李昆霖2008-2009創作 Lee Kun-Lin: 2008 – 2009 Collection
“I’m not lonely. I just feel solitary. Solitude is not loneliness,” said Lee Kun-Lin with a hurried tone at the end of our phone call. Not knowing how to respond, I kept my silence. Yet, what was truly in my mind was a question: in this overwhelming wave of popular cartoon/comic culture that is almost non-textual, who is still so modernistic and cares about the subtle difference between solitude and loneliness?
Obvious Lee does care. In the exhibition brochure of Lee’s 2007 solo exhibition, The One-Foot Celestial Being’s Journey Map, Wang Yong-Cheng mentioned in his article entitled “A Paradise For Loners” that Lee attempted to place his solitude within his art works, and that the process of such placement became the process of Lee’s inexhaustible artistic creation. Lee, with his given label of solitude, clearly has contemplated further regarding it, yet he refuses to express his thoughts via words. When a painter states, “All that I want to say is on the canvas,” you’d wonder how much of the artist inner world can the canvas be loaded. This is the privilege of the artists who can thus transcend through language. We spectators, on the other hand, try to explore the possibilities of connection and viewing within such privilege.
Certain reappearing themes have been discovered by viewers in the past. Wang Yong-Cheng had pointed out a sense of solitude and the appearance of breasts. Xu Yuan-Da had discussed the One-Foot Celestial Being as a reflection of the painter’s state of mind, the anti-gravity scenery, and the appearance of landscape and human bodies in his article “The Journey in the Inner Space”. These themes, features and traces can still be found in Lee’s 2009 solo exhibition. Let’s make a simple comparison between Fascinating Traces of the Earth (2007) and Song of the Land (2008). Both paintings contain the image of the earth/land in the title, both have horizontal layout in which valley- and bay-like objects scatter, and in both appear the character One-Foot Celestial Being named by the artist himself. None the less, there are still differences between these two paintings: the nipples of the breasts composing the valleys in Fascinating Traces of the Earth disappeared in Song of the Land, and the substantial and definite fruit-like breasts in Fascinating Traces of the Earth can no longer be seen as breasts clearly and undoubtedly. The disappearance of the nipples turns the breasts from a borrowed object into a literary metaphor, which opened up our imagination to the world created by the artists. Such metaphor is an invitation for us to participate in a world that is more complete than before.
Furthermore, some of the nipple-extended or -transformed objects have disappeared in Lee’s latest collection: pollution-emitting modern objects such as pylons and chimneys are gone, while the One-Foot Celestial Beings and trees can still be found mingling into the paintings. For example, in A Dale of Fantasy that has a Northern Song Dynasty style monumental landscape composition, the centerpiece is dubiously a breast or a mountain. The One-Foot Celestial Being sits on the mountaintop where it should have been or becomes the nipple of the breast. In this piece, the nipple is barely recognizable but can still be recognized; however, in Quiet Waiting and Solitary Hill I to V, the nipple has vanished completely, leaving nothing but a lonesome tree on the hilltop.
How should we interpret such changes? Perhaps we can try to see Fascinating Traces of the Earth and Song of the Land as maps drew by the artist for the world he created. In these maps, we can see how the artist attempts to visualize the world with paintings of landscape, medium shots, and the portrait of the One-Foot Celestial Being. In Fascinating Traces of the Earth, Lee diligently depicted every nipple of every breast and a series of deformed pylons lying in the far distance. Yet, in Song of the Land, all of these disappeared, including the nipples, the pylons, and even the definite lines of every object in the painting. Moreover, all of the man-made objects that would pollute the created world vanish in Lee’s 2009 exhibition. We can see how the artist’s expressive form and vocabulary have evolved under the same creative motif. It can be said that Lee’s world has thus become more complete, for there is now nothing from the outside to pollute this world of his.
Hereby, Lee has created a world of deeper solitude.
Nonetheless, Lee is anything but lonely. A world of solitude is not necessarily a world of loneliness. After eliminating foreign pollution, Lee’s vocabulary has become purer and the lines more gentle. Most importantly, we see much more influence of calligraphic landscape painting and a sense of aloofness featured in literati paintings of the Song and Yuan Dynasty and afterwards. In the Solitary Hill series, all 5 paintings are vertical pieces with a single tree on one breast-like mountain. This composition reminds us of the famous Jung-Hsi Studio by Ni Tsan (Yuan Dynasty). Ni Tsan’s works always possess this minimalist style: no human characters, no clouds, only a few trees growing on some solitary rocks in a seemingly frozen time. The solitude of Lee’s hills, compared to that of Ni Tsan, is much more vigorous: the trees on the hills bear fruits, and the strokes are teeming with a sense of speed, especially in Solitary Hill IV, in which the tree stands alone on the breast-like mountain in face of the blowing gale. Lee’s world is not just a world of solitude, but also a world of vitality.
Such mixture of solitude and vitality can also be seen in the works of Zhu Da, also referred to as “Mountain man of eight greatnesses” (early Qing Dynasty). Tentatively ignoring the possible influence of Ni Tsan on Zhu Da, we can see that in many of Zhu Da’s works, such as One Bird, there is a bird standing, often on one foot, on a solitary rock and showing the white of its eyes. The resemblance between Zhu Da’s bird and Lee’s One-Foot Celestial Being is unmistakable, as one can see from Lee’s Longing where there is one tree, one rock and one being. On the other hand, the two one-foot figures have different expressions: Zhu Da’s bird is rolling its eyes, while Lee’s Celestial Being was always expressionless before and is now having its eyes wide-open as the middle-age artist looks at the world. As Lee has said, however many or whichever one, the One-Foot Celestial Being is a reflection of himself. Some of the One-Foot Celestial Beings in the 2009 collection are still expressionless, while some others, such as the ones in Dawn or Dusk, are staring at the audience with innocent, silent and wide-open eyes.
In 2007, Lee depicted the One-Foot Celestial Beings with portraits, as seen in Men and Women, or simplified them as codes within a bigger scene. In this year’s collection, these Beings appear in a more totem-like style and have more definite forms. These Beings no longer drift, be simplified, or have human faces. The One-Foot Celestial Beings aren’t anything else but themselves. With their own expressions, they wander leisurely among the breast-like mountains and get along with that world with further harmony.
Zhu Da’s bird and fish are rolling their eyes to the world, but Lee’s One-Foot Celestial Being is strolling in its own world comfortably.
There is another obvious difference between Lee and the two above-mentioned ancient masters ¾ Lee has a clear sense of speed in his brushstrokes. The best examples are Stealth and Ladder. His flowing and broken brushstroke is very different from the traditional Chun Method in Chinese landscape painting, which has fixed rules and logic of reproducing nature. Lee tends to stack layers of fine brushstrokes, creating a style that cannot be found in works under academic training. Such style reminds us of Yu Cheng-Yao, a self-taught calligraphic painter in the 60s and 70s. To construct the world with repetitive brushstrokes has become more and more obvious in Lee’s works, and the brushstrokes become a way of avowal for the artist. Lee expresses his life force and his conversation with loneliness through that particular sense of speed. The unique brushstroke is one of the reasons why the 2009 collection has a stronger feeling of traditional calligraphic painting than the 2007 collection.
However, Lee is not self-taught. He had received complete academic training. He had stated clearly, “In the process of painting, these are no issues at all.” He doesn’t think about the literati painting traditions, nor did he try to take reference from any artists. He simply enjoys the creative process. He thinks of himself as a fast-paced person, hurrying to convey the feeling of solitariness. The academic training has blended into his creation and become part of him. Although the oblivion brings more solitariness, it also allows him to embrace another long-established tradition of solitariness. Yet, Lee’s work is still different from literati paintings, for the sense of speed brings forth a sense of vigor to his solitary world without turning it into a lonesome world. From Ni Tsan, Zhu Da to Yu Cheng-Yao, we can see a subtle conversation in the composition between Lee’s works and theirs, but according to Lee, he himself did not realize so until he had finished the collection, which is about the connection between the human body and the land. Perhaps, Lee has entered a state when he can see the essence of things, and see them as what they are.
Interestingly, be it Ni Tsan, Zhu Da or Yu Cheng-Yao, they were all “others” in their contemporaneity one way or another. Ni Tsan was born in the Yuan Dynasty when the foreign race reigned before the Han people retrieved power and established the Ming Dynasty; Zhu Da was a progeny of the Ming Dynasty royal family, and became a monk when the Qing Dynasty was established; Yu Cheng-Yao left home and came to Taiwan with the Nationalist Government and did not start to paint with the classic realism of Northern Sung Dynasty until his fifties. All three of them lived in a time of displacement and loss of identity. Lee was born in a comparatively more peaceful era. Where does his feeling being a solitary others come from? In terms of reality and my personal experience of conversing with Lee, it’s easy to see that Lee is quite “backwards” in using language. Without rituals such as drinking, Lee’s relationship with language is never that smooth and close. Furthermore, none of the One-Foot Celestial Beings in the latest collection has mouth. Can it be that Lee’s sense of solitude and his sense of being others is a battle against language and logocentricity, and a conscious decision to part himself from the rest of the world?
Not abiding in the notions of self, person, sentient being, or life– from the Diamond Sutra
In our conversation, Lee mentioned that he has entered a state of mind when he could see the essence of things and see things as they are now. Look at the breasts, look at the earth and the environment, and then think about how to treat the earth the way one treats his own body. The artist’s focus of concern has transcended from the issues of forms, and becomes a conversation with self and observation. “Not abiding in the notions of self, person, sentient being, or life.” This is a sentence often quoted from the Budhist Diamond Sutra. Perhaps this analogy is improper, for in the original scripture, these lines are about devoting oneself in pursuing freedom from the notions of the self. Master Sheng-Yen explained in his writing that the first three notions are about freedom in terms of space, while the last notion is about the freedom in terms of time.
However, perhaps we can try to take these four notions and look at them as the four layers of human’s self-observation. To start from the observation of self, then to the observation of others; to establish a relationship in this process; to be aware of such relationship; and to connect to the world basing on this relationship. In a way, the changes shown in Lee’s work from 2007 to 2009 correspond to the above-mentioned four layers. As explained in the previous paragraphs, the image of the One-Foot Celestial Being has gone through some changes, and evolved from portraits to a more complete and more harmonious existence. These beings no longer need to look like human, nor to have a distinct sex. We could even go further to say that the disappearance of the artist himself has created a more comprehensive being to be projected onto the canvas. This is exactly the contrast of not abiding by the notion of self and of person.
The creation of a more solitary world with literary analogies, including the assimilation of the breasts and the hills, and the disappearance of man-made objects, allows us to see how Lee cares less about the reality when he is in that world he created. Or, we can say that the world he created is himself, and that he still cares about the real world outside. It’s just that instead of reproducing the outside world in the inner world of his, he began to look at the outside world with pure curiosity.
Coming back to the Diamond Sutra. If the changes and the special freedom we have observed are true, perhaps we can expect that Lee’s next step would be to free himself in terms of time, as the sutra suggests? We should keep watching him. After all, in an era where sweet cartoon/comic style images are flooding in the market, Lee’s inward thinking and his literary analogy are much more realistic ¾ a real experience of a middle-age man, who tells us explicitly that this is not a poem, this is not poetic, this is only a man trying to face himself in utter solitude.