-Lin's daughter was born. As a father, Lee Kuen-Lin was deeply touched by the mystery of life. As a result, reproduction became the main theme of his exhibition that year.
In the flyer of this exhibition, he wrote: "On the fifth day of the Chinese New Year, my daughter was born. After taking the first picture of her, I strongly feel that she is really an alive work of art, who can cry, laugh, be hungry, make trouble, pee and poo, sleep, breed, and reproduce."
He added: "Human beings produce more humans, who produce artworks, these artworks which inspire ideas, ideas which give spirit to life. This life then produces human beings, and the cycle is repeated. We create arts to show the spiritual sides of our lives, which can express our body's scope in a broader way, resulting in more people, life, and physical/spiritual symbols representing the eternal condition of the body...eventually solving the problem of existence even when our bodies decay and disappear."
Birth, Oil on canvas, 130.5 x 162.5 cm, 1994
The "Reproduction" series of art follows the style of the "Graceful Scenery" series, with the exception that the human element begins to replace the purely scenic landscapes. He adds indoor furniture and fittings in his works, and yet adding a touch of reality in the world, such as "Birth", his masterpiece in this period.
Coffee House, Oil and Acrylic on canvas, 91 x 116.5 cm, 1995
In 1995, the "Coffee House Meditation" series represents another turning point in Lee Kuen-Lin's artistic style. This new style reverted back to his original colorful image style, the symbolic shapes of which easily remind us of Miro's surrealistic world. That is, such artistic creations are highly personal and secretive. During this period, Lee Kuen-Lin seemed rather content to retreat to his studio, and happily created a world of his own which reflected the crazy topics in life.
Between 1996 and 1997, Lee Kuen-Lin attempted to work on some installation art. This attempt was undoubted, of great importance in Lee Kuen-Lin's artistic life. It seems like these installation arts helped open up a communication channel to the outside world, connecting Lee Kuen-Lin to artists of the same era.
Thirteen Belief Make-up, Mixed media, 185 x 930 cm, 1996
However, the most important meaning of Lee Kuen-Lin's transition from flat paintings to installation art lies in the establishment of clearer language and thoughts of him. Some people believe that the change in materials/media also changes the form of the art language, and therefore, the description of the content/thinking is also altered. This does not apply to Lee Kuen-Lin.
Metamorphosis, Mixed media, Railroad warehouse, Chiayi, 2000
Lee Kuen-Lin's installation art, keeping his painting's theme of sexual reproduction, continued to grow in numbers during that period. He does not present the story in a thoughtful manner, but rather in a free manner so as to bring out the desire of inner life. It seems that Lee Kuen-Lin continued to receive great satisfaction and achievement from this same process, as seen in his work "Unidirectional Description of Bud and Pupa" (2000) and "Metamorphosis" (2000).
With his continuous involvement in installation arts, many of the previously "ambiguous" and "chaotic" elements from his paintings became clearer, and at the same time, still retained the significant personal characteristics of his style, as seen in the 2001's "Imprinting" series.
It's a Couple, Acrylic on canvas, 180 X 96 cm, 2001
It's Me, Acrylic on canvas, 155 x 67, 2001
This series seemed to have added new interesting elements, such as rubber engraving work, which is actually done by cloth acrylic in the media material. These simple, yet determined brush strokes gave a rather powerful statement. Instead of showing the uncertainty of the artist's inner side, it added more hints of the real world. His work in this period included: "A Walk in the Forest which has encountered...", "A Man and a Woman", "It's a Dog", "It's a Couple", "Image of Fish", and "Flowers in a Garden", all of which were from the year 2001. There were still elements of organic reproduction code, and yet a touch of free, humorous, and sarcastic spirit was added.
Immediately after this series, Lee Kuen-Lin started to show a seemly more relaxed art style, reflected in his "Parallel Flying Clouds" series. He bode farewell to the melancholy moments and entered a mindset of mid-life understanding. With a style similar to a Chinese landscape painting, Lee Kuen-Lin began to step out of the inner universe of individualism, and into a broader outer universe. Paintings of this period were no longer depressed and autistic. They were instead, composed of more self-confidence and maturity. "Round Trip" (2002), "Wind Blowing over Wu Mountain" (2002), "Above Clouds" (2002), were all like poems based on immortal content. Other works such as "Telling Stories by Mountains" (2002), "Clouds over Wu Mountain" (2002), and "Encountering the Sun" (2002) clearly show the increased thickness and accumulation of a myth continued from "The Roland Documentary" (2001), and "Record of Jian Mountain" (2001).
