Wesley Tongson’s Paintings Depict His Spiritual Journey
by DeWitt Cheng
The idea that life is a spiritual journey was once common in European and American religious culture: Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan’s 1678 allegorical adventure of a Christian soul, was once required reading—after the Bible. Spirituality has largely fallen by the wayside, however, with modern materialism. In developed countries now we focus on scientific and economic progress, and largely neglect the spiritual aspect of life, still part of the social menu of traditional cultures, which patronizing contemporary standards adjudge as backward.
The spiritual aspect remains, however. The new film by painter and director Julian Schnabel, At Eternity’s Gate, dramatizes the struggle of Vincent van Gogh, the son of a Protestant preacher, possessed in his youth by a fervent religious worldview, and then dismissed as a lay minister in a Belgian mining town for what his superiors deemed unbecoming zealotry. He found his way to art , everyone knows, and transferred his hopes of heaven into a ten-year pantheistic ministry of art—and heart.
The paintings of Hong Kong artist Wesley Tongson (1957-2012), or Tang Jiawei), shown in The Journey, at San Francisco’s Chinese Cultural Center through March 9, 2019, constitute a spiritual pilgrimage as well. Curated by Catherine Maudsley, and featuring biographical notes by Cynthia Tseng, the artist’s sister—who, she reveals, did her brother’s art homework when he was a child, before his interest in art surfaced in adolescence—the show reveals a talented hand, both disciplined and intuitive, at the service of a restless, relentless creative drive.
Tongson, who grew up in a Chinese Christian family in Hong Kong, was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age fifteen, in the spring of 1973. Shortly afterward, at age seventeen, he declared an interest in studying traditional Chinese painting, and began taking lessons, encouraged by his family and teachers. Cynthia Tseng: “Due to his illness, Wesley could not do anything else. Art was the only thing he could do. He was good at it and it was what made him happy, so my parents were supportive and encouraged him to continue. Wesley was a lonely person.... Later[[,]... when he retreated into his own world, he disconnected with friends and family. Art was his life; it gave him purpose and the courage to go on: his constant ‘companion.’ He found solace in his art.... He was able to cope with his illness”—with the side effects of his medication, and with his paranoia. “Without his art, I honestly don’t know how he would have survived all those years.”
Not only did Tongson survive; he thrived, visibly, in his art. The paintings on board and paper, framed or mounted onto wooden strainers, respectively, are artfully laid out in the venues three small galleries, with pairs of large colored landscapes flanked by monochromatic calligraphic paintings, facing each other: landscape and calligraphy, the twin poles of traditional Chinese painting, recapitulated and reinterpreted with modernist verve and dash. The American AbEx painters, who were, after all, influenced by Asian art (despite LIFE magazine’s influential presentation of Jackson Pollock as cowboy), would surely understand and appreciate. Along the adjacent hallway are smaller works that show the evolution of Tongson’s famous splashed landscapes, accompanied by writing by the somewhat reticent artist and his sister, a talented keeper of the flame.
While I would have preferred a chronological arrangement, in order to trace the artist’s development, the space dictated the current arrangement, but attentive viewers can puzzle out the progression through various styles. In any case, the works of various styles speak to each other anyway. While still in high school in Hong Kong, Tongson studied traditional Chinese painting styles and themes—pine trees, plum blossoms, bamboo, etc., with their symbolic and homophonic associations to longevity, perseverance and congratulation, respectively; with incessant practice, he became a young latter-day guoha painter in the retired-Confucian-scholar mode before graduating in 1977. At Ontario College of Art, 1977-81, he studied western painting, especially the metamorphic Picasso, and began experimenting with splashing ink, probably influenced by the example of Jackson Pollock, “Jack the Dripper, and certainly influenced by Zhang Daqian (1899-1893), the versatile modernist master (and virtuoso mimic/forger of older masters) who sported an antiquarian long beard and flowing robes, and developed a late splashed-paint style, pocai, which came, as Tongson writes in a letter, directly from his heart. Tongson returned to Hong Kong in 1981, studying with Gu Qingyao and Huang Zhongfang, and he continued experimenting with and perfecting various non-brush ink application techniques, instructed by the Taiwanese painter Liu Guosong in ink staining, rubbing, dyeing, and marbling (floating ink on the surface of water and dipping the paper into it, capturing the swirling, cosmic patterns used for the psychedelic end papers of deluxe books). These masterly landscapes, combinations of time-honored themes and new techniques, garnered praise from critics and collectors, museums and galleries in Hong Kong, Beijing, Suzhou, London; and the artist, who called these richly textured works, improvised yet impossibly perfect, his Zen Mountains of Heaven paintings, his visions originating in Mahayana Buddhism’s Western Paradise, referred to himself at the time, with irony and pride, as Shandou Laoshi (Mountainscape Teacher). Finally come Tongson’s late, monumental landscape paintings, done with his hands, fingers and fingernails, completely without tools, direct from-the-heart indexical transcriptions of the painter’s nervous system, like Pollock’s loops and skeins of liquid paint flung from a stick — just so. Art and nature combine in ink, the life force of qi flowing through Shandou Daoren (Mountain Taoist).
San Francisco is fortunate indeed to have even this modest sample of Tongson’s prodigious output of work, the latest of a series of exhibitions assembled by the Tongson family, which can take pride in the achievement of its prodigiously talented, hard-working, solitary son. Hong Kong, too, which recognized Tongson’s talents early, deserves praise for its aesthetic judgment. I must single out a few extraordinary works: the three 1992 calligraphic splash paintings, “The Light,” “Blessed Rain,” and “God’s Light,” pictograms that seems to be both carved and liquid, monumental yet evanescent; “Red Plums Over the Earth,” from 1993, a traditional bucolic motif given explosive energy, with the plums represented by perfectly sized and placed drops of vermilion ink; “Plum 5,”from 2011, with the fruit-laden trees dissolving into what appears a dance diagram or a musical score; “Mountain 1” from 1995, and “Misty Mountains,” from 1993, small, magical miracles of evocation: paradise, regained.