Parallel Flying Clouds I, Acrylic on canvas, 145 x 81 cm, 2002
From 2001 to 2004, Lee Kuen-Lin’s artistic life peaked. His work during this period presented certain forms of change and always burst with a gust of strong vitality. In terms of technique, there was always a glimpse into Western masters such as Picasso, however, there were also Chinese brush lines and unities of soul materials. His scenery reflected his heart, as shown in his works of 2003: "Pea and Trumpet", "Knight and Wooden Horse", "Marching Knight", "Red Threads", "Yarn Ball Handed over to Postman", and "Harmonica Playing". This series of works, via different line colors, repeated overlapping strokes, and presented a surreal sculptural form that skillfully combined abstract expressionism and geometric structures in one, should be considered the most important representative and masterpieces of Lee Kuen-Lin’s works.
During this period, Lee Kuen-Lin began to have a gallery constantly exhibiting his work. Life began to stabilize. The amount of work he created greatly increased and the exhibition shows spread from initially just Taiwan to China.
Journey of One-legged Deva, Oil on canvas, 110.5 x 169.6 cm, 2007
However, the development since the years 2003 and 2004, due to a mere focus on structural form, seemed to have deviated from Lee Kuen-Lin’s original style, his long-term concerns about life, drifting into a delinking phenomenon. In his 2007 exhibition at the newly opened Licence Art Gallery, his "Journey of One-legged Deva" series chose to refocus on the original surreal symbolic language. On the canvas, there was a single footed monster without hands, which was Lee Kun- Lin’s self-reflected metaphor of "One-legged Deva", crawling among the mountains that were filled with breasts. Sometimes there were rows of them crawling among the mountain ridges. To explain this event, he said, "No matter how many devas there are, in fact, there is only one."
This “One-legged Deva“ does not only have one leg but also walks alone. The Journey of One-legged Deva is also a solitary journey. Although the deva looks funny in shape, there is a deep sense of self- mockery and self-reflection of the artist. A man used to solitude, Lee Kuen-Lin said, "It’s funny that I would feel lonely when there are lots of people around me; however, when I am all by myself as a free person, I can do things I enjoy and don’t feel lonely at all!"
The feelings of being "lonely" and "not lonely" is really a pull between physical existence and mental states. With his work "One-legged Deva" he expresses the existence of humanity as a tiny and lonely tragedy, however as long as one has two eyes and one leg, there remain enough functions for an existence, which is really especially tragic.
Song of the Mountain, Oil on canvas, 130 X 162 cm, 2009
The breast-shaped mountains represented human beings’ passions of the earth. Mother Earth nourished humans, but in return, humans erected high-voltage towers on her surface and destroyed Mother Earth.
The "Journey of One-legged Deva" from 2007 is a tearful laughing black comedy; The year 2009's "Song of the Mountain" is also a deep-thought tragedy. With a hint of deep blue, the occasionally appearing "One-legged Deva" has no longer a tragic momentum, while lingering in the darkness like a ghost. Instead, he is peeping through the depths of the mountains, observing everything that's going on in the woods bit by bit with his hollow eyes.....
Lee Kuen-Lin wrote down these words during the 1993 exhibition: "Human beings are extremely fragile in the entire universe. We can be destroyed at any time. So what is art worth then? I was in a modern art forum and observed a group of ants gathering together around me and wondered that perhaps they were also exploring the meaning of modern art. Or maybe, they were discussing how to carry the big pie right at this location and at this time.
If I were looking at the group of ants as I see the universe, wouldn't the group of ants, in their deliberations about how to carry food, look just like us in the forum discussing the development of modern art? And if I unintentionally step my big foot on these ants, killing all of them without a reason, and leave the big pie on the floor waiting for another group of ants to find it, will they negotiate how to carry and share the food for eating as well?
Art is just like the pie, waiting to be discovered, discussed, shared and stored by humans. Human beings are like ants, strong and fragile at the same time. Art is just like the pie, being placed in the universe. Whether human beings (ants) are present to discuss (carry) art (pie) or not, art (pie) will not exist because human beings (ants) discuss (carry) it, and art (pie) won't also disappear because nobody (no ants) discuss (carry) it.
Art exists in nature and the atmosphere of the universe. Human beings are here to discover and produce it, just as ants endlessly move the foods around. Sometimes art seems to be discussed and produced by humans daily and sometimes it would seem that art intentionally hides from humans. How strong and eternal is art and how vulnerable and short-lived are humans!"
The lone "One-legged Deva" has already gone for the long journey. For a person who loved and painted mountains for life, Lee Kuen-Lin finally put his life in the mountains, proving the nature of human vulnerability at the same time; however, by devoting his life, thinking and creating art, he also confirmed the eternal truths of art. "Song of the Mountain" is the last and most profound oath he left for his family and friends